China is known for having a number of internet restrictions that make accessing some of the world’s most popular websites difficult. To avoid government censorship and surveillance, many people in China wonder if VPNs are legal. Unfortunately, answering that question may be harder than you think.
The answer to that question is a resounding “maybe.” It can depend on who you are, what you’re using it for, and even who in the government is asking!
On March 31st, the Chinese government banned the use of VPNs not approved by the government. However, the somewhat ambiguous language of the announcement seems to suggest that the ban will apply primarily to companies and corporations rather than individuals. “Government-approved” VPNs can be those that provide the government with logs of their traffic or perhaps even with backdoor access. This, of course, is a huge problem if you’re a company that handles sensitive data or trade secrets – but what about for individuals?
Chinese citizens have had a very rough time using VPNs not approved by the Chinese government. Citizens found creating unapproved VPNs have received fines and sentences anywhere from three days to more than five years. China has also had unapproved VPNs removed from app stores, making it harder for Chinese citizens to get their hands on the technology. Chinese citizens still use VPNs, but getting their hands on them can be difficult, and they risk finding themselves on the wrong side of the law for using one.
The reason some VPNs can evade Chinese restrictions is because they aren’t based in China and haven’t established any local offices that could be regulated by the Chinese government. As long as there’s a viable payment method and download connection, a Chinese citizen can acquire an unregulated VPN from anywhere in the world – at their own risk.
But what about visitors who bring their VPNs in with them? This is a legal gray area, but right now, it looks like you have nothing to worry about. After all, using a VPN isn’t actually illegal in China.
However, that doesn’t mean you won’t run into any trouble if you have one. Josh Summers, an expat who has been living in China since 2006, described a worrying encounter in 2015 on his blog. After his phone stopped working for a few days, he brought it to his service provider, who said he had to bring it to the local police station for it to be unlocked. “What happened next shocked me. The police took my phone and proceeded to go through all of my apps and VPN services, telling me which ones needed to be deleted before we were able to unlock our phone.”
Summers underscored that there were no lasting consequences and that he eventually reinstalled most of the apps removed by the police – including his VPNs. His story is anecdotal, and other foreigners’ experiences may vary. What his encounter does illustrate, though, is the sort of informal harassment and difficulty that foreign VPN users may expect to encounter in China if they aren’t careful.
UPDATE: In early January 2019, a Chinese citizen was fined $145 USD for using a VPN in China. The fine was issued in accordance with a law that has remained unenforced in China since it was passed in 1997. This makes it difficult to predict whether they will continue to issue these fines in the future and whether foreigners traveling in China will be targeted. It is possible that no further fines will be issued for some time. The Chinese government frequently uses a strategy based on an old Chinese idiom: “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” The case may have been used to deter other citizen VPN-users.
Using VPNs may not be illegal, but the Chinese government has other tools to prevent their usage. VPN providers and the Great Firewall are constantly locked in a game of cat and mouse as government regulators try to block unregulated VPN access and VPN providers try to stay one step ahead. NordVPN is one of a handful of premium VPN providers who are virtually always available in China, but service disruptions are still possible.
Unfortunately, Chinese law can be difficult for Westerners to understand, as there are regional differences in laws (much like the state vs. federal system in the US). Laws can also be interpreted differently. Therefore, it’s difficult to point to a single law and claim that VPNs most definitely are or are not banned. However, it seems like the worst case scenario in the event that your VPN is discovered is that it will simply be removed from your device.
To understand why the Chinese government hates VPNs, you have to understand the Great Firewall of China. The Chinese government exercises near-total control over Internet connections into and out of China. It uses this control to censor and filter content that makes it into the country, regulating the information its citizens have access to. As a result, a number of popular websites enjoyed in the West, like Google and Facebook, are either completely banned or severely limited in China. The Great Firewall can also monitor or block access to websites and information it considers problematic, like Taiwanese or Tibetan separatist forums.
As powerful and encompassing as China’s Great Firewall is, VPNs are still capable of penetrating it. That’s why they’re a problem. However, they can’t be banned outright because of the many legitimate uses they have – especially for businesses. Therefore, China has opted to instead regulate VPNs, ensuring that the ones its approves are compatible with the Great Firewall.
Whether you’re a local or a visitor, there are two main reasons why you might want to use a VPN.
Don’t forget that all of the usual benefits of using a VPN also apply! You can still use it to access geo-blocked content, browse with relative anonymity, and secure your information. All in all, using a VPN in China is a no-brainer! NordVPN is a great choice – with a broad range of server options all around China, you can get excellent connection speed with a ton of extra privacy and security features.
Access your favorite content while in China!