Chinese city introduces fines for VPN users

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The attempted crackdown on VPNs in China seems to have stepped up another gear in the city of Chongqing, where people caught using a VPN now face a fine of up to 15,000 yuan (£1,750, US$ 2,200).

Updated Security Regulation

The new punishments come in an updated internet security regulation, which apparently came into force in July 2016, but has only made it into the public domain this week. It is unclear at the moment whether charges have already been brought.

The new regulation is targeted at people who are using a VPN to get around the Great Firewall and access sites which are blocked in China for commercial purposes. It states that anyone using a VPN will receive a warning and be instructed to terminate their internet connection.

But those who make a profit greater than 5,000 yuan whilst using their VPN could be subjected to fines ranging from 5,000 – 15,000 yuan.

However, Amnesty International have examined the law in detail and noted that it is worded sufficiently vaguely that it could be applied to any individual or company regardless of their reasons.

China’s VPN Crackdown

This latest regulation appears to be at odds with news we reported earlier in the year of a planned crackdown on VPNs as part of China’s grand online censorship programme.

It was reported that the Chinese Communist Party had decreed that all websites available in China had to be registered with a Chinese domain name. This was seen as a tool to block access to VPN providers but had obvious implications for overseas businesses operating in China as well.

This new regulation could be interpreted as an admission that the earlier law wasn’t working, but as Amnesty International have suggested, it seems more likely that this is just a trial run of a rule which could be ruled out across China.

“It looks like such practices might be extended to other parts of China if Chongqing police succeed in punishing people using VPNs,” Patrick Poon, a Chinese researcher at Amnesty International commented to the AFP.

But in the meantime, the 30 million people who live in Chongqing will have to be especially cautious when using a VPN to access sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

WeChat Activist Detained

Meanwhile, relations between China and Taiwan have hit yet another stumbling block after the detention in China of NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh.

Taiwan is a de-facto independent and democratic island in the South China Sea, but one over which the Chinese Communist Party claims sovereignty.

He disappeared on 19th March after crossing the border from Macau, but it was not until today, more than a month later, that Chinese authorities confirmed his detention. The reason given for his arrest was that he was “endangering national security”.

He is thought to be the first NGO worker to be detained under a new law which targets foreign NGO workers, although which intriguingly is also being applied to those from Hong Kong and Macao, as well as Taiwan.

It is unclear about the precise reasons for Lee’s arrest, but he is known to have talked about politics and specifically to have discussed Taiwan’s democracy with mainland friends using the Chinese messaging service WeChat.

As we have reported previously, the Chinese regime closely monitors all conversations which take place on WeChat and this would not be the first time someone’s WeChat messages have led to their arrest.

Lee case highlights the peril anyone in China is placing themselves by speaking out about such matters online.

Using a VPN remains the best way to facilitate free speech as well as open access to the internet, but as the people of Chongqing will soon realise, there are now risks associated with this too.

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