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Foreign-Run VPNs Struggle to Evade China's Firewall


People use computers at an internet cafe in Wuhan, Hubei province.

People use computers at an internet cafe in Wuhan, Hubei province.

Three foreign companies that enable Internet users in China to get around the “Great Firewall” of censors say they are having trouble serving their clients, which is complicating the work of foreign journalists and businesses.

Virtual private network (VPN) providers Astrill, WiTopia, and StrongVPN published blog posts and sent letters to customers this week saying their servers are being blocked in China because of seeming changes in the firewall.

The companies had not responded to requests for a comment by our deadline, but one Twitter user shared a letter that he says Astrill sent to its customers:

Fang Binxing, the creator of the “Great Firewall,” told China’s Global Times on Thursday that he didn’t know of any changes to the Internet censoring system. But he alluded to why the VPN companies might be having trouble.

"As far as I know, companies running a VPN business in China must register with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. I haven't heard that any foreign companies have registered," Fang told the state-run newspaper.

He said that unregistered VPN service providers are not protected by Chinese laws.

WiTopia tweeted a sarcastic retort to the Global Times story.


Without reliable VPN access, companies in China could have serious problems doing business with the rest of the world. And that could be a problem for China too, according to Josh Ong, China editor of The Next Web, which monitors technology worldwide.

“A lot of companies have a general policy that they must use their own proxy network in order to transfer data, especially into and out of China. So you are looking at banks or e-commerce companies, anyone who is transferring very sensitive information, a lot of them use corporate VPNs, and from what I have used, those are also experiencing some problems,” he said.

Ong said it’s hard to estimate the actual economic impact of the crackdown on VPNs.

“These are touchy times from a financial perspective and I think any disruption is going, in the long term, it's going to ripple out into the economy and that could in the long run have an effect on the larger situation that China is in, which is the macroeconomic conditions,” he said.

Ong, like many observers, said he is baffled by the attention China is paying to overseas VPNs because he doesn’t see the benefit the government is reaping by blocking a service few Chinese citizens actually use. He speculated it could be related to the political transition that will usher in a new generation of leaders early next year.


“It is certainly possible that some of it is just a general flexing of might, kind of coming in with a strong arm to really show who's in control,” he said. “But there is definitely something intentional happening when these VPN services are being restricted.”

Foreigners accustomed to getting around China’s firewall are growing impatient. Barbara Demick, the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief, has even mused online about moving to Japan.


The VPN companies are suggesting customers change the configuration of their VPNs.

Ong said the temporary fixes are just that - temporary.

“You can randomise the ports and still try and sneak through,” he said. “But it is causing some problems.”

(Additional reporting by VOA Beijing)

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