China's campaign to stamp out technology that allows web surfers to evade its internet filters is disrupting work and study for entrepreneurs, scientists, and students, according to consumer research firm GlobalWebIndex.
The firm's survey of Chinese internet users found that 14 percent use a virtual private network (VPN) daily. For China's online population of 731 million, this means 100 million regular users.
Chinese astronomers and physicists surveyed said they use services such as Google Scholar and Dropbox, accessible only via VPN, to share research and stay in touch with foreign colleagues.
Similarly, merchants said they use Facebook and other blocked social media to find customers, while students use YouTube and other blocked sites for subjects such as history and film editing.
According to Bloomberg, the Chinese government has also shut live-streaming services and websites, tightened regulations governing internet access, and issued repeated warnings about the need to clean up content through various agencies.
Popular social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked in the country, with a pilot free-trade zone active in Shanghai in the past that allowed some access to such content, although still heavily restricted. Services including Microsoft Outlook and Gmail have also been banned under the laws.
China has long operated the world's most sophisticated online censorship mechanism, known as the Great Firewall, and the use of VPNs by residents provides a loophole which can be used to circumvent the country's surveillance and blocking lists.
At the beginning of last year, China upgraded its Great Firewall and began cracking down on the use of VPNs, aimed at fostering the "healthy development" of the internet in China, according to the local government.
After Beijing began clamping down on the use of VPNs this January, dozens of activists and lawyers have been detained.
In July this year, Apple pulled VPN apps from the App Store in China to comply with the government. The same month, the Chinese government ordered state-owned internet service providers, including China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom, to completely block access to VPNs by February 2018.
It followed a 14-month campaign the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology launched in January, aimed at cracking down on "unauthorised" web platforms and services the government does not approve of.
In what the Chinese government labelled a "clean up" that will "standardise the market order" and "promote healthy and orderly development", the program forces ISPs, VPN providers, datacentres, and content delivery networks to gain a licence and approval from Chinese officials to operate.
The campaign described VPNs as "illegal cross-border business issues" that need to be controlled, and deems it illegal for businesses to operate outside of their specific licence limitations.
China's online watchdog last month launched an investigation into reports of multiple violations at some of the country's largest online services.
According to a report from Bloomberg, the Cyberspace Administration of China instructed its Beijing and Guangdong branches to look into reports that news services run by Tencent, Baidu, and Weibo are carrying user-generated content laden with "violence, porn, rumours" disruptive to social order.
The VPN crackdown is part of a campaign to tighten political control that activists say is the most severe since the 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
The crackdown comes as the ruling Communist Party tightens political control ahead of a congress at which President Xi Jinping is due to be appointed to a second five-year term as leader. Control over information is especially sensitive ahead of the twice-a-decade ruling party congress.