A man in southern China has been sentenced to five and a half years in jail for selling a VPN, in the latest example of someone being locked up for helping people get around the Communist Party of China’s internet censorship regime.
The latest example has seen a man called Wu Xiangyang, from Pingnan county in Guangxi autonomous region received the long jail sentence alongside a fine of 500,000 yuan (£57,000; US$76,000).
According to a report in the Procuratorate Daily, a newspaper for the Chinese prosecution and inspection agency, he was found to be operating a VPN without the proper license.
Regular readers will recall that under new laws, no VPN is allowed to operate in China without a license [in Chinese]. The law came into force in January this year ahead of an outright ban on VPNs which is scheduled to come into force next February.
Given that those VPNs that hold a license are likely to be handing over user data to the Communist regime, the law effectively means VPNs are not banned in China.
TeeVPN owner jailed
Wu Xiangyang is reported to have been running his VPN, called TeeVPN (凡狗), since 2013 and was apparently making 792,638 yuan in revenue and around 500,000 yuan in ‘illegal’ profits according to the state-run publication.
His VPN service was not exactly a well-kept secret. He advertised the service on a website and also on the widely used online retail site Taobao as well as various social media networks. It claimed to have at least 8,000 foreigners in China using the service as well as 5,000 businesses.
As well as providing a standard online service, Wu also sold VPN-enabled routers which allow any device connected to their signal to enjoy unrestricted access to the internet.
According to prominent Chinese human rights activist Zhou Fengsou, Wu had chosen to quit his well-paid job at Chinese tech company Tencent to start his VPN business. But, despite the severity of this sentence, he was not a well-known VPN operator.
Wu case not unique
While the sentence handed down on Wu is the most severe example to date of the Communist Party crackdown on VPNs, it is not the first.
We reported back in September about the case of Deng Jiewei, a 26-year old man from Dongguan, in Guangdong province, who was jailed for nine months in March for selling VPN software.
Around the same time, an IT engineer from Jiangsu, who was only identified by his surname Zhao, was also jailed after admitting that he had set up a VPN in order to access information from overseas which is blocked by censors in China.
Meanwhile, the Chinese city of Chongqing introduced fines for VPN users earlier this year too. Any resident of the city found to be using a VPN can expect a fine of up to 15,000 yuan (£1,750, US$2,200).
It is not known to date how many such fines have been handed out. They have also as shut down a number of local VPNs, and taken aim at local e-commerce sites which sold VPNs.
VPN use in China remains high
However, despite the crackdown, VPN use in China remains high as people are desperate to access popular websites and social media services such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, and YouTube.
While this latest case may be targeting a low-profile VPN service, it is no doubt intended to send a message to all VPN providers operating in China, and indeed VPN users, that the regime is not going to tolerate them for much longer.
The Communist Party are well versed in the use of threats and coercion to get their way and they will be in no doubt that the risk of being jailed will put a lot of VPN users off. They are probably right as people find themselves weighing up the risk of going to jail against the many benefits of accessing the internet without restrictions.
There are still a number of international VPNs which users can access from within China. And as the new ban comes into force, many VPNs will be doing their utmost to ensure their service remains available.
At the present time, VyprVPN offered the fastest connection speeds for Chinese internet users. But they are not the only provider available behind the Great Firewall and users in China can find our rundown of the recommended best VPN providers for China here.