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Are VPNs Legal in China?

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Introduction

Virtual private networks (VPNs) have existed in a legal grey area in China for years, with authorities periodically cracking down on unlicensed VPN operators based in the country and limiting access to overseas VPNs. The introduction of the Cybersecurity Law in 2017 has increased the government’s regulation of cyberspace and raised the possibility that VPN use may be increasingly channeled through state-owned telecom providers.

Legal Provisions

Information concerning the setup and usage of VPN services can be found in various People’s Republic of China (PRC) laws and supplementing documents.

The Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China, implemented in 2000, states that without approval by the competent telecommunications authorities, no enterprise may construct or lease special circuits, including virtual private networks (VPNs), to conduct international business activities. This suggests that VPNs are only legal if approved by the proper authorities.

The Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017, includes strict data localization and network security requirements, increasing the government’s overall regulation of cyberspace. Under this law, personal information and other important data collected in China must be stored within the country. Companies that handle this type of data must undergo security assessments and store the data on Chinese servers.

The Cybersecurity Law also restricts companies from using overseas internet connections that bypass China’s firewalls and internet filters. This restriction directly impacts VPN usage, making it more difficult for companies to utilize VPNs to access foreign websites and services blocked in China.

Current Status

Despite periodic crackdowns and blocks of IPs associated with major VPN providers, there is no official ban on using VPNs in China at the individual level. Many VPN companies advertise their ability to bypass China’s Great Firewall and provide access to blocked content.

In January 2021, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced a campaign to “clean up and regulate internet access services,” which led to another wave of VPN usage restrictions. Dozens of VPN apps were removed from the Apple App Store in China.

However, some VPNs have been able to adjust quickly to changes in internet restrictions, using new server locations and IP addresses to allow users to continue accessing geo-restricted content and maintain secure connections. This cat-and-mouse game has enabled a segment of tech-savvy internet users in China to keep using VPNs despite the government’s best efforts.

The government has been particularly harsh in regulating VPN use by businesses and organizations, especially foreign companies. Multinational corporations often rely on VPNs to access vital internal systems blocked by the Great Firewall. Police have raided offices and issued warnings for using unauthorized VPNs.

Despite the challenging environment, it is still possible for individuals to connect to a VPN in China, at least intermittently. People regularly use VPNs to access blocked sites and apps for personal communications and entertainment. University students frequently utilize VPNs to get around internet restrictions and conduct research.

Recommendations

For visitors and residents struggling with VPN connectivity issues in China, it is recommended to directly contact customer support for the VPN service. Many providers have experience troubleshooting China-specific problems and can provide the best advice.

Ask if they have servers optimized for use in China or protocols like Shadowsocks and WireGuard that may have better success getting past the filters. The VPN may also be able to provide a dedicated IP address or obfuscated servers to improve reliability.

Be prepared to experiment with multiple protocols and connection options. What works one day might be blocked the next. Consider having accounts with a couple reputable VPN providers to switch between if you experience problems.

Also try using the VPN app from different devices like phones, laptops, and tablets to test stability. Connecting through WiFi networks rather than mobile data can sometimes resolve access issues as well.

If you are visiting China, it is advisable to set up a suitable VPN on all your devices and test connectivity for accessing highly restricted sites like Google, Facebook, WhatsApp prior to traveling. Finding a VPN that provides consistent performance under the Great Firewall can require some pre-planning.

Downloading VPN apps via app stores ahead of your trip is also recommended, as app distribution platforms like the Apple App Store or Google Play Store are blocked without a VPN in China.

Conclusion

While the legal status of VPNs in China remains uncertain, it is still possible for individuals to use VPNs in the country, albeit with some challenges around restricted access and connection stability. Companies especially face harsh crackdowns for operating unauthorized VPNs.

The government continues its attempts to clamp down on VPN usage through technical blocks, restrictions written into law, and intimidation tactics. However, people in China continue accessing VPNs to use blocked internet services and secure their communications. The ongoing game of cat-and-mouse means users must be prepared to troubleshoot connection issues and switch between multiple VPNs options when necessary.

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