The Chinese government has started prosecuting its mainland citizens who access online content that is created beyond the country’s borders. Chinese police have already turned mobile connectivity off for some Xinjiang residents, who use Virtual Private Network (VPN) software for avoiding Chinese internet filters. Those people were using foreign messaging apps and software for accessing international content and services.
Most gamblers in China also use VPNs to connect to international gambling sites, so they may also experience this kind of disturbance. And the situation could turn even worse if this step is expanded nationwide. Though the government has already been active in reducing the effectiveness of VPN services in China for quite some time, this interference to personal territory such as disabling mobile connectivity is a new addition. Most internet users in China access online sites through their mobile phones rather than from desktop computers, and this group is ever on the rise.
An anonymous citizen from the regional capital of Urumqi received a text message in their mobile phone: “Due to police notice, we will shut down your cellphone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law. If you have any questions, please consult the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.” After calling the police back, this user was told that people who had not linked their identification to their account, used a VPN to evade China’s system of internet filters, or downloaded foreign messaging softwares e.g. WhatsApp/Telegram, are under suspicion.
No information could be collectd from local mobile carriers of Xinjiang – a Northwestern Chinese province that is home to some ethnic minority groups such as the Uighurs – about how many residents are affected or for how long this crackdown will continue. However, there have been reports that over 20 people have been spotted to wait in a police station for getting their connectivity back.
This type of incident is not new to Xinjiang though, which started during the 2009 Uighur riots when internet access was cut-off for almost six months in the region. Early this year, the country’s telecoms regulator made an announcement instructing sellers of all new SIM cards from September 1st to verify and register users’ IDs to stop the proliferation of unverified accounts that makes it hard to identify the user. The top operator, China Mobile, claimed that 16% of its accounts – meaning nearly 130 million in total – are yet to be verified.
Since launching the Golden Shield Project back in 1993, the Chinese government has invested much of its resources over the restriction of information distribution that is allegedly “harmful to national security”. However, the billions of dollars spent to censor public opinion and citizen access to international sites (including gambling sites) could not prevent some from evading the Great Firewall, the Chinese filtering system.
Followed by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, this step by the government indicates at their urgency to introduce tighter control over internet communication. “With the West generally going backward in terms of protecting privacy and freedom of expression, China is comforted in its longstanding position that it is the arbiter of what can be said or not,” commented Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director in Hong Kong.