When it comes to internet access and social media, China is not usually one to conform. Their world-famous Great Wall of China has a virtual counterpart, dubbed the Great Firewall, which is causing a lot of chaos locally as well as globally. With the country’s next major political gathering on the horizon, companies worldwide are wondering how yet another government crackdown on Virtual Private Networking (VPN), will affect businesses in China as well as around the globe.
…cutting off internal corporate VPNs has already triggered companies to consider reducing or completely closing operations in China.
While a large chunk of the world today has access to practically unlimited information with just a single click, in China, censors control and monitor every citizen while on the internet. The Great Firewall is a countrywide restriction that employs a minimum of 2 million of these online censors.
China is notorious for banning access to thousands of websites including popular ones such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and even Google. However, the country’s tech-savvy have found ways to bypass these constraints, most notably via virtual private networks (VPNs). This software redirects an internet connection so the accessed information appears to come from a different location. This means anybody who uses a VPN app in China can access these forbidden sites.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s founding and ruling political party, is having its 19th Congress this fall. As the country’s governance changes so will its political direction. Experts believe this will most definitely lead to targeting and suppressing VPNs, which has already begun affecting international business at the start of this year.
Could completely losing VPN access in the world’s second largest economy mean massive censorship and a total communication blackout from the rest of the world? What impact will it have on multinational commerce and China’s supposedly pro-business reputation?
Bloomberg News stated that the communist government has ordered their three largest and state-owned telecommunications companies, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Mobile, to prevent their users from running any VPN apps. With 860 million, 268 million, and 227 million subscribers respectively, banning VPNs was a bold move that is turning businesses off from investing or continuing their ties with the global superpower. The Chinese government expects to block VPN access altogether, both legally and otherwise, by February 1, 2018.
Time has also recently reported that Apple is supporting the crackdown overseas. Only last Saturday, the Silicon Valley bigwig removed popular VPN apps from the China App Store. Martin Johnson, co-founder of the censorship-monitoring site GreatFire.org, says Apple has become “an integral part of China’s censorship apparatus, helping the government expand its control to a global scale.”
Businesses Scaling the Great Firewall
Apple issued a statement saying they were required to remove VPN apps, which do not meet the new regulations in China, but only within the country. “These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business,” they assured consumers.
Even so, this is still potentially problematic for many reasons. For example, locals and even foreign visitors cannot access credible news sources like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, among many others. This may also affect tourism, as the world has gotten accustomed to accessing and sharing information in real-time. Even academics are potentially in danger since students and researchers have very limited access to published journals and are unable to reach out to individuals outside of Mainland China.
However, probably the most troublesome impact of the universal VPN ban involves China-based employees of global companies who will have issues conducting business as usual. Some restrictions they face include, no longer being able to use Google Docs and Gmail to collaborate with their worldwide counterparts, as well as the inability to use VPNs to secure sensitive company data. Imagine being an executive, or even an employee, sent for official business and not being able to access your company email.
Jane Parker, vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council, told the South China Morning Post that previously cutting off internal corporate VPNs has already triggered companies to consider reducing or completely closing operations in China.
CNN concurs, reporting that the U.S. views this bold censorship, along with a very strict new cybersecurity law enacted in June, as a “barrier to trade” and states that China’s “extensive blocking of legitimate websites” affects far too many aspects such as networking, news, communications, and billions of dollars’ worth of business.