Research could suffer as internet controls tightened

Chinese internet restrictions, known as the ‘great firewall of China’, have often been an issue for Chinese academics who find their access to overseas research restricted. They have become more concerned as new internet controls – particularly on virtual private networks or VPNs, which circumvent national censorship of the internet – look set to be introduced by February 2018.

The government has ordered state-run telecommunications companies to enforce a ban on VPN use by individuals, and to require companies in China to register web-access use, calling for these controls to be in place by February 2018, according to reports.

VPNs, which route web traffic through a foreign server to avoid local controls, are commonly used by universities and research establishments in China. These include Google Scholar, blocked in China since 2010.

The clampdown on VPN use comes as Chinese academics and researchers are already concerned about limited internet access, calling on the government to relax controls on academic websites, according to a source from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, speaking on condition of anonymity.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last week told Bloomberg News its target was “unauthorised access” and that VPN controls should not affect the “normal operations” of local and foreign businesses. However, academics told University World News that the definition of ‘authorised’ was vague and subject to political vagaries.

University servers which provide access to overseas websites not available to the general public have been severely disrupted in the past without warning.

Public concern

In March this year some 78 scientists of the Chinese Academy of Sciences submitted a joint statement to China’s President Xi Jinping urging the authorities to loosen controls over the global internet and grant them expanded access to allow them to carry out world-class research.

Other groups of academics have dared to speak out publicly about internet restrictions, notably in June last year. An article published in China Science Daily quoted an unnamed academic as saying “it is very difficult to achieve world-leading results or to be a frontrunner in global scientific research without any knowledge (of other countries’ work) and without comparison”.

The occasion was an academic conference organised by the Chinese Academy of Sciences as well as the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the national congress of the China Association for Science and Technology, at which Xi set ambitious targets for innovation and urged the country’s researchers to transform China into a leading science and technology power.

At this year’s joint session in March of the National People’s Congress, the equivalent of a parliament, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was greeted with applause from the floor when he said control over the internet was too strict, affecting scientists, and called for special access to overseas websites for scientists and researchers, similar to calls made last year.

However, internet controls have been expanded and tightened in the past year. This May censors blocked access to an online broadcast by Google which had organised a tournament in Wuzhen near Shanghai pitting its artificial intelligence computer AlphaGo against China’s national Go champion during a forum on artificial intelligence, defeating the Chinese champion.

Though Google is banned in China, the US-based company says 60 million people in China watched online as AlphaGo played South Korea’s Go champion in March 2016. Artificial intelligence and machine learning is one of China’s strategic priorities in research.

Last month some 60 Chinese celebrity social media accounts were shut down after a new cyber security law that came into effect on 1 June which requires websites to not harm the reputation or privacy of individuals. Previously some professors’ social media accounts were ordered closed, on an ad hoc basis.

Academic sources in China say content by individuals with a large personal following are regarded as a threat by the Communist Party as they could spark significant social movements that can later be harnessed to oppose the government on particular policies.

Foreign universities

Major Chinese universities such as Tsinghua University in Beijing have their own service providers, which allow access to blocked overseas research sites.

“Tsinghua’s filtering of sites banned in China is not as rigid as that of ordinary consumer service providers,” said an overseas academic who regularly teaches at Tsinghua, but he said students and academics need VPN services to access the university library and other services when they are not on campus. VPN services are notoriously slow, he added.

While branch campuses of foreign universities operate under special conditions, they do not necessarily enjoy unfettered internet access and the new rules could further hamper access.

“In China the VPN may be required to access university resources like Google Apps for Education from off-campus locations,” NYU Shanghai, a branch of New York University, advises students, providing download links to VPNs from its Shanghai website.

A United States Government Accountability Office or GAO report published last year on 12 US joint venture campuses in China found that five of the 12 US universities reviewed “reported uncensored internet access, generally through use of a virtual private network”. The remaining universities reported that they do not have complete access to uncensored internet content in China, including to scholarly databases.

A few foreign universities’ written agreements and other policies include language indicating that members of the university community will have full or complete access to information, but some agreements “include language that prohibits the use of technology and resources for activities prohibited by law”.

“Such provisions are a reminder that university students may face difficulty when conducting academic research in China due to government censorship on search engines, news outlets, and social media websites,” the GAO report said.

“One faculty member told us that she sometimes asks others outside of mainland China to conduct internet research for her because they can access information she cannot. A student at one university told us she needed to access a certain scholarly database typically blocked in China, while several students at another university told us their ability to conduct academic research was constrained by the internet limitations,” the report said.

In some cases foreign universities are required by the Chinese government to track and maintain records for several months of faculty, student and staff internet usage, including the internet sites visited by faculty and staff.

CPPCC debate

In rare public remarks reported in March, Luo Fuhe, vice-chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference or CPPCC, warned that internet censorship was already hampering scientific research.

He put forward a proposal for discussion at the CPPCC for the government to lift access to non-political foreign university and research sites frequently visited by expert researchers and scholars. His recommendations went unreported in official media and were deleted after appearing on social media sites.

Among others, Luo recommended that the government determine which websites are off-limits with greater “precision” and allow full open access to sites frequented by researchers, particularly if they do not contain political content. He suggested the government could “adopt blacklisting of webpages that violate relevant laws and block specific pages” rather than censoring all web content from abroad.

“It is not normal when quite a number of researchers have to purchase software that helps them bypass the country’s firewalls in order to complete their scientific research,” said Luo, formerly an academic in China’s southern Guangdong province and a former deputy director of the Guangdong provincial science and technology department.

He added that some international students visiting family back in China are unable to complete and file required forms because they are unable to open their foreign university websites.

“Some expert scholars working in China must use their weekends or vacations to go to Hong Kong or other places to visit sites required for their research,” Luo said.