If you are a VPN user in China and you follow the international news, you might be expecting the police to knock on your door and take you to jail soon. You can thank the South China Morning Post for causing mass hysteria among expats in China with their irresponsible and incomplete reporting in an article titled China tightens Great Firewall by declaring unauthorised VPN services illegal published a few days ago. Now all the major international news outlets are publishing their own click-bait type headlines, often citing the SCMP article as the source of their reporting. Here are a few examples.
Engadget - China just made VPNs illegal
Time - China Just Made It Even Harder to Get Around the Great Firewall
CNN - China fortifies Great Firewall with crackdown on VPNs
Hard Avenue - Using VPN in China is now officially a crime
These are some interesting headlines but couldn't be further from reality. In fact, VPNs are working better than ever right now. Recently, I am getting much higher speeds than usual. However, I suspect this is because of less network load due to the country shutting down for Chinese New Year as opposed to the government changing anything.
Lets look past these sensational, scare-mongering headlines and look at the facts. What laws have changed?
Actually, nothing has changed. It has always been illegal to "operate a VPN business in China" and this announcement is only regarding a crackdown to enforce the existing laws. China often has crackdowns to enforce their laws more rigorously for specific amounts of time (rather than just strictly enforcing the laws all the time). For example, the 100 day drug crackdown in 2014, or the 100 day crackdown on illegal foreigners in 2012. This crackdown on unauthorized VPN services is going to last for 14 months.
The important fact that has been overlooked by all the international media outlets is that these regulations apply to Chinese companies offering ISP, IDC, and CDN services. Personal VPN services such as ExpressVPN, StrongVPN, VyprVPN, VPN.ac, etc do not operate in China and do not have servers in China. As these companies operate completely outside of China, their operations do not fall under the jurisdiction of Chinese laws.
There is still no law in China against individuals using a VPN for personal use and there likely never will be for the same reasons that I mentioned in my VPN in China FAQ. The government may selectively block some VPN servers or throttle speeds of VPN traffic at certain times but I don't believe they will ever completely block all VPNs or make it illegal to use a personal VPN.
If you can read Chinese, you can check the original announcement here (Google translated version here). Although the notice is vague in nature, I will break down some of the important sections.
The first sentence is extremely long and confusing.
Here is the Google Translation of that first sentence.
"(IDC) business, Internet access service (ISP) business and content distribution network (CDN) business market there is undocumented business, beyond the scope of business, "layers of sublet" and other illegal activities, the Internet, Strengthen the management of network information security, maintain fair and orderly market order, and promote the healthy development of the industry, the Ministry of Industry issued "Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on the clean-up norms Internet network access Service market notice ", the notice stipulates that: without the approval of the telecommunications authorities, shall not be self-established or leased line (including virtual private network VPN) and other channels to carry out cross-border business activities. The international private line leased by the basic telecommunication enterprise to the user shall focus on the establishment of the user file, and shall be used exclusively for internal use only by the user, and shall not be used to connect the data center or business platform inside and outside China to carry out telecommunication business operation activities."
As mentioned, the wording is vague, but it is clear that the notice applies to Chinese telecommunications companies (companies with business operations in China offering IDC, ISP, and CDN services). Nowhere in this notice does it mention anything about overseas companies without business operations in China offering VPN services. It also doesn't mention anything about individuals in China using overseas personal VPN services, as there is no law in China against using such services.
It is also clear that this notice is referring to VPNs for business activities (企业), referring to corporate or commercial VPN services.
Corporate VPN services are used by multi-national companies like Microsoft, Samsung, Boeing, etc to connect their corporate networks together securely. Chinese companies also need to use these kind of VPNs, especially tech companies or companies doing business internationally. There are legitimate VPN services available domestically in China for this purpose, which have been approved by the the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Of course, these officially-approved VPN services are extremely expensive and will keep activity logs. The Global Times and CCTV likely use these official domestic VPN services for their Twitter accounts.
Due to the high cost and restrictive nature of these officially-approved VPN services, some telecommunications companies in China have set up their own overseas VPN networks to sell commercially for corporate use. That's what this notice is about.
If you, like me, are just an average expat living in China using a VPN for Google and Facebook or to watch Netflix in China, then you have nothing to worry about except for poor quality VPN connections. Check my top recommended VPNs for China or my VPN blog page to find the VPN servers with best performance for China.
Although it is not illegal to use a personal overseas VPN service in China, it is also not illegal for the government to block these services, and they do this from time to time. This often happens during political events. Here are some tips to ensure uninterrupted VPN access during these times.
- Subscribe to more than 1 VPN service, especially if you use Astrill as your main VPN. Astrill tends to get hit the hardest when the government blocks VPNs. This is probably due to their high number of Chinese customers and their marketing efforts towards Chinese customers. The last time the government cracked down on VPN connections during the National People's Congress meetings in March 2016, all of my top recommended VPNs for China were accessible 100% of the time. A few servers were blocked and speeds were throttled but it was still easy to connect to a working server using those VPN services.
- If you are planning to come to China, it is always recommended to sign up and install a VPN before you depart your home country. While it is still possible to sign up and install VPN software from within China, the websites of the VPN providers can be blocked without notice. All of the links on this website are directed to China-accessible mirror sites when the main websites are blocked but I can't guarantee that the mirror sites will always remain unblocked.
- Some VPN apps are not available in the China iTunes store and the ones which are available could be removed at any time. If you are using the China version of the app store, follow my instructions to create a USA iTunes account without a credit card. Then, you can download the apps from the USA store even when you are in China.
There have now been a few reported cases of people being fined for using a VPN in China. There is one case of someone being fined 1,000 CNY (~$150) and another case of someone getting a warning, as reported by the VPNCompare website.
So what does this mean? Is it now illegal to use a VPN in China?
I guess the answer is more complicated than I thought.
The rules cited in these few cases state that "computer information networks must use international gateways provided by state-run telecommunications service providers to access the international internet."
Laws in China can be vague and interpreted in different ways. I think there is more to these stories than is being reported. It's likely that these few individuals did something else besides simply using a VPN that caught the attention of the authorities.
As there have only been a handful of instances like this and the biggest punishment was a 1,000 CNY fine, I still think there is not much to worry about.