You Must Read This First Before Surfing the Net in China

You Must Read This First Before Surfing the Net in China
article by Sarah T. author
China is known for its strict censorship. While there are numerous workarounds, recent developments in the country pose a significant threat to those attempting to surf the net freely. It's essential to be well informed before you try to bypass the blocks.

Throughout history, China has thrived with its borders closed to the outside world. As one of the most ancient civilizations, this insular stance is often cited as a reason for the country’s success. However, this systemic xenophobia has also had an isolating effect. During colonialism, the walled kingdom rejected westernization and was hesitant to embrace new ideas – such as railways and automation. This inherent ‘otherness’ has long been perpetrated by the use of censorship. Filtering media, ideas, and knowledge allow authorities to cement China’s strong national identity.

Fast-forward to the modern era and the eastern superpower has retained much of its suspicion towards the outside world. As the internet has afforded us an instant global connection, Chinese authorities have updated their governing tactics for the online age.

Today, surfing the net in China comes with a whole host of obstacles.

Censorship is the Name of the Game in China

Although officially a democracy, China has only one ruling party – the Communist Party of China (CPC). Somewhat surprisingly, many Chinese natives have no problem with this set-up and actively contribute to the culture of national pride. However, it may be the case that the vast censorship regime – known as the Great Firewall of China – could be the reason behind this. To put it simply: you can’t think the grass is greener if you don’t know it exists!

In practice, the Great Firewall is a plethora of blacklists and filters. Not only do they block countless websites, but certain search terms are also banned. For example, any keywords surrounding the Tiananmen Protests of 1989 will not produce results of the event. Today, many young people in China don’t even know the massacre occurred.

Alongside veiling controversial events in the countries history, many sources of global information fall under the ban. The following are all blocked in China.

  • Google. Google and all its subsequent tools – such a Gmail, Docs & Google+ – are not accessible as they provide information that questions the regime.
  • Facebook & Twitter. Many social network sites have been banned, to minimalize contact with people from democratic, westernized cultures.
  • Slack. Many work apps like Slack are also inaccessible, presumably to reduce the use of international staff and contractors.
  • New York Times. Unsurprisingly, most major western news sites cannot be viewed, as they often explicitly criticize the Chinese government.
  • PornHub. Many porn sites are blocked; authorities have cited this sort of ‘immoral’ content as the reason the firewall exists at all.
  • org. It’s not just news sources that are seen as threats; many historical archives are also banned as they pose a risk to the carefully crafted Chinese national identity.

China’s blacklist is not set in stone. Often, sites that were once deemed acceptable are spontaneously blocked for no apparent reason. For example, WhatsApp finally lost its battles with the censors in Sept 2017, after years of temporary and partial bans. Already, Chinese residents are denied usage of the photo and video-sharing feature. Now, even using the app for text messages is not allowed.

Why Is China Blocking Access to Sites?

As a country that is a legitimate player in the world’s economy, the clear effort to shun globalization may be difficult to understand. During the 1980s, China reformed into a self-titled ‘socialist market economy.’ Despite opening their doors for foreign investment, they were vocal about maintaining their focus on national allegiance.

When internet access arrived in 1994, it allowed the Chinese market to explode. However, with western money came western ideas – a wholly Capitalist outlook that threatened their traditionally communist regime.

In 1997, the first legislation doctoring the use of the web was released. It stated that the internet could not be used to “harm national security” or “injure the interests of state or society.” Only a year later, the Democracy Party of China (DPC) – who are largely attributed as the driving force behind the 1989 protests – was disbanded through a series of arrests and convictions.

While never explicitly stated, it’s clear that the CPC was facing an unexpected backlash from the country’s reform. They wanted the economic benefits of globalization but feared the liberal ideas that came alongside.

In 2003, the dubious Golden Shield project began operations. Its primary purpose was to create national databases, but many sources believe a sub-department of the scheme is responsible for the Great Firewall.

Today, China has no qualms about advocating their brand of social control. During the 2017 World Internet Conference, Chinese officials laid out their proposal for Internet Sovereignty – a concept that further nationalized authority over the web.

Is There a Way Around these Blocks?

For many residents, expats and travelers, life without global internet can be frustrating. Fortunately, it is possible to bypass the blocks. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have long been the answer to web control, and are ideal for countries with strict online censorship.

The name – VPN – is used to describe a system that allows users to falsify their location and browse anonymously. VPN providers own networks of shared servers all across the globe. Once you’ve downloaded a VPN client, the software allows you to pick a new location. It then sends your traffic via a secondary server in your chosen region, assigning you a new IP address in the process. When you subsequently connect to the web, it thinks you are situated in the country of the VPN server.

Furthermore, the initial data tunnel is encrypted using military grade AES-encryption. Because of this, your personal details are safe from any surveillance. Setting up a VPN is incredibly simple:

  • Chose a highly-rated VPN provider.
  • Visit their website and make an account.
  • Opt for a price plan.
  • Download & install client using on-screen instructions
  • Choose a secondary location
  • Click connect!

While there is some variation in configuration options, it’s easy to find reviews and tutorials to ensure top-quality protection. Benefits of using a VPN are numerous, but the main advantages include:

  • Access to sites blocked by the Great Firewall.
  • More content on streaming services, such as Netflix & Hulu.
  • Unobstructed use of social media in China.
  • Protection from government surveillance.
  • Safety on public WiFi networks.

While VPNs are still the number one way to bypass censorship, recent developments mean we need to add a cautionary caveat.

Beware, China Blocks VPNs!

As part of the 2017 World Internet Conference announcements, representatives detailed a plan to ban VPN software in the country. It outlined the agenda, which saw national telecommunication companies taking on the responsibility for blocking proxy services from the network. Although there is no clear indication of how exactly this will be implicated, a few common tactics for obstructing VPNs exist:

  • Server Ban. Filtering out all traffic from known VPN servers.
  • Website Censors. Blocking VPN sites prevents residents downloading the client altogether.
  • Port Blocking. VPN protocols use the same ports; blocking these channels can negate the software’s bypassing abilities.
  • Deep Packet Inspections. Complex data inspections can identify VPN traffic using the packet headers – even though the content is still encrypted.

In early January, mixed reports surface about the immediacy of the ban. While some outlets claimed it was imminent, telecom employees denied this speculation profusely.

It’s always best to be cautious in situations like this, so if you’re looking to bypass the Great Firewall using a VPN, the following tactics can workaround the potential ban.

  • Download & install your VPN when outside of the country.
  • Chose a service where you can customize protocols and ports, to disguise your data as an alternative form of encryption.
  • Research providers to find those still successfully granting access.
  • Contact the VPN customer support for server and configuration suggestions.