BEFORE he was jailed, few people had heard of Wu Xiangyang. But when news of his conviction appeared in a state newspaper in late December, internet users across China took note. A small trader from the southern province of Guangxi, Mr Wu’s crime was to sell cheap and commonly used software that enables people to circumvent China’s draconian internet controls. His five-and-a-half-year prison sentence is the toughest-known penalty imposed for such “illegal business”.
Motivated Chinese have long found it fairly easy to acquire such software, which provides access to what is known as a virtual private network (VPN). Through this kind of connection, a user in China can reach the thousands of websites that are blacklisted by the government—including almost all Google services, many news sites and most foreign social networks. Many people use VPNs several times each day to jump the country’s “great firewall”, as its system of online censorship is often called in English (Chinese netizens have adopted the acronym GFW). Foreigners in China depend on VPNs to reach sites they routinely need: everything from Gmail and Dropbox to Facebook and Instagram.