An upgrade to the Great Firewall?

China has continued to step up efforts to censor the internet and all things digital with promises to block the virtual private networks that enable users to jump over the so-called Great Firewall (GFW).

It is also deploying new technology that can delete instant messages in mid-flight – as new cyber rules in China come into play.

Hotels around the country have announced that they are also reconfiguring their internet services to comply with tighter rules that were implemented in June.

This is all casting a growing pall over the abundant business opportunities that are, at first blush, available in the massive China market.

It is a key reason that foreign companies are struggling with the ‘ease’ of doing business and the capricious nature of Chinese regulatory and administrative decisions.

It is well known that Chinese censors continue to block content that it doesn’t like via the GFW as part of its vast propaganda campaign to limit information available to ordinary Chinese people.

Authorities are fearful that opening up the marketplace of ideas might lead to more people questioning the ruling Chinese Communist Party and lead to a rise in dissent.

The VPN issue has been a constant in China over the past decade. Once a clean, inexpensive and reliable way to jump over, the GFW, in recent years it has become a game of cat and mouse between the makers of VPNs and the Chinese censors. It’s been described elsewhere as a technology arms race to see who will win.

The best VPNs in China a decade ago are no longer in the race and the right choice can change from month to month, pushing more expense onto users.

As for foreigners doing business in China, VPNs are essential. These days it is necessary to have more than one VPN to access the internet outside the country.

Earlier this month news began seeping out to China that it would mount a fresh attack on VPNs, with talk that they would be banned altogether. At the very least the plan is to severely restrict in people’s ability to use them.

VPN services inside China have been shut down along with a fresh assault on online content, focusing on video content that has caught up both personal and business users.

As more than one China watcher has noted “don’t be sure there will always be a technology solution to get around the GFW.”

Already international technology groups are bending over, fearing if they don’t they will suffer the same fate as Facebook, Twitter, Google and other groups that are blocked by the GFW.

Last week it was Apple – which still has a presence in China and a lucrative slice of the world’s largest mobile phone market – which decided to play ball with the Chinese censors.

“We are writing to notify you that your application will be removed from the China App Store because it includes content that is illegal in China,” Apple said to Express VPN, one of the most widely used pieces of GFW jumping software.

“We know this stuff is complicated, but it is your responsibility to understand and make sure your app conforms with all local laws.”

It’s worth noting that trying to download software to Apple devices not sitting in the company’s App Store can be a thorny business.

Two weeks ago problems began to emerge with popular messaging service Whatsapp with uncertainty now around whether messages will be delivered in whole, part or – especially if it has attachments – or not at all.

And when Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiabo died in custody in late July, users noticed that messages sent not just on Whatsapp – the only Facebook service that can be used in China – but on Wechat the near universally used instant message service run by one of China’s big four internet companies, Tencent.

In recent days there have been further rumours – indeed has seen notes from Chinese email providers to their customers – around whether Chinese ISPs will allow emails to certain domains (Gmail for example) from their servers.

One has to think this may be a bridge to far in terms of putting a spoke in the wheels of Chinese businesses, but people never though the GFW could succeed as well as it has.

Underscoring ongoing concerns about the business environment in China are the results of the annual surveys of foreign businesses by the American Chamber of Commerce and the European Chamber of Commerce. Both have shown falling confidence in the country as a place to do business

Still, Australian businesses won’t be hearing any advice, on any of these issues, from Australia’s gung–ho, pro-China trade department and its minister Steve Ciobo.

All this makes even more of a mockery of the strange cyber summit that Australian leaders, including Malcolm Turnbull, had with China’s security chief Meng Jianzhu in April.

After this confab, readers may recall, Mr Turnbull issued a statement saying “that neither country would conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets or confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage.”

The truth is, Australian businesses have no idea what is happening to their information if they are operating inside China’s heavily state-controlled digital environment.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not just China that censors the internet. A number of Southeast Asian nations – notably either communist countries Vietnam and Laos – have taken a leaf out of China’s book.

But arguably the rising digital censor in the region is Thailand, now under the control of a military junta that is vocally pro-censorship, for the past three years.

As China pushes its economic influence into the region, there are legitimate concerns that the largely undemocratic nations in Southeast Asia will lean to China for their internet models, rather than the US, Europe or Australia.

(Only Indonesia has a democratically elected government unencumbered by either a strong opposition military like Myanmar or a rule-flouting strongman like the Philippines.)

On Sunday July 30, Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over an unprecedented parade to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the first such parade since 1949.

The cyber forces at Beijing’s fingertips are equally as disturbing.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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