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“The ability to turn the switch at any time”: how the Great Chinese firewall fights VPN

Locals fear that the law will tighten, and from online stores for iOS and Android massively remove applications to bypass blockages.

Sinopix / Rex Photos

Users of Chinese social networks expect a sharp tightening of Internet censorship in the coming days. The Global Voices international community, covering stories and discussions in civilian media, described the concerns of local residents and providers, according to which by July 1, 2017, most VPN applications will be removed from Chinese online stores with apps for iOS and Android.

While Russia is considering a bill banning anonymizers to bypass blocking, and the popularity of VPN applications seems to have only grown against the threat of blocking Telegram, talks about Chinese experience in dealing with services.

How do online stores work in China

Google Play, like other services of the company, is banned in China. Since most Chinese use Android phones, unprecedented demand has led to the emergence of tens and hundreds of local alternative app stores with varying degrees of security. Another reason for their popularity lies in the variety of payment methods and poor knowledge of the English language, which means that the popularity of the Chinese interface.

The audience of a number of stores can exceed 100 million users, and some “Stores” offer apps for both Android and iOS. Some of the resources work as aggregators.

In China, there is an official App Store, in parallel with which there are numerous, but not very successful alternatives. Periodically, the official store tightenedcheck rules. As noted by Business Insider, Apple as a whole does not support the initiative of the authorities, but is trying to make compromises.

One of these is the removal of applications: in January, The New York Times disappeared from the Chinese App Store due to “breaking the law.” What exactly – then the publication did not explain.

In addition, the company regularly deletes outdated, malfunctioning and other programs that do not meet the recommendations from the App Store. On June 24, the media reported on another “purge”, which resulted in Apple removing about 58,000 applications – most of them, it is claimed, contained spam or low-quality games.

How does VPN live in China

According to the South China Morning Post, at least 135 out of a thousand of the most popular sites in the world are not available in China. Coglasno study of CNNIC, more than 731 million people use the Internet, and their number is growing from year to year.

Visitors to internet cafes in China. Photo by European Pressphoto Agency

The Chinese use encrypted channels to access blocked Google countries (including Gmail and YouTube), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, GitHub, Snapchat, Flickr, many Wikipedia pages and other resources from foreign servers. VPN services are used by huge strata of the population – from ordinary residents to banks and other international corporations that need it for work.

In China, you can legally use a VPN, but there are restrictions and they are regularly tightened. Owners are required to register the service with the authorities, and foreigners also need to enter into a partnership with a local company.

Most often in this role are the public telecommunications companies China Unicom and China Telecom, which are entitled to request information for the government. The Chinese can theoretically use foreign VPN-services, but you need to be prepared for the pressure of the authorities and blocking .

Control over VPN in China is not new. In 2012, it was reported about the temporary blocking of almost all services with encrypted channels, but later the authorities allowed them to recover.

In 2015, The New York Times, now blocked in China, spoke about the difficulties in using technology: scientists could not get the latest scientific reports from abroad, graphic designers could buy pictures or graphics on Shutterstock, and students could apply to American universities .

In January 2017, China banned unregistered virtual private networks. From this point on, all services that provide VPN and cable Internet connection services have pledged to receive prior government approval. The Communist Party (CCP) claimed that the “purge” would continue until March 31, 2018, but judging by the expectations of local residents, it would be completed faster.

A new wave of fears filled the Chinese social networks after June 26, when “The Best VPN Service in the Country” The Green VPN announced its closure on July 1, 2017. The company received a notice from the regulator demanding to stop work.

The Green VPN, respectively, will cease to cooperate with telecommunications companies and providers, and from the beginning of July will issue user requests for a refund. Judging by the contacts listed on the site, the company will move to Hong Kong – part of China, free from the “great firewall” and recently celebrating the 20th anniversary of joining the country.

In the meantime, several other vendors, including VTRSpeed, complained about regular access restrictions: many US and Hong Kong IP addresses are no longer available in China.

The information that from July 1 from the Chinese online stores will delete VPN-applications for Android and iOS, confirmed the owner of the service TorGuard. True, the company is blocked in China and most of the “stores”, but offers to download from the site apk-distribution for Android and manually install the program.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Whatever the reason for removing VPN applications, this indicates a serious problem with Chinese censorship.[/perfectpullquote] [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Since the local government can restrict access to some programs in the App Store for the sake of a political agenda, this creates a threat to all other companies, while other countries may follow the example of the Chinese authorities.[/perfectpullquote]
from the statement of the representatives of the VPN service TorGuard

Some services, including NordVPN, on the contrary, prepared to tighten controls and introduced new ways to bypass the blocking for Windows to the Chinese.

According to , a representative of Seed4.Me VPN, which is developing privacy protection applications, at the moment China is not interested in completely blocking VPN services. This, however, does not prevent from time to time to increase the pressure on Internet users.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If they block everything that is there now, they will come up with something else to circumvent the prohibitions. China is much more important control, the ability at any time to pull the switch, than they are quite successfully engaged.[/perfectpullquote] [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]From time to time they do DNS poisoningfor VPN services: this is when the VPN service clients are redirected to some kind of left server instead of a VPN server. Then this server falls under load. That is, the Chinese authorities can conduct DDOS-attacks on someone through the substitution of the DNS.[/perfectpullquote]
representative of Seed4.Me VPN

Why ban tightening

Often, control over the Internet is tightening before political events. For example, less than a month before the G20 summit, which was held in China, authorities ordered the editors of local Internet sites to take personal responsibility for the content of notes and articles.

House of People’s Assembly in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Flickr photo

This time, the authorities did not make official statements or announcements about the removal of all VPN services from online stores. This only prompted discussion of different versions and the search for prerequisites.

According to Global Voices, some users of social networks associate possible blockages with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Hong Kong. Since the end of June, increased security measures have been launched in the city, and local residents have staged protests.

Another reason is the 19th congress of the Communist Party, scheduled for autumn, where a change in the supreme body — the permanent committee of the political bureau — is expected . This is considered an important milestone for the CCP, since it is complicated by intra-party struggle.

The third version is related to the corruption charges that Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui (Guo Wengui) put forward against the second person in China – Wang Qishan. The businessman agreed with this assumption and criticized thepossible ban on VPN applications in the country.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The more violent and insane the prohibitions become, the stronger we become. All these stupid actions of the authorities will only help our fellow citizens in China to wake up.[/perfectpullquote] [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The wall will fall. Now friends from the international community are more willing to fight on our side, and everything has just begun.[/perfectpullquote]
Guo Wenguy, a Chinese businessman
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