Chinese Government to Crackdown on VPNs and Livestreaming Websites

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

In November 2017, the National Party Congress for the Chinese Communist Party may put pressure on the Chinese President, Xi Jinping to shutdown popular media platforms. While the current President is predicted to be re-elected for another five-year term, the crackdown on content on social media, as well as internet users ability to hide their identity from the government through VPN (Virtual Private Network) connections is in line with previous approaches and responses taken by his government.

By using a VPN connection, internet users in China have been able to protect their privacy and escape the government collecting data relating to their online activities. When a user connects to a VPN, it means they are connected to a private network where all their internet traffic is encrypted.   

Xi Jinping recently announced a new ban on all consumer VPNs across the nation, as part of a larger response to protect "cyber sovereignty". The Chinese Government has enforced a long standing ban on foreign social media services operating beyond their control, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, arguing they pose a threat to national security. However, VPNs enabled these sites to be accessed, as well as other international websites and information online. Other regulations introduced by the government will also require Internet Service Providers to block their customers from using VPNs by February 2018, regardless of whether they are based locally or overseas.

These crackdowns will severely limit sex workers' abilities to organise and share information.

It is not just VPNs that are facing a crackdown. Government officials are paying increasing attention to encrypted messaging services such as Signal and WhatsApp, and livestreaming video websites are being targeted under a host of new laws. Part of these new regulations demands livestreaming platforms register on a government database within 30 days or face penalties. Growing numbers of individuals are working using livestreaming sites, by attracting large followings of viewers who send them gifts which can be exchanged for money or other goods. Such platforms have attracted negative attention over the last year or two, with concerns that stars of these platforms are crossing over into porn which is seen as socially harmful.

In the first half of 2017, the Chinese government has reportedly punished more than 30,000 anchors and opened criminal investigations into over 10 livestreaming platforms.

The People's Republic of China banned porn when it was established in 1949. Anyone who produces, distributes, or purchases ‘lewd’ magazines, books, or videos can be penalised. The punishment is often a fine and warning, but in 2005 the creator of China's biggest porn site was sentenced to life in prison. Movie studios or filmmakers caught producing erotic films can lose permission to make movies altogether.

The definition of what is considered pornopgraphic under the law is vague and subject to wide interpretation. Officials may target anything that "violat[es] public morality and harm[s] the physical and mental health of youth and young people."

This is what happened in April last year, when the Ministry of Culture announced it was investigating a number of popular livestreaming platforms for allegedly hosting pornographic or violent content that violated these laws. In the months that followed, new regulations were introduced, compelling livestreaming sites to monitor content hosted on their sites around-the-clock for any prohibited behaviors that could be seen to "harm social morality". Activities on the prohibited list included  "erotic" banana-eating, or wearing stockings and suspenders while hosting a livestream.

Since June, the government has shut down almost 30 livestreaming applications, this is in addition to thousands of platforms which were shut down in December 2016. Remaining platforms have been visibly pressured to restrict their content further to promote “mainstream” ideas. On 30 June, authorities also announced audio-visual content showing any “display of homosexuality” would be prohibited. While homosexuality is not illegal in China, government officials are often criticised for treating gay and lesbian people as a threat to Chinese culture, and homosexuality was only removed from the list of mental health disorders in 2001. Last year the Chinese Government attempted to implement a ban on TV portrayals of homosexuality, smoking, drinking alcohol, suggestive clothing and the idea of reincarnation, labeling portrayals of such behaviors “immoral, vulgar and unhealthy.”

While the LGBT community in China has tried to fight back against these recent announcements, they were surprised by the support they received from the Communist Party itself. Fujian Province Communist Youth League used Weibo (the most popular Chinese social media platform) to make posts encouraging their followers to avoid homophobic discrimination. These posts have gone viral; they received 70,000 likes, 30,000 comments and 20,000 shares, and have spurred the creation of the hashtag #同性恋不是精神疾病# which translates to “same sex love is not a mental illness.”