A computer programmer in Chengde, Hebei province, who uses Weibo has reported being penalized by the local public security bureau for using a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass the Great Firewall (GFW) while working for a client abroad. Evidence shared on Weibo by the programmer revealed that the Shuangqiao Branch of the Chengde PSB imposed a fine of 200 yuan ($27 U.S. dollars) and seized a total of 1.058 million yuan (over $144,000) from the programmer’s income for the years 2019-2022.
A tweet from 李老师不是你老师 (@whyyoutouzhele) on X (previously known as Twitter) mentions that the programmer’s tasks for a client abroad included coding on Github, addressing user inquiries, and utilizing Zoom for remote work.
The programmer shared a deleted post on Weibo, which was saved by CDT Chinese. In the post, he gave a general overview of the sequence of events and stated his intention to challenge the PSB’s ruling in court.
I am employed by a company based overseas and have been charged 1,058,000 yuan by the Shuangqiao Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Chengde, Hebei Province for using the internet. I plan to file an administrative appeal after the October 1 National Day and I invite everyone to tune in to the live broadcast of the court proceedings. If anyone knows a lawyer who would be willing to represent me, please reach out. Thank you.
I am grateful to my online friends for their support and care. Here is a general timeline of what happened:
In September 2022, I was visited by the local police department. They suspected that a Twitter account, which had posted a significant amount of political commentary, was mine. I clarified that I am currently employed by a company overseas and occasionally interact with my employer’s tweets using my personal Twitter account. However, I made it clear that the account responsible for the commentary was not mine. I also provided information about my employment and my personal Twitter account. On that day, they took my phone, laptop, and a few hard drives, but returned them to me about a month later.
In both April and July of this year, I was interviewed multiple times by the police. During these interviews, I provided detailed information about my employment status and gave them my bank card, my employer’s company registration documents from the country of its location, the consulting contract I had signed with the company, and other relevant documents. The PSB informed me that their investigation determined I was not involved in the Twitter incident, but that I would face penalties for bypassing the GFW and my income would be considered “illegally obtained.”
In August of this year, an official administrative penalty decision was made: it is against the law to bypass the firewall, so any profits made from “scaling the wall” are considered illegally obtained income.
On September 5th, I submitted a request for administrative review. However, the department responsible for the review ultimately agreed with the PSB’s stance. If I want to continue, I will have to file an administrative appeal with the courts.
I have repeatedly mentioned that the websites github.com and my employer’s support site can be accessed without bypassing the GFW (Great Firewall). Additionally, code can still be written on a local computer without going around the GFW. However, these explanations were not acknowledged.
The next step is to retain a lawyer to actively prepare for my administrative appeal in the courts. [Chinese]
Describing income earned from work conducted outside of China’s internet restrictions as “illegally obtained” could have a daunting effect on Chinese professionals who rely on VPNs to access the global web for their jobs. Since the government’s crackdown on VPNs in 2017 and the implementation of new regulations, many VPN apps have disappeared from Chinese app stores, domestic providers have faced fines, closures, and even imprisonment, state-controlled telecom companies have been ordered to block VPN access for customers, and Chinese Twitter users have been punished for their online activities. This has also had a significant impact on academic, scientific, and business communities, limiting their ability to access vital online resources. The enforcement and punishment for violating VPN regulations can vary, ranging from minor fines and public shaming to severe prison sentences. In February 2023, renowned blogger program-think received a seven-year jail term for “inciting subversion of state power” based on his online writings, which were only published on platforms outside of China. His wife, Bei Zhenying, was also harassed by authorities and forced to delete her Twitter account. Ethnicity can also play a role in the severity of punishments, with Han Chinese typically facing lighter consequences for VPN violations compared to Uyghurs or Tibetans. In June of this year, IBT and RFA reported that a Uyghur university student studying computer science was arrested in 2017 and is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for using a VPN to access “illegal information” online.
According to a recent post on WeChat by Tess Foreign Trade Club, they shared a warning based on the story of a programmer who had their earnings confiscated. The post serves as a reminder for those in foreign trade that their income could potentially be classified as “illegal”.
The Public Security Bureau of Shuangqiao suspects that the programmer’s actions involved bypassing the Great Firewall (GFW), which is against the law. Therefore, any earnings from such activities are considered illegal income and must be seized.
This outcome likely caused fear among business professionals involved in international commerce, especially those with extensive experience in foreign trade.
This serves as a reminder to everyone engaged in foreign trade, including businesses and institutions that offer training for individuals involved in foreign trade.
It is against the law to utilize Google for the purpose of business development.
2. Courses that teach how to use Google for business development are illegal.
Using Facebook for the purpose of business development is against the law.
Taking courses that instruct on utilizing Facebook for the growth of a business is against the law.
It is against the law to utilize WhatsApp.
It is not permissible to conduct business transactions through WhatsApp.
It is against the law to use TikTok.
Utilizing TikTok for business growth is against the law.
It is against the law to utilize a non-Chinese LinkedIn account for business development purposes.
It is against the law to educate individuals on utilizing LinkedIn for business purposes if they are not Chinese. It is also considered illegal to employ AI software that is blocked by the GFW to process and complete orders.
As these actions are prohibited, any funds obtained from them are considered illegal earnings and may be seized.
Please observe the stories of others and reflect on your own life. Recognize that we are all equal – what may affect someone today could affect you tomorrow.
Shuai Li, in an article on Medium, explored the identity of a programmer and his employer, as well as his extensive work on Github. The programmer’s situation has sparked discussions on Reddit and other tech-related websites, and has now begun to receive criticism on Chinese social media. Some media sources have started investigating the issue of Chengde relying too heavily on fines and confiscations, while online users have left scathing comments on the social media pages of various municipal departments in Chengde. A recent post on X (formerly known as Twitter), shown below, showcases screenshots of critical remarks left on the social media accounts of the Chengde Fraud Squad, Chengde Traffic Police, Chengde Legal Affairs Office, and even the popular tourist destination, Chengde Mountain Resort. On the Douyin account of the Chengde City Fraud Prevention Squad, one visitor commented, “Hey Officer, I heard someone was scammed out of 1.05 million yuan and is planning to sue – what are your thoughts on that?” The official Weibo account of the Chengde Traffic Police was flooded with snarky comments, such as, “I want to use my real name to report lifestyle blogger Li Ziqi and nationalist blogger Hu Xijin for making money on Youtube by bypassing the Great Firewall!” The Weibo account for Chengde Mountain Resort was bombarded with comments from people declaring they will never visit Chengde. One commenter joked, “I visited your city, crossed the Great Firewall, and when I returned home, I had nothing left, not even my underwear!” Another comment on the Weibo account for Chengde’s Legal Affairs Office read, “Chengde is so terrifying. If I fly over it in a plane, will all my belongings be confiscated?”