As of March 31st, VPNs are officially illegal in China. But the good news for users is that the formal adoption of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) latest repressive online regulations appears to have made little real difference on the ground.
Having previously planned to introduce a VPN ban by the turn of the year, the CCP pushed the date back to March 31st without giving any clear reason for the delay.
China’s VPN ban plan failing?
In the run-up to the formal ban coming into force, they did take a number of steps to make it harder for Chinese people to get a VPN.
A number of local VPN providers were forced to close, prominent sites such as Alibaba were censured for allowing the sale of VPN software, and individuals who were found to be selling VPN software were arrested.
Perhaps most concerningly, Apple cooperated with the Communist regime to remove more than 600 VPN apps from their Chinese app store; a decision which was condemned by online privacy experts, including the UN, while Apple bizarrely claimed the move would help freedom of speech.
It was then confirmed in January that Telecoms companies in China had been ordered to block all VPN services. But the date of the formal VPN ban has now passed and there appears to be no change in the availability of VPNs across the country.
One popular provider, NordVPN appeared to confirm as much telling ZDNet that there had been no communication from the Communist regime about the proposed ban and confirming that their service is currently continuing to work behind the Great Firewall.
It is quite possible that China is simply struggling to find a means to effectively block VPNs. Russia is another authoritarian regime which recently passed laws to block VPNs in the country. But as we reported back in February, their ban has also had no effect so far.
The CCP has a much bigger budget to throw at this than Russia does, and they have managed to have some impact on the VPN market in China. But it could be that implementing a full ban on VPNs could be beyond even them.
Some VPN disruption in China
That is not to say that there haven’t been efforts to implement a ban. We have reported before that the crackdown on VPNs that has already taken place has already affected international businesses operating in China.
Many of them rely on VPNs to communicate freely with their other offices outside China in the free world as well as needing them to protect corporate data from Chinese spies with a long track record of stealing intellectual property.
The disruption that has already taken place to VPN providers in China has already had a profound impact on the ability of many of these businesses to function in China. The concerns have been such that the US Government has even raised the CCP’s proposed VPN ban with the World Trade Organisation.
US condemns China VPN ban again
And they have spoken out against the ban again more recently too. In its latest Trade Barriers Report, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has again flagged the detrimental impact the VPN ban and the CCP’s online censorship regime more generally, will have on international business.
The report notes the ‘dire consequences’ the VPN restrictions have already had on international businesses as well as noting that China’s wholesale approach to online censorship sweeps up many innocent online sites and services in their attempts to block the ones they object to.
This is because it is very common for sites to share the same IP Address. Yet, China blocks sites by identifying their IP Address and then banning it. This means in trying to block one website they end up blocking many more.
The USTR estimates that China’s online censorship costs the US economy billions of dollars a year and will have a similar impact on many other economies around the world too. The impact on the economy in China is likely to be even larger.
But as long as some VPN access in China remains possible, there is still hope for both the Chinese people and for businesses that wish to continue operating there.
NordVPN is not the only VPN provider that continues to be available in China. To learn more as well as seeing our recommendations about the best VPNs to use in China, take a look at our article on the Best VPN for China 2018.