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The Demise of VPNs in China

James Huang | 2023.11.04

The Clash VPN series has essentially been wiped out in China, with some VPN tool creators clearly based within the country, and it seems that the relevant departments are actively detecting them. From the current situation, this is definitely not an action of a single province. In recent years, VPNs have operated in a grey area. While you could argue they're legal, there are numerous verdicts of fines and detentions for using VPNs. Yet, research institutions, cross-border e-commerce, and even government agencies use various VPNs.

Local law enforcement agencies have no incentive to interfere with these activities as they are challenging and require coordination from numerous units. Therefore, it can be inferred that this is a unified action at a higher level, driven by concerns of political stability. Over the past year, several incidents have made the relevant departments uneasy.

1. The 'White Paper' incident, where the core information hubs were all abroad. People in the country used VPNs and Twitter for information exchange, compilation, and spontaneous association, making the domestic blockade seem ineffective.
2. The recent commemoration also took place under strict domestic management, yet this did not hinder the spread of information. The pattern remains the same - people inside the wall use VPNs to communicate information outside, and then pour the information back into the wall.

The department's attacks on key nodes of information exchange on Twitter seem to have had little effect. Therefore, a natural thought is to clean up the VPN tools. Completely eliminating VPN use is not realistic, but one reason for its widespread use recently is that it has changed from complex software and environmental configuration to 'one-click', greatly lowering the threshold for VPN use, which the state cannot accept.

Therefore, this concentrated rectification of VPN software may not be a temporary action, but a sustained crackdown. The aim is to significantly increase the difficulty of using a VPN, making it impossible for ordinary people to use.

The following actions may be/are being taken:

1. Infiltration of major VPN software groups to capture more privacy information of those creators within the country. For instance, the Xraycore community is on Telegram, a very insecure platform. It's just a matter of time before it's compromised.
2. Strengthening the crackdown on VPN servers, cutting off various payment channels, and using various phishing methods so that ordinary people have no way to get VPN tools.
3. Restricting apps, which is already underway, waiting for Apple to block the last loophole. For example, if Apple prohibits cross-border operations, it's pretty much game over.
4. Catching typical cases for scaremongering law enforcement, which has been done before in some places. 
5. Implementing a whitelist on an irregular basis, which has already been piloted in some places.

This sustained crackdown marks a shift in the landscape of internet, posing challenges to research and software community.

The Demise of VPNs in China
MERCURY TECHNOLOGY SOLUTION, James Huang 4 November, 2023
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