The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget Xi’s ‘defense’ of globalization. China just fortified the Great Firewall.

Chinese leader pushes back against Trump on free trade (Video: Reuters)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week to tout Chinese leadership on global trade. In his keynote speech, he used words like “connectivity.” Protectionism, he told the audience, is like “locking oneself in a dark room.”

With trade-skeptic Donald Trump how in charge in Washington, the Chinese president was quickly cast as his free trade-loving foil. The Financial Times called Xi's speech a “robust defense of globalization.” The Wall Street Journal described it as a “full-throated defense of free trade.”

But as Davos drew to a close, a timely reminder that open borders are not really Xi's thing: Over the weekend, China announced a new, year-long crackdown on “unauthorized Internet connections.” That means another fortification of the Great Firewall that largely keeps China's Internet users in a “room” of their own — and hurts U.S. companies along the way.

A statement published on the website of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Sunday said regulators will spend the next year “cleaning up” the Internet by taking aim at companies that provide virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow people to access blocked sites, including the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

In recent years, China has tightened control over the Internet, strengthening the Great Firewall in the name of “Internet Sovereignty” — a Xi slogan that calls for each state to exercise absolute control of its slice of the Web.

Lester Ross, a partner at Wilmer Hale's Beijing office who advises U.S. and Chinese tech companies, said the notice fits squarely with this vision. “Broadly speaking, it is consistent with the emphasis on cyber sovereignty as opposed to international connectivity,” he said.

It is still unclear how, exactly, the new rules will be implemented. Often this type of announcement is deliberately vague. Internet companies in China are already closely regulated and VPNs providers are already subject to crackdowns — including one ahead of political meetings last March.

But experts on China's Internet said the notice seems to take aim at Chinese companies providing VPN services to individuals in China — and not, say, those helping multinational companies connect with their home office.

William Long, a Chinese tech blogger, said the new rules could bolster existing efforts to get Chinese VPN providers to gather data on users.

Although well-established Chinese tech firms are already storing this type of information, Long said, unregistered upstarts providing low-cost VPN accounts on a small scale may now be forced to register and comply — a surefire way do discourage would-be connectors.

Luna Lin reported from Beijing. 

Read more:

Internet activists are finding ways around China’s Great Firewall

China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works

China’s plan to organize its society relies on ‘big data’ to rate everyone

America wants to believe China can’t innovate. Tech tells a different story.