These apps put users behind China’s internet firewall, even as millions of Chinese want to get out

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 10:41pm

Just like the mainlanders trying to get around Beijing’s censorship to access banned overseas websites, many Chinese living abroad are desperate to get back behind the Great Firewall so they qualify for free content only available to mainland residents.

The plethora of shows available on the mainland is partly due to cash-rich Chinese platforms investing heavily in video and music that is offered free of charge to locals to boost their user base.

However, because this content has been licensed from the copyright owners for distribution within China only, the apps detect the location of the user, notifying those outside China that they cannot access the programmes due to copyright restrictions.

However, a number of developers saw a business opportunity and have launched apps to help overseas users obtain a mainland IP address, using similar technology that VPN apps adopt to help mainland residents obtain a foreign IP to get around the Great Firewall.

Transocks, developed by Chengdu Fobwifi Networks Technology, is one such app. It offers a free “get back to China” service to users but they are required to watch the ads. Alternatively, they can pay between 6 yuan and 98 yuan to enjoy ad-free connections for seven days or up to 180 days, according to the app.

N2ping is a similar app developed by Zhengzhou Lonlife Technology. It offers a 24-hour free trial and charges as much as 899 yuan for premium annual membership, which provides a 10 Mbps connection which even allows overseas users to connect to local Chinese game servers with uninterrupted play.

Mainland-born Susan Ma has lived in Hong Kong for almost 10 years, but is finding it increasingly important to have a mainland IP address so she can connect with her daily entertainment, like TV series, movies, and sports games.

“I am a soccer fan, but Hong Kong television stations charge a lot of money for the package. It is completely different from the mainland where TV stations and their apps always broadcast these programmes free of charge. So I have been searching for ways to ‘return to the mainland’ for the free and most up-to-date programmes,” Ma told the South China Morning Post.

In recent years, mobile apps in China have also bought broadcast rights to popular sports games to broaden their user base. Tencent Video, the mobile video-platform backed by Shenzhen-based technology giant Tencent, bought mainland Chinese online broadcasting rights for the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as several popular European Football Leagues.

The Transocks and N2ping apps are not available on Apple’s app store for China because the US tech giant removed VPN software in July to comply with Beijing regulations.

A lawyer in Shanghai, who asked for anonymity, said it is not illegal to develop VPN software but added that anybody who uses such software in China may be committing an offence.

“But in this case, Chinese rules are not applicable to overseas users, and as long as their respective local laws allow them to use these apps in their respective countries, there won’t be any issue,” the lawyer said.