Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Beijing’s Proposal To Block VPNs Reflects The Usual Uncertainties—And A Sign Of Something Else

There’s no reason to think that by this time next year, accessing many foreign websites from China will be almost impossible.

There’s every reason to think that by this time next year, accessing many foreign websites from China will be almost impossible.

No one can be sure: China’s leadership haven’t made a final decision about what to do with the use of VPNs to access overseas websites.

Plus, there’s no new law or updated public regulation that clearly indicates a specific directive about VPNs or what further controls entail precisely.

That should be expected, because it reflects how decision-making here in China operates.

For example, there are questions about which agency will be responsible for issuing a ban, how it will be implemented, and by whom.

It may turn out to be the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology [中华人民共和国工业和信息化部]. That continuity would make sense, as MIIT has become proficient in recent years at expanding its policy portfolio and fighting off attempts by other agencies to restrict its mandate. This shift to greater control is something that some MIIT officials have been urging for some time now, and the idea for a ban might have originated from them.

Or it could turn out to be China’s Ministry of Public Security [中华人民共和国公安部] that takes greater command, and is the propellant behind this proposal. Officials there are on the long road back from political perdition, anxious to prove their loyalty to President Xi Jinping and his allies after years when local disobedience and a warlord culture flourished there. But they’d be up against the entrenched interests of MIIT, and that’s a battle that some there may prefer to avoid because they’re still struggling to make amends.

It’s also possible that the decision and supervision of a new regulation ends up being the purview of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs [国家互联网信息办公室]. Nominally, they’re in charge of overseeing China’s Internet. It’s difficult to see, however, how that body would cope with the existing supervisory bodies of the various provincial and local telecom carriers, and whether it has the staffing to coordinate the sort of control that’s being speculated about. The Central Leading Group does hold the whip-hand where the power to issue directives is concerned; but they need State bureaucrats to put any changes into practice, and so may prefer to have others implement a ban.

There’s also the matter of the administrative responsibility of China’s municipalities and provinces. For example, local authorities will surely look modify some plans to block VPNs in innovation zones where access to sources outside China is crucial, especially given the massive investments that have been made in building these complexes—at the behest of Beijing.

Not knowing what’s exactly happening with a proposed VPN ban reflects a government that’s not only selective at best with its plans but one that also not always entirely connected to itself. Indeed, when official representatives did finally start speaking publicly about the possibility of VPNs being blocked here in recent days, there was confusion.

One State media outlet denied that all VPNs would be outlawed, only those that were not officially registered or part of a recognized institution. The implication was that individual VPNs would be illegal and blocked, while business VPNs might be allowed to continue to function.

But Reuters quoted a Chinese telecom carrier as having received a notice to begin to block VPN services last week (not February 2018, as indicated in a number of stories). That report sounded like the measures might be local; possibly restricted to small carriers for now; and perhaps even an experiment to see how far Beijing could press both carriers and their customers.

In any event, there’s been no official announcement from central government authorities—and that’s significant because it’s a sign of a lack of consensus here about how to proceed, as well as a clear caution to those thinking that this is a done deal.

And of course, there are political fights going on.

For example, there are those in China who will be pleased about a ban on VPNs: hardliners who think that China is under siege; that foreigners and foreign businesses do far more harm than good here (or can be further undermined as competitors by a ban); and those who believe that Chinese society could use some “self-strengthening” [洋務運動] and see putting up more barriers as one way to secure greater autarky. Even some local officials confess to being anxious about possible protests that they see as encouraged by overseas websites, and so some authorities lean towards tighter supervision.

But others worry about the implications for universities and research, as well as for their own personal and family prospects. Professors and graduate students want access to the work done by others, for their own publications as well as other motives (including identifying overseas fellowships). Privately, some parents say that they use VPNs to access the websites of private schools and foreign universities to explore options for their child, and these people view the fact they have to use them as another indication of Beijing’s outmoded approach to modern education. Many parents in fact applaud the domestic campaign against online pornography and fraud, but still want the option to explore online without government restriction.[1]

So while hardliners want greater walls for China, others wonder why the Great Wall isn’t great enough.

The proposal to ban VPNs—if that’s what it turns out to be—or continue with the status quo is clearly worrisome to many here. It may well be that someone working in China’s bureaucracy or at a telecom carrier saw a directive and leaked notice of that order—to gather support for tighter controls, or to muster opposition from others in the government to oppose it.[2]

Forget the assumption that this is Xi acting personally, or that “the Communist Party” or “the Chinese government” is behind this bid to ban VPNs. No one has ultimate authority here, and it’s divided decision-making anyway. Officials disagree in China all the time, and factions are about policy differences far more than local origin. There are plenty of State memorials here in China extolling unity, but political monoliths are a myth in practice. The indecision and uncertainty we’re seeing about what to do about VPNs is both normal and further evidence of discord at the top.

Which brings us to the 19th Party Congress.

The leading storyline about the upcoming 19th Party Congress says that Xi is looking to grab more power, to extend his political rule. But that narrative misses what such meetings have been about historically—a clash of visions about China’s direction. That the VPN proposal has surfaced now—on the eve of the annual Beidaihe [北戴河] meeting of senior officials where disagreements get aired--is a further signal that the Party Congress will be contentious. Indeed, it’s likely to be a political showdown between Xi and his allies who are looking to tighten the illiberal order they’ve built, and those who think that there are better paths to reform than just more restrictions.

Who gets to block whom and how politically at the Party Congress--that’s the larger story worth focusing on.

[1] The overseas media’s focus on the effect a VPN ban would have on expats or foreign enterprises in China is misplaced, given that the largest impact by far would be on Chinese citizens.

[2] It is important to note that nearly all of the original reports about a banning of VPNs were sourced to individuals speaking off the record, not to the institutions in China who would be responsible for implementing such a directive. None of those sources could be identified—for good reason—but it’s not apparent who they were, where they worked, what positions they occupied, or their own views on the matter. There have been instances where Chinese sources for stories were not actually working in the bureaucracy, and people (including news assistants) may have been passing on information to reporters based on conversations that couldn’t be immediately confirmed. Overseas Chinese websites are notorious for sometimes running rumors as reliable information, and the odd foreign journalist in China writing a story based on something a dissident or a disaffected exile posted online. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, because there seems to be collateral from institutions within China. But we may still be witnessing a proposal, a pilot program, not an actual policy.

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