The era of easily exploitable internet loopholes in China appears to be ending. Starting on 31 March, Beijing will ban non-licensed Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) via which Chinese residents privately access blocked websites, such as Google, Facebook, and The New York Times. Chief Engineer of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology Zhang Feng told reporters that corporations who “lawfully” access the global internet won’t have to worry. And yet, worried they are.
Especially since Apple announced in November that it had removed hundreds of VPN apps from its China app store, there has been growing unease among some Chinese residents about the difficulty of connecting to the global internet in China; not to mention worries about data security when companies are forced to use state-sanctioned VPNs. “Access to the worldwide web has become a major frustration for companies operating in China”, said Mats Harborn, president of the European Chamber.
Yet what’s surprising about the chokehold Beijing is placing on the internet – “plugging the last holes in its ‘Great Firewall’ internet censorship apparatus”, in the words of the Financial Times – is not that it’s happening, but that it wasn’t long anticipated. The surprise is that it was so surprising.
Beijing often reminds domestic and global audiences of its intention to control China’s internet. From former Chinese Communist Party Secretary Hu Jintao’s 2007 vow to “purify” the internet, to current Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s repeated insistence on internet “sovereignty” (the right of nations to control and censor the internet domestically), Chinese leaders are comfortable presiding over an increasingly effective and repressive internet oversight apparatus.
In 2017 the independent watchdog organisation Freedom House named China the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, ranked below even Syria, for the third year in a row. And China’s increasing sophistication and higher level of Party and state control means that it’s growing even more successful at internet censorship.
Why is this move unexpected? There are several reasons why the ban comes as a shock to many, even though it shouldn’t. There’s long been the assumption that China needs foreign businesses more than foreign businesses need China; why would China alienate those businesses by shutting off their access to the global internet? But it must be remembered that from the earliest days of reform and opening up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when China was a desperately poor and shambolic nation, it has always prioritised national sovereignty.
Scrolling through The New York Times archive of reporting about China in the early 1980s, for example, one finds no shortage of stories about Chinese forsaking foreign business interests in favour of Party control. “China cracks down on ‘decadent’ capitalist ventures”, reads one headline from 1982. Even accounting for present-day China’s deep integration with the global financial system, Beijing still won’t allow foreign businesses to jeopardise the Party’s control over Chinese society.
Upsetting investors and weakening its citizens’ and residents’ ability to fully utilise the internet is a small price for the Party to pay to ensure that no YouTube video of, say, a student beaten by Chinese police goes viral and sparks massive demonstrations.
Part of the problem stems from the belief that globalising rhetoric from Xi Jinping and other Party figures indicates a commitment to liberalising freedom. Instead, Xi and top Chinese officials easily say one thing and do another, and redefine terms to fit their vision of deeper Party control.
In a 2015 speech, for example, Xi used the terms “democracy” and “transparency” to justify tighter internet censorship. The state newspaper China Daily, part of Beijing’s propaganda apparatus, misleadingly headlined a story, “Democracy, transparency key words in Xi’s speech”, whereas the Financial Times had a far more accurate description of the Party Secretary's words: “China has co-opted the rhetoric of liberal values to defend a policy that few liberals would find recognisable”.
Insistence that Xi may have inherited reformist genes from his father, the relatively liberal former top official Xi Zhongxun, is another part of the problem. Xi’s 2012 ascension to power, Bloomberg wrote in October, “raised hopes that the son of a reformist revolutionary would open the country wider to the West”. But where in genetics – or the annals of politics – does it dictate that a son share his father’s beliefs?
Similar to this view is the misperception that China’s economic prosperity will bring freedom and liberalism to its citizens. But there’s no iron law of progress whereby a state grows more open as it grows richer. For every country like South Korea, which democratised in the late 1980s after decades of heady economic growth, there are places like the wealthy Saudi Arabia, which remains intensely repressive, or the Philippines, which has seen a slide back towards authoritarianism under President Rodrigo Duterte even as its economy expanded 6.7% last year.
In areas outside of the economy, where the situation is more mixed, Xi and top Party officials have long indicated they are bringing more and more of the country under Party control. Instances of relative loosening should be met with surprise. Further repressions, however inconvenient or unfortunate, shouldn’t be.