China’s VPN Usage Nearly Doubles Amid Internet Censorship

WASHINGTON — Last year, VPN usage in China nearly doubled, according to data from IT education news outlet Techopedia, this despite the country’s strict regime of internet controls of everything from overseas websites to online games.

China’s “Great Firewall” is one of the world’s most comprehensive internet censorship regimes, preventing citizens from accessing websites like Instagram, Wikipedia and YouTube, as well most major news organizations including VOA.

VPNs are outlawed in China because they allow users to jump the “Great Firewall” and securely connect to the internet outside the country while blocking their IP address.

Rob Binns, a journalist with Techopedia, said China’s increasingly strict censorship policies may explain the rise in VPN usage there.

“Looking at VPN usage versus what it’s combating, which is online censorship, we are seeing online censorship in a range of countries, particularly China, becoming more strategic and more surgical,” Binns told VOA in an interview. 

In 2021, Chinese regulators limited teenagers’ access to video games to three hours per week — from 8 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — before unveiling more severe restrictions last December which set spending limits on video game platforms and banned incentives for daily logins.

Binns said these regulations on minors may particularly motivate Chinese usage of VPNs.

“With that younger demographic, which is traditionally, extremely, highly tech-literate demographic, they’re always going to be looking for ways to kind of circumvent that top-down pressure from governments and find ways to get around that,” Binns said. “And if that means turning to VPNs to circumvent that, then that’s certainly what we’re seeing.”

Analysts say VPNs empower Chinese internet users to discuss major political issues on the internet without facing governmental blowback.

“Circumvention tools like VPNs can enable people in China to access the global internet, including spaces where they can express themselves freely without fear of censorship,” Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at the nonprofit Freedom House, which advocates for political freedom, told VOA in an emailed response. “During unprecedented nationwide protests in late 2022, many Chinese people used VPNs to sidestep the Great Firewall and share their views on otherwise-inaccessible social media platforms.”

Vesteinsson said access to a free, open internet potentially threatens the ruling Chinese Communist Party — hence the government’s crackdowns on internet usage.

“Circumvention technology helped produce one of the most open challenges to CCP rule in decades,” Vesteinsson told VOA. “CCP authorities responded to the 2022 protests in part by scrubbing references to VPNs from the Chinese internet.”

“People face severe consequences for using prohibited VPNs, particularly if they belong to a marginalized ethnic or religious minority or try to access content censored by the authorities,” Vesteinsson added. “The government even removes discussion of VPNs from China-based social media platforms, preventing people from learning about circumvention technology.”

Analysts expect further crackdowns could lead either to additional upticks in VPN usage or a reluctance to use VPNs, depending on how China chooses to further enhance its censorship regime.

“The exact nature of the crackdown, as well as accompanying measures are what decides which effects it is likely to have,” Antonia Hmaidi, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies, told VOA in an email. “China has been so successful in managing its internet partly through making the Great Firewall work not only with fear, but also friction and flooding.”

Hmaidi adds that instead of cracking down, China could also slow the speed of all connections outside the country, which would make it more inconvenient to use VPNs, and maintain an approved list of fast connections for companies.

write a comment: