By: James | January 24, 2017

TL;DR Version


The Chinese government annouced a crackdown against Chinese telecom companies offering unregistered VPN services for cross-border business activities. This was widely mis-reported by the international news media as China making VPN use illegal. There is no law against individuals in China using a personal VPN service - never has been, probably never will be. Carry on, nothing to see here.

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 ExpressVPNStrongVPNVyprVPNVPN.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.


"日前,为依法查处互联网数据中心(IDC)业务、互联网接入服务(ISP)业务和内容分发网络(CDN)业务市场存在的无证经营、超范围经营、“层层转租”等违法行为,切实落实企业主体责任,加强经营许可和接入资源的管理,强化网络信息安全管理,维护公平有序的市场秩序,促进行业健康发展,工信部发布《工业和信息化部关于清理规范互联网网络接入服务市场的通知》,通知中规定:未经电信主管部门批准,不得自行建立或租用专线(含虚拟专用网络VPN)等其他信道开展跨境经营活动。基础电信企业向用户出租的国际专线,应集中建立用户档案,向用户明确使用用途仅供其内部办公专用,不得用于连接境内外的数据中心或业务平台开展电信业务经营活动。"


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.

Category: VPN 

Tags: VPN in China illegal 

Comments:

Lather

Posted on : November 16, 2017

我这边的所有中国人都像一只小鸡,讨论VPN都怕得要死,以为自己会被逮捕。整个国家似乎已经没救了
All Chinese on my side are like chicks and are afraid to discuss VPN and think they will be arrested. The whole country seems to have been down.


James

Posted on : November 03, 2017

@Carl

There is no guarantee that a PulseSecure VPN or any other VPN will work, even today. If the IP address gets blacklisted, then it will stop working. This can happen based on the protocol.
Un-obfusacated OpenVPN will get blocked very quickly, for example. But it can also happen if too much data is transferred to the server.

In regards to "freelancers working for foreign companies through their foreign-hosted VPN", my suggestion would be to tunnel the VPN connection through a commercial VPN service. For example, you can run ExpressVPN or VPN.ac on a router and then connect to your work VPN on your computer that is connected to the VPN router's Wi-Fi. Or, run a virtual machine and connect to a commercial VPN service on the host machine, and then your work VPN on the guest machine.

Otherwise, the company you are working for may have to keep changing the IP address of their VPN server if and when it gets blocked.

As for the legality, it will still not be illegal to use a VPN after February 2018. The regulations going into effect next year are related to the ISPs being ordered to block unregistered VPN servers. Kind of a like a second layer (at the ISP level) to the existing Great Firewall.

The blocking may get more severe after February 2018, but I think the good VPN providers will still be able to keep up with the cat and mouse game, as they have always done.


Carl

Posted on : November 01, 2017

Hi, thanks for these informations.
What about the freelancers working for foreign companies through their foreign-hosted VPN while staying in China ? Starting from 1st February 2018 what will happen to their connection ?
As an exemple : PulseSecure (which I believe is SSL VPN protocol) : https://www.pulsesecure.net/connect-secure/tech-info/
Even if it still works, will be it illegal to use it ?


James

Posted on : October 10, 2017

@george

What protocol do you use to connect to your company VPN? OpenVPN or something else? Most protocols will get blocked if your company did not set up obfusication to hide the connection from the GFW. Cisco Anyconnect might work out of the box but I'm not sure.

I may be able to suggest other solutions, depending on the protocol.


george

Posted on : October 10, 2017

When in China, Can I VPN back to my employer's VPN - they are a fortune 500 company - thanks


James

Posted on : April 01, 2017

@Mark

Nobody has been charged with using a VPN. Some vague regulations were introduced in Chongqing city that says "those who make a profit of more than 5,000 yuan (US$730) while using VPNs will be fined 5,000-15,000 yuan".

Still nothing to worry about if you are using a VPN in China for non-business use. Do you really think the government will start fining everyone 15,000 yuan who logs into Google or Facebook? Not likely.


Mark

Posted on : March 30, 2017

No true.

http://m.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2064587/chinas-move-clean-vpns-and-strengthen-great-firewall

The first case of arbitrary charging of a VPN user has just occurred in Chongqing. The user was apparently fined 15,000 RMB


BL

Posted on : February 26, 2017

Hi James, I'm using CU. No router to reset. I'm plugged straight into a network, so I have no access to the router. I don't think that VPN or server selection is my problem. I've tried many. I can get many very good, stable connections, but their speed is restricted.

BTW, to wade in on your main topic: I think whatever the law is, or isn't (in this country), if you upset the wrong person, you're in trouble. And that's it.
And the new law will, no doubt, be the same as many of the others. It is written in a very vague and unclear manner, so as the relevant authority can interpret it as they wish. If they decide that you've broken it, then you have. If you were trying to use it to prosecute someone else, it would be totally at the whim of the official office (whichever that is) as to whether the law has actually been broken. The common response is that 'this issue is the domain of another office.' And around, in circles, you go. As I say, they can interpret their laws as they wish.


James

Posted on : February 26, 2017

@BL

Which ISP are you using? China Telecom, China Unicom, or China Mobile? I'm using CT and I do notice throttling once in a while but it goes away after I restart my modem and get a new IP address. If you are using a TP-LINK router, disable the "SPI Firewall" and "UDP-FLOOD Filtering" functions because these functions are known to kill VPN connections.

Also, make sure that you are using a top recommended VPN server such as the ones mentioned on my VPN for China blog page as most VPN servers perform very poorly in China.


Bandwidth Limited 400

Posted on : February 25, 2017

(Just call me BL.)

Do you know anything of bandwidth throttling, that's occurring in China?

I live near Zhuhai, and have noticed a throttling that started early in December. At first, it was restricted to 50kb/s real download speed, just for a couple of hours. Then it went up to 100kb/s. The next day it was 200. And eventually, after a day or so, it went up to 400kb/s, where it has remained ever since.

Initially, it seemed like something that was only being applied to the VPN connection (I use As*r*ll). Now I think that it's more of a foreign website speed restriction, kind of thing. Mainland websites appear unaffected.
The Speedtest results are very confusing. The only constant is VPN, torrenting and foreign website speeds being stuck at 400kb/s max.

I've tried several other VPN providers, (including E*press, V*pr, Str*ng and Ib*n) and all, with the exception of a single protocol from one provider (that was otherwise unusable), have the same problem. Only the single provider/protocol overcame it.

Previously, my download speeds were a real 4000+kb/s, and would show 50+Mb/s on Speedtest.com

Initially, I thought that it was restrictions aimed at VPN connections. Then all foreign connections (including FTP). But I can't find any other reference to it.
Is anyone else experiencing this phenomenon?


James

Posted on : January 25, 2017

@jrd22566 If China really didn't want people to use these services, they would take steps to stop it such as not allowing AliPay to process payment for those services, or blocking the VPN connections more aggressively.


James

Posted on : January 25, 2017

@jrd22566 I think we are both in agreement that it is not illegal for individuals to use these overseas VPN services. As to whether it's illegal for these companies to offer their services to people resident in China, I think that is a gray area and open to debate. China does not have a specific law against it as the US has a law against online gambling. It's possible (but unlikely in my opinion) that China will introduce such a law in the future. As of yet, they have not.


jrd22566

Posted on : January 25, 2017

"If China really wanted to stop people from using these VPN services, they would make it illegal for individuals to do so."

I believe you are correct. I am just disputing the claim that is is "legal" for, e.g., Astrill to sell VPN services to people resident in China.

In the US, it is not legal to offer online gambling services to people located in the US. This got David Carruthers arrested. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Carruthers

It is not legal in China to organize groups of more than 10 to gamble abroad. Crown Casino employees were arrested in China for this.

It really is not legal in China for any firm to offer VPN services to people in China without the MIIT license. Anyone associated with firms doing so travelling to China or a country with an extradition treaty with China risks arrest.


James

Posted on : January 25, 2017

@jrd22566 Thanks for your comment. In my opinion, a VPN service does not need to be licensed by MIIT if they do not operate in China. You can't expect a company offering a service online to be licensed by every country in the world. Right now, there is no law in China against individuals using an overseas non-licensed VPN service. If China really wanted to stop people from using these VPN services, they would make it illegal for individuals to do so. Or, they would upgrade the GFW to make it impossible to connect to any non-licensed foreign VPN server. China could easily block all non-licensed VPN connections both legally and technically if that was their intention.


jrd22566

Posted on : January 25, 2017

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.

While it is true that those companies do not "operate" in China, they are not licensed by the MIIT to provide VPN services (as a foreign company they can't be), and hence what they are doing is contrary to Chinese law. The relevant question is if they are within reach of Chinese law enforcement. I would advise the CEO of any of these companies travelling to China.


Gordon

Posted on : January 24, 2017

Thanks. Appreciate the clarification.


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