Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Hainan detained a student who shared his VPN account with others wanting to break through the Great Firewall of internet censorship, prompting him to flee the country and start a pro-democracy YouTube channel, RFA has learned.
Chen Yuzhen, a 24-year-old former student at the Hainan Tropical Ocean University, acquired an overseas VPN account while studying on the democratic island of Taiwan.
He shared his login information with friends after continuing to use the VPN to evade CCP censorship after returning to Hainan, and was detained in June 2020 for “providing programs and tools for hacking computer networks illegally,” and “illegal controlling computer networks.”
Chen, who is now studying at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, said his troubles started after he returned to Hainan from a year in Taiwan as an exchange student.
“I am very grateful that I got the chance to live and study in Taiwan,” Chen told RFA in a recent interview. “It wasn’t what I had imagined, and it inspired me and make me do a lot of thinking.”
During his youth in the eastern province of Anhui, Chen was a self-described “little pink,” a term for a vocal online supporter of CCP policies.
But once he arrived in Taiwan, which has enjoyed fully democratic elections since the late 1990s, all of that changed, he told RFA.
Before leaving Taiwan, unwilling to lose the freedom to read the rest of the internet unhindered, Chen paid for a VPN service to use once he went back to China.
“I got a paid VPN service because many of the free services were blocked [by the government],” he said. “I then gave my login to my friends and classmates to use.”
“In the beginning, I just shared it with my friends, and then with many more internet users as time went by,” Chen said. “I found it useful, and I had paid for it, so I recommended it to them.”
In May 2020, authorities in Shaanxi’s Ankang city said they had fined a local man for scaling the Great Firewall, a complex systems of blocks, filters, and human censorship that limits what Chinese users can see online.
China outlawed the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) — the most common form of circumvention tool — in 2018, and typically charges those caught using them with “accessing the international internet through illegal channels,” although government-approved bodies and organizations are able to apply for exemption from the ban.
Harassment by police
In the early hours of June 10, 2020, more than 10 police officers broke into Chen’s apartment, confiscating his mobile phone, and interrogating him about whether he had “any foreign friends” or joined any organization.
They held him for questioning in the Haikou city police station for two days, before releasing him “on bail pending trial,” after the detention center refused to take him because he had an elevated temperature at the time of registration. Chen later tested negative for COVID-19.
“They asked a lot of the same questions in many different ways, then gave me a document [with the charges], saying I was on bail pending trial,” Chen said.
“It basically meant that the detention center didn’t want to take responsibility [for having a potentially infected inmate],” he said.
Chen posted bail of 10,000 yuan, and was warned that he would have to let police know if he left the city.
“Then they would keep calling me to go and make another statement; they kept doing that,” Chen said.
But Chen started to worry about his future in China as someone under constant harassment by the police.
He applied to study in South Korea and left China on Dec. 31, 2020, where he runs a YouTube channel promoting his ideas about freedom and democracy in Chinese to anyone who can watch.
Reported by Sun Cheng for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.