Students cannot use Youtube without VPN in China.
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Chinese students of overseas universities use VNP which is banned in China for online class.

By Coco Zhang in Shaanxi & Vivian Cao in Yunnan

 “I cannot continue my study if I do not have the Virtual Private Network (VPN) services,” David Chen* says. He is a student of Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Chen cannot go back to his school in Canada due to the pandemic. He needs to use ZOOM to conduct online classes and check his Gmail mailbox for daily communication with his school, as he is trapped at home in Kunming, Yunnan.

Gmail and Google services have been banned in China since 2013. Only people with a VPN can use them.

Chen’s school does not provide an official VPN for Chinese students. So, he has to buy private VPN service, which is banned in China, for his study.  

VPN is a kind of service that can help users bypass the Chinese “Great Firewall” to visit websites outside the firewall, such as YouTube, Facebook and the instant messaging application WhatsApp.

Chen understands the risks of using private VPN service. “I face a choice between breaking the law to continue my study and obeying the law to suspend my study. I prefer to choose the former one. Because I’m a student, and doing my study is not a crime,” Chen says.

“I face a choice between breaking the law to continue my study and obeying the law to suspend my study.”

Chinese VPN Policy and Government’s Punishments to Illegal VPN Users

The Chinese government introduced the Internet Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on the Management of International networking of Computer Information [中華人民共和國計算機國際聯網管理暫行規定] in 1996 and revised it in 1997. 

This regulation stipulates that no one can use VPN services provided by companies or individuals without an official approval of operating virtual private networks. Offenders might receive warning from the police and are subject to a fine of RMB ¥15,000 (US $2714). 

Offenders would not be punished before 2017 because the law was not enforced. The Chinese government tightened network policy in 2017.

On January 22, 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the People’s Republic of China issued a circular on improving and standardizing network access [關於清理規範互聯網網絡接入服務市場的通知]. This regulation requires the monitoring of VPN services for internet security concerns.

Phil Huang is a Year Three student majoring in computer science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). He thinks the government should relax the VPN policy in response to the daily needs of the people.

“Lots of people are using VPN, especially oversea students and workers. They are trapped at home due to the pandemic. VPN is a necessity for them to work and study,” Huang says.

He thinks the government should abolish the Great Firewall. “In this new era, people should get to know what happens outside China, and they have the right to read news and enjoy access to information,” the 20-year-old student says.

VPN is essential for Huang’s study. He uses illegal VPN service to gain access to CUHK’s e-learning resources and download overseas programming software during the pandemic. “Should I be arrested for just using a private VPN for study?” he questions. According to a research conducted by China Internet Network Information Center in April, 2020, there were 904 million netizens in China. An internet traffic analysis platform, StatCounter shows that Google held a 2.04 per cent share of China’s search market in 2020.

“Should I be arrested for just using a private VPN for study?”

Although many people still use and sell illegal VPN services, only a few are arrested by the police. “The Chinese government uses a few cases to perform the waring function and demonstrate its tight control over the network,” Mary Li*, a staff member working in an internet security company in Xi’an, Shanxi, says.

Li thinks the public has easy access to illegal VPN, and it is convenient to use. Users can start using it for study, work, and entertainment after downloading an app. The monthly fee is about RMB ¥30 (US $4).

“The Chinese authorities cannot get full control of the private VPN market. They hope users can be deterred by possible legal consequences and stop using illegal VPN by making a few cases as examples to scare off those who want to use the illegal service,” the 35-year-old woman explains.

Chinese Overseas Students are Facing a Dilemma

The Chinese government only allows three mobile communication companies to provide legal VPN services. They are China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom. 

Legal VPN services are only available to government offices and enterprises engaged in import and export trade with authorized qualification from the government.

A corporate VPN user has to pay RMB ¥14,600 (US $2,224) for 10-45 Megabyte per second (MB/s) a month to access the legal VPN services, according to China Unicom’s official website.

“Members of the public cannot apply for legal VPN services. Oversea students cannot even use it for their study,” says Peter Zhang*, who works for China Telecom.

Many Chinese oversea students cannot return to campuses in other countries due to COVID-19. They have to attend online classes at home via ZOOM or Google Meet and search for online resources through school library websites or Google Scholar. Some also have to use a VPN for submitting assignments.

CUHK provides official VPN services to support mainland Chinese students. But the service is unstable, especially when the national leaders hold conferences or during public holidays.

Student failed to connect to CUHK VPN.

Nicole He, a Year Three student, has an official VPN provided by the school, but she cannot use it most of the time.

“It (CUHK VPN) causes me so much trouble,” he says. She asks for help from the Information Technology Service Center whenever she cannot use the official VPN service.

“Once my professor changed the deadline of an assignment and made an announcement on Blackboard. But the CUHK VPN connection crashed that week. So, I could not log in to Blackboard to read the notice. I missed the deadline,” the 21-year-old student who majors in cultural studies recalls. 

That assignment counts 40 per cent of her total grade. She is considering dropping the course. Though she has paid for private VPN service, she has to bear the risk of being arrested for using private VPN in mainland China.

Return to CUHK for Free Access to Information

Ally Xu, a final year student of CUHK, shares his problem and decided to leave home in Zhejiang for Hong Kong, where she can enjoy free access to information. She returned to CUHK campus on October 3 and underwent a 14-day quarantine in a school dormitory.

“Unstable network connection is one of the reasons why I decided to return to Hong Kong,” Xu says. She started using an illegal VPN in mainland China in late January this year, and the service was unstable.  

“I have heard about a case in which a man was arrested just because he used an illegal VPN service for entertainment. I don’t want to take any risks,” the economic major student adds.

“I have heard about a case in which a man was arrested just because he used an illegal VPN service for entertainment. I don’t want to take any risks.”

University College London student Zhang Zihan understands the risks of using illegal VPN services, but she still insists on using it. The Year Two student has been trapped in Chongqing since February.

“I have no choice. The pandemic situation in the U.K. is gloomy. Lockdown is imposed from time to time,” the computer science major student says. 

“I don’t want to break the law, but I don’t want to take the risks of being infected either,” she adds.

*Name changed at interviewee’s request

Edited by Lasley Lui & Regina Chen