China is infamous for its internet censorship: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the New York Times are all blocked to users within China, as well as thousands of other websites both inside and outside the country. But until very recently, anybody who really wanted to get through the Great Firewall of China could do so pretty easily by signing on to a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These widely available programs allowed Chinese internet users (and foreigners in China on business) to access sites the government didn’t want them to see.
Those halcyon days may be coming to an end. The LA Times reports that a number of VPN services have reported serious issues over the past few days, leading many experts to believe that Beijing has found a way to block these sites from users within the country. Lending credence to these reports has been an uptick in state-sponsored editorials decrying unbounded internet freedom:
“By typing on the computer, one can send the meanest curse, the most shocking scandals, the most insensitive ridicule and it seems no one can do anything to you,” the Beijing Morning Post said in an editorial Thursday. “Any responsible government shouldn’t let this become a method for the mass public to seek justice.”
On Monday, one of China’s top governing bodies, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, proposed requiring Internet users to register their real identities before accessing online services as a way to combat online fraud. If passed, the law would be especially damaging to China’s micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo.
The Twitter-like services double as a national nerve center for public opinion. Because bloggers have been able to shield their identities, the platform has also engendered online vigilantism by exposing more government malfeasance (be it hiding ill-gotten wealth in dozens of apartments, sex with a teenager or keeping two remarkably similar-looking sisters as mistresses).
China’s leadership may have changed, but its war on the internet continues.
Indeed, moves like this underscore the difficulty of predicting what the new leadership will mean for China. Earlier this week we saw signs that Beijing was preparing to introduce more accountability for its officials. Today’s news suggests a move in the opposite direction, making it more difficult for the public to turn to the internet to hold corrupt officials accountable. As always with China, the best policy here is to wait and see, but reports like this should serve as an antidote to some of the unfounded optimism that has crept into some recent discussions of Chinese politics.