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The Great Firewall - Bypass it by using a VPN in China

Feb 13, 2017

Putting it simply, the government of the people’s republic of China (PRC) is not well renowned for its open and transparent nature. Between human rights violations and environmental concerns, there is more than enough controversy to go around. Unfortunately, with a population of over 1.3 billion people, the PRC possesses the largest human market in the world. Complete with fourteen cities with over five million people each, the country has become an immensely appealing business opportunity for both foreign governments and corporations. 

The possibilities are not limited to just a single industry. For instance, it is the height of affluent culture to import prestigious car brands such as Maserati, Porsche and BMW, just for the sake of showing off a status symbol. The same goes for Apple products, where revenues — just from China — for the Cupertino-based tech giant totaled $46.1 billion in the first three quarters of 2015. The money reaches gargantuan proportions when you count international trade. In 2015, the United States and China’s goods and services trade totaled a two-way estimate of $659.4 billion.  

With so much money changing hands on the international stage, it is understandable that the darker controversies surrounding China get swept under the proverbial rug. With Kentucky Fried Chicken making 42% of its annual profit from its Chinese markets, it becomes easy to see why people would not want to bite the hand that feeds them. 

For the foreign employees of said companies, as well as expatriates, who have made China their home, the day-to-day reality is a bit harder to ignore. No, it is not about the taboo ‘Three Ts’, which concern Tibet, Taiwan and the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, but rather about the ‘Great Firewall’. 

Just one segment of the greater 'Golden Shield Project' (金盾项目), which aims to block or otherwise obfuscate incoming information from other countries, the Great Firewall is the component that deals with the censorship of websites. Google, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — all apart of the world’s 15 most trafficked sites — are rendered inaccessible while within China’s digital borders. In these websites’ stead, the government has sponsored development of sites tailored to replace these websites with versions acceptable to the Chinese mindset. Instead of Ebay, Taobao, instead of Google, Baidu, and instead of Facebook/Twitter, Sina Weibo is offered as a hybrid alternative. 


Image: A mural in the green lake area, Kunming, Yunnan Province (Jordan Steinberg)

For the Chinese market, these alternatives are arguably better than the real thing. WeChat, the WhatsApp alternative, includes features of Apple Pay, Instagram, Venmo and Skype. What’s more, it is entirely adapted for Mandarin Chinese, as well as for Chinese design philosophy. What’s problematic, however, is the Great Firewall’s treatment of search engines. Since Google famously ended its censorship agreement with the Chinese government, the remaining search engine options have been paltry, so say the least. The only remaining western search options are Yahoo and Bing, both of which have acquiesced to severely censored result protocols.

For those expatriates, tourists and employees hailing from outside of China’s sphere, the lack of Gmail, Facebook, and Netflix, in addition to the west’s other internet staples, is not a tenable one. In that regard, there is only one solution: Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs. These programs enable usage of all blocked websites. While there are a litany of free VPN services available, their service can be unstable. In the case of paid VPNs, however, users can choose from dozens of servers around the world on which to route their traffic. Although technically illegal, the relationship between the enforcers and the VPN servers have adopted a ‘cat-and-mouse’-style relationship, where servers are shut down as soon as the VPN has repaired or established others.   

If a visit or relocation to China is on the cards, then it is important to research and purchase your VPN prior to arrival. If you wait until it is too late, your options will be much more limited, as there are only a small numbers of VPN companies that have established alternate China URLs. Going forward, however, those URLs may become harder to access, as China’s ministry of Industry and Information technology has recently embarked on a program to make anti-VPN legislation more enforceable, by way of newly requiring VPN service providers to receive approval from the government, prior to the opening of services in the nation. 

Luckily, a large majority of nations do not engage in such restrictive censorship practices. While avoiding censorship is important, it is not everything that a VPN can do. In most cases, VPN services are used to additionally gain entry to websites blocked by location, to access away-networks while traveling, or to browse the internet anonymously. Regardless of reason for purchase, our partners at Total VPN would be an excellent place to start.