China blocks internet searches abroad as Xi under pressure ahead of major speech

Chinese authorities are tightening restrictions to foreign websites in renewed efforts to control the flow of information ahead of its set-piece annual parliamentary sessions.

Access to content normally blocked by censors – dubbed the “Great Firewall” – including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and foreign news websites has been all but shut out for days ahead of the National People’s Congress.

Analysts suggest China is keen to control the narrative from the rubber stamp parliament more than ever as President Xi Jinping faces one of his toughest years in office due to a slowing economy, a damaging trade war with the US and growing discontent about investment abroad.

Observers have noted that the recent censorship outages have lasted longer than usual.

Mr Xi is due to open parliament as the world’s second-largest economy is seeing its worst economic growth in nearly three decades.

China is keen to control the narrative from the rubber stamp parliament more than ever

Beijing is also seeing the first signs of backlash for its Belt and Road plan, an infrastructure-led plan meant to boost its global clout, as partner countries cancel or scrutinise previously agreed projects over debt concerns.

And foreign governments are pressuring Beijing on everything from espionage to human rights, particularly given concerns of its Muslim internment camps where the United Nations estimates one million people are being held.

Thousands of parliamentary delegates are gathering in Beijing to discuss political and economic policy at the sensitive time, before casting votes that approve proposals from the ruling Communist Party.

Managing expectations overall will likely be a key theme, especially when it comes to supporting economic growth and handling the trade war, including what concessions Beijing will agree in order to get a deal done.

China is also a few days away from a sensitive political event, the 60th anniversary of uprisings in 1959 in Tibet that led to the Dalai Lama fleeing to India.

For Beijing, keeping negative or critical news at bay, and having even greater control than usual over the messaging, is a key priority ahead of major events.

Mr Xi is due to open parliament as the world’s second-largest economyCredit:
 Ng Han Guan/ AP

News and information available in China is largely all state-sanctioned, and waves of new rules in recent years have come into effect regulating content on all platforms from livestreaming to video games.

Censors commonly snuff out terms on China’s own social media platforms. But the latest crackdown is tougher than usual as it completely stamps out access to foreign websites, making it challenging for some international organisations with a China presence to do their work.

Although they are technically illegal, Virtual Private Networks are commonly used to sidestep the Great Firewall, allowing internet users inside China, including foreign firms to see beyond state-sanctioned content.

Harold Li, vice president at ExpressVPN, a VPN provider, said: “It’s not uncommon for efforts to block VPNs to escalate during significant political events as part of an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with VPNs in China. These latest blocking attempts are a continuation of that and do not, in our view, represent a major shift in strategy or sophistication.”

The company noticed an increase in blocking efforts in China starting Saturday afternoon. 

VyprVPN, another service provider, has also noticed blocking issues recently, and said Beijing appears "to be using a combination of automation, likely artificial intelligence, and focused human monitoring."

“The Chinese government improvements in VPN blocking technology has led to widespread blocking of the most popular VPN providers over the past couple months,” said CEO Sunday Yokubaitis. “I don’t expect this trend to reverse itself in the near future."

China has been gradually snuffing out VPNs since 2017. That year, Apple dropped a number of unapproved VPNs from its Chinese app store as more stringent rules went into effect. Internet service providers in China were also reportedly ordered to block access to VPNs.

Since then, two Chinese people have even been slapped with a prison sentence after being found guilty of selling VPN services. Foreign users using overseas VPN services, however, may be less likely to face repercussions.

As of last March, VPNs have been officially banned, though a blanket outage hasn’t occurred as feared.

Instead, periodic disruptions have occurred, including one last October, ahead of Mr Xi attending a massive trade fair meant to showcase China as a trade partner and assuage foreign concerns about its trade practices, and an annual internet conference.

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