The fining of a Chinese internet user by authorities in the northern province of Shaanxi for using software to circumvent the Great Firewall has sparked a rare public backlash online.
The Hanbin district police department in Shaanxi’s Ankang city said on May 19 that it had fined a local man 500 yuan for scaling the Great Firewall, a complex systems of blocks, filters and human censorship that limits what Chinese users can see online.
China outlawed the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) — the most common form of circumvention tool — in 2018, and typically charges those caught using them with “accessing the international internet through illegal channels.”
But government-approved bodies and organizations are able to apply for exemption from the ban.
The fining of the man, whose surname is Yang but whose given name was withheld, led to a flurry of online criticism, including from Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalistic tabloid Global Times newspaper.
Many comments said the use of a VPN couldn’t be illegal, as the Chinese foreign ministry frequently takes to Twitter, which is outside the Great Firewall, to make statements and comments.
Hu posted to the social media platform Weibo this week objecting to the punishment, and that there was nothing illegal about scaling the Great Firewall for information.
He said the law should be administered “flexibly,” and that it was necessary in some cases to circumvent internet controls, especially during such “unusual times.”
Yang Sen-hong, president of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, said Hu’s comments were hypocritical and the fine was in breach of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
“For the Global Times to say that many things need to be dealt with in a flexible manner is just rubbish,” Yang said. “There is no flexibility.”
“It isn’t illegal for anyone, official agencies or anyone else, to browse the internet, whether they use a circumvention tool or not,” he said. “Anyone can do it.”
Shanghai-based internet user Ma Yalian said the 500 yuan punishment was rather light.
“This is an example of their going easy on the internet right now,” Ma said. “Obviously, this policy of partial opening of the internet will also send mixed messages.”
“It would have been worse if they had detained him … which if they use administrative detention they can do for 15, even as long as 30, days,” he said.
Ma said the Global Times‘ objection to the fine likely had to do with the fear that they too could be targeted by “dumb” cops.
“It’s a newspaper, so a lot of their employees are going to be scaling the wall. What if [the cops] started going after them?” he said.
The Hanbin police department later deleted the original post about Yang’s fine once the controversy blew up online.