While other areas of the world are becoming seemingly more liberal, China is in a permanently regressive state. Rather than changing views and laws to reflect the desires of Chinese citizens, China’s Communist Party has doubled down by removing more and more freedoms and altogether eliminating the reasonable expectation of privacy for its citizens.
China’s new cybersecurity program should not come as a shock. The government has been left unchecked for too long, and they continue to overreach with an unwarranted level of power. The country is about to go on lockdown from the outside world, making China appear more like North Korea than it ever has before.
How Censorship Started in China
The Chinese government was never highly receptive of the idea that people could use the internet to find answers, communicate, and form their own opinions. The government perceived this type of open opinion and access to an uncontrolled, non-state sponsored news narrative to be a threat to its very way of being. While the country always had restrictions in place and had dabbled with temporary bans of popular websites and services, things changed for good in 2009.
Independence activists have always gathered to protest government imposed conditions in both mainland China and Hong Kong. A series of riots in 2009 inspired the government to permanently ban Facebook, Google, and Google owned platforms (like YouTube) countrywide. The government cited that people would use these services to arrange protests or gatherings that may have been detrimental to the safety of others. While riots and protests can sometimes be dangerous, it can be argued that the bans were more of a way to neuter an unhappy population than to promote public safety.
This move created a slippery slope – it helped the Chinese government to discover that they could ban or alter just about anything they pleased, so long as it was deemed as a measure for public safety or for the betterment of the republic. That slippery slope slid us into today, a moment when freedom as we know it is about to be sacrificed in its entirety all throughout China.
What the New Cybersecurity Program Encompasses
On December 1, 2019, the Chinese government will roll out what it refers to as a “cybersecurity program”. This program is largely centered around surveillance. The goal of the plan is to essentially store, access, and process every single bit of raw data that traverses through the internet over mainland China. This is not a targeted law – it impacts the entire internet, including business transactions.
In an interview with South China Morning Post, Guo Qiquan spoke as the plan’s biggest advocate, stating “It will cover every district, every ministry, every business and other institution, basically covering the whole society. It will also cover all targets that need [cybersecurity] protection, including all networks, information systems, cloud platforms, the internet of things, control systems, big data and mobile internet.”
China’s Ministry of Security has been clear in stating that there will be absolutely no exceptions regarding who is monitored. This means that businesses based on other countries that have a presence on Chinese soil will also be subject to the surveillance. While businesses and individuals have used VPNs to bypass China’s restrictions, any detectable VPN use will become blocked in accordance with the country’s desire to thoroughly monitor all internet activity.
Additional Internet Restrictions
In addition to complete and total surveillance of all internet activity, other plans have been put in place to make internet access difficult. In order to access the internet from any device, Chinese citizens must be granted a license using artificially intelligent facial recognition software and essentially pass a background check. Anyone found allowing another person to use their internet or SIM card to bypass these restrictions will be convicted of a crime.
This significantly narrows the pool of people who will even have access to the internet in the first place. China will only allow highly reputable citizens to have internet access, and from there, will watch those citizen’s moves like a hawk. Anyone who has ever criticized the government or been involved of any type of protest is unlikely to be granted internet access.
The Consequences of Compliance
Any company doing business on Chinese soil will no longer have a right to privacy, as any information transmitted over the mandatorily unprotected internet will find itself in the hands of the Chinese government. This is a huge data compromise, exposing trade secrets and making client information available to third parties.
Any North American, Australian, or European business with a presence in China is now in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” scenario. Pulling out of China means that operations will likely become more expensive, as they will lose the Chinese purchasing market and access to low cost labor. Staying in China makes for a mandatory compromise of all of their data, ruining their trust with consumers and placing themselves in a vulnerable positions by airing out all of their trade secrets.
There is also the factor of exporting technology to China. If companies from the United States or Europe continue to operate in China without privacy, any information about their technology will become available to the Chinese government. Whether they like it or not, the unintended consequence is the export of technology to the Chinese government. Their continued presence and compliance with Chinese law could be deemed a crime, resulting in time behind bars for inadvertent offenses.
What This Means for the Future of China
China may be under the illusion that they’ve won a war on information, but this is simply not the case. Many foreign businesses are likely to feel forced to pull out of China, rather than comply with the mandated surveillance. As a direct result of the exodus, the Chinese economy is likely to suffer. Jobs will be lost, and people will be angry. Not only have their freedoms been stripped from them, but they will be facing imminent poverty.
These new internet restrictions have widespread consequences that assure no one can win. The government is forcing everyone’s hands, and the prospects don’t look good. China’s new cybersecurity program is poised to beget unrest like no one has ever seen before. The people will let the government know when they’ve had enough, and it’s likely that the emerging protests will rival the gatherings we’ve seen in Hong Kong since February.
Is There Any Way to Maintain Privacy?
Right now, the only thing the people of China can do is utilize a stealth VPN. Stealth VPNs disguise themselves as regular HTTPS internet use, avoiding leaving a detectable footprint that the government can register as VPN use and block. As of publication, TorGuard’s stealth VPN works as a privacy tool in China.