Kiril V. Kirilov
20 November 2018
China is famous for two walls. The first, the Great Wall of China, was started some 2,300 years ago. It was never completed and never served its main purpose – preventing invaders from entering China’s lands. The Great Firewall of China (GFW), also called The Golden Shield Project in China, is a more recent project. It started in 1997 and is considered the most ambitious and extensive effort ever to control all aspects of cyberspace and online communications.
If you’re in China, the Great Firewall will filter the data transferred between local servers and servers abroad, while the shield prevents some IP servers from responding to your data and connection requests. Thus, some services and/or websites will be unavailable without a proxy or a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
You will be surprised how many websites and online services are filtered or banned altogether in China’s mainland. These include all of Google’s suite of services:
Selected business resources you can’t access in China include BBC, Bloomberg, Bigcommerce, Dropbox, The Economist, Le Monde, Reuters, Slack, Slideshare, The New York Times, TIME, Wall Street Journal, and others.
Take a look at how the Great Firewall works in the below infographic. We advise you that using a VPN in China may be considered illegal:
It should be noted that some VPN sites such as Strong VPN, PureVPN, and VPN Coupons are blocked in China. Like with Netflix, VPN providers play a game of cat-and-mouse trying to adjust their tech stack to overcome the GFW. This discussion of the grey areas that VPNs straddle in China gives an example of what could happen to an individual using a VPN there.
As you can see, the search engine Baidu is the default website in China, whereas Google is the most popular choice in the European and American markets.
All the blocked services and websites mentioned – plus many more such as Disqus, DuckDuckGo, Periscope, SoundCloud, Ustream.tv, Vimeo, WhatsApp, and many others – will be restricted, whether you’re a business person visiting for a few days, a backpacker staying for a few weeks or a foreign student spending a year in a local university.
To get an idea of how sophisticated the GFW is, see this extensive list of techniques that GFW employs including:
China’s GFW is a multi-layer system, and every local user passes through four security levels when using the internet. Some facts to bear in mind when going online in China:
China uses search engine services, social networks, and e-commerce sites that are specific only to China.
There are many reasons why you may want to stay away from a certain VPN. The VPN may not provide encryption, or there may be reports of service leaks of personal and business data. Free and cheap VPN services that may trade your browsing data and/or personal details to third parties. Some of them even openly disclose such practices claiming that this is a method to support a free or cheap VPN service. Some of them say that the data they provide to third parties is wiped so that it doesn’t contain personally identifiable information. Opt for a VPN service like this at your own risk.
The Restore Privacy website maintains a long list of VPNs to avoid if you value your privacy and security. Some of their findings are below:
There are many more examples VPN services providing misleading info about their features and policies on data collection and data sharing. There are also numerous VPNs that do not have a virtual private network behind their service at all.
You should be on alert for any VPN application or online VPN that offers service in exchange for nothing. As they say, there is no free lunch. The only commodity that a VPN or a VPN-like service can monetize is your personal/business data and your browsing habits.
Foreign companies doing business in China and/or with offices there should get approval to develop or use a VPN service for business purposes. In theory, VPNs for corporate/business purposes are not banned in China – in fact, those that are approved by the government are totally legal. There can be issues, however, if a business is illegally using a VPN.
China is openly contesting the service provided by virtual private networks to individuals, while certain VPN providers are totally banned across China. You should bear that in mind when selecting a VPN for a trip to China and when setting up a VPN service. A VPN service you can access easily in your home country may be on the list of those are prevented from operating in China.
Local authorities had plans to block all VPN services starting from February 2018, but the plan was since abandoned or relaxed. It’s important to know that the government is often changing its policies regarding the usage of VPNs in China, so always be sure you’re up to speed on the latest developments there before you use a VPN.
One good piece of news is that no VPN is necessary to access content in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.
As we said, you may experience issues using a VPN without any evident particular reason. The local authorities are able to suspend access to certain online services without warning and even prevent selected mobile devices from having internet access and/or operating altogether. Actually, any developed country can do the same, should the authorities decide so. A number of countries other than China also shut down certain websites and social networks on a regular basis.
Therefore, you may decide to use an alternative to VPN when browsing from China. A good post on Quora explains that VPNs are just private networks that exist between two or more machines that in turn exist virtually rather than physically. In this sense, the “private” in VPN simply means it is not public; others cannot just join or leave. So, any such connection is an alternative for using a VPN for China, provided you have the technical means and IT knowledge to set it up – and provided it’s legal according to the most current regional laws .
Our list of recommended VPNs all excel in factors such as speed, price, encryption and features offered. All of these VPNs are easy to install and set up, their pricing is in the range of $6 to $8 a month with an annual plan, and all of them offer data encryption.