China’s online population is about 751 million, and its online activity is highly restricted. Some of the numerous sites to which access is restricted include Facebook, Google, the New York Times, and YouTube. The Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989 received minimal coverage. For a while, even Winnie the Pooh was banned.
To maintain control of such a massive universe of online content, China uses the world’s largest censorship system, fittingly referred to as the Great Firewall of China. It’s a collaboration between state monitors and China’s telecommunication companies, which are forced to implement rules set by the Chinese government.
The effects of the system are felt far beyond China, which appears to have paved the way for other oppressive governments to follow suit.
Granted, one-party China has been practicing strict censorship for a long time. However, online restrictions have grown tighter under the rule of President Xi Jinping, especially in periods before and after politically charged events such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo’s death in July 2017. When the October Communist Party Congress was approaching the same year, the Chinese authorities embarked on blocking messaging app WhatsApp and further clamped down on virtual private networks (VPNs), which are a common method used to get around the Great Firewall.
President Xi’s self-confessed mission was to protect China’s online space from undue influence from other countries, thereby protecting the republic’s sovereignty. Recent moves aimed at reining in freedoms on the Internet include rules that make it impossible for social media users to post content anonymously. Consequently, owners of apps are now responsible for content posted by users of the apps and online portals are required to stop sharing news reports.
In November 2017, Microsoft’s phone and video service, Skype, fell victim to the clamp down and the app was removed from Apple’s App Store and other popular platforms. The temporary ban on Winnie the Pooh was implemented following a bloggers’ depiction of President’s Xi as a cartoon character.
Meanwhile, foreign corporations with interests in operating on mainland China are now compelled to implement policies which elsewhere would be considered invasive. Apple, which vehemently fought demands by the US government to set up backdoors into the company’s password-protected products, has surreptitiously removed apps and established data centers in China in adherence to requirements by the Xi’s government. The result of all this is China having the least online freedom in the world, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog group.
Online activity in China hasn’t always been restricted. In 1994, when the Internet formally arrived in China, it was fairly free and considered an extension of the government’s Open Door policy for using knowledge from the West for the purpose of improving the Chinese economy. As the Internet became increasingly popular, the state took heed of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s warning that “When you open a window, the flies come in.”
After 2000, the government set the stage for the Great Firewall by introducing a database-driven surveillance system called Golden Shield Project which had the ability to retrieve the record of every citizen and connect it to security organizations in the country. Presently, the government has more than 50,000 people on payroll who are specifically tasked with enforcing censorship, blocking websites that the state disapproves of, and compelling search engines to filter content deemed harmful.
Additionally, the government also has an army of social media influencers who post hundreds of millions of pro-state content every year. Most importantly, the government has made media companies responsible for all content they broadcast, including user-generated content, a policy that leads to self-censorship in a nation where all media is licensed by the government.
Also, on one hand, China’s tech behemoths, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Ltd continue to thrive and are therefore among the country’s top taxpayers. On the other hand, the non-profit group Greatfire.org, which is against censorship, has mirrored websites as well as a browser that circumvents restrictions.
The Philosophy Behind the Great Firewall of China
For most counties, implementing a minimal form of cyber control, such as banning hate-promoting websites, would suffice. But China argues that the Great Firewall is primarily aimed at protecting national security and maintaining social order within its 1.4 billion population, half of which is online.
Those supporting the restrictions cite the troublesome trend of Google, Facebook and similar websites exerting arbitrary control over the flow of the news as a good reason that necessitates the adoption of an active role by the Chinese government.
On the contrary, critics point out that the Great Firewall of China is a reflection of the government’s paranoia over the power of the Internet to facilitate the rise of opposition to the one-party rule in the country. In addition to curtailing freedom of speech, the Beijing’s approach of heavy restriction hampers economic growth, the critics say, by killing innovation, discouraging idea exchange, and blocking access to business services offered by Google Cloud and other Internet companies. Furthermore, academics are unable to use Google Scholar, which professors and students all over the world use to share work.
On the broader scale, many fear that if countries such as Russia follow suit and implement similar oppressive restrictions on their citizens and online international companies, the idea that fueled the growth of the Internet—uninhibited exchange of information across borders—will be severely compromised.
The Best Solution
As alluded to earlier, many Internet users in China rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the restrictions imposed by the Great Firewall. The Chinese government, however, banned VPNs in 2017. To date, the ban is still in effect. Earlier, the authorities had warned citizens that, by April 2018, they will have blocked all VPN services.
Fortunately, there are still a handful of VPNs that let you circumvent the Great Firewall. These include some of the VPN industry leaders which have operated on the market for many years and have thus made great advances in avoiding the government’s block on VPN services. All these providers have a server network that covers numerous countries, and they all provide unlimited bandwidth.
It’s no longer easy to identify a VPN that still functions well in China. Thankfully, our experts have tested many VPN providers and have created a short list of VPNs you can use to successfully avoid online restrictions in China.
The VPNs to Use
ExpressVPN tops the list as the most widely used VPN for getting around the Great Firewall. Among the reasons Chinese users are attracted to this VPN is its user-friendly interface on the website, as well as its desktop and mobile apps. It is also the ideal choice for non-technical users and beginners because it is easy to set up. ExpressVPN has a vast network of servers across the globe and it offers users a 30-day money-back guarantee.
For many years, NordVPN has maintained its position as one of the leading VPN services in China. To get around the increasingly tight restrictions set by the Chinese government, this provider uses a technology known as a double VPN encryption to tunnel your traffic through two VPNs for an added layer of online security. With a single account, you can run up to 6 simultaneous active connections using NordVPN. The services come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Compared to other leading providers of VPN services, VyprVPN offers one of the most transparent services. The provider’s proprietary technology—the Chameleon protocol—enables its users to enjoy enhanced security, which is unmatched by nearly every other service provider. It employs the use of 256-bit AES encryption standards and scrambles metadata to prevent throttling by Internet service providers.
VyprVPN has an intuitive user interface and works across all major platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. Its downside is that, unlike ExpressVPN and NordVPN above, it only offers a 3-day free trial rather than 30-day refund policy.
PureVPN is another VPN service widely used globally and also popular among Chinese users. The provider’s user base in China is rapidly increasing, especially after it upgraded its user interface to make it more intuitive and efficient. Its speeds are impressive, making it a solid choice for streaming content.
In addition to that, PureVPN has a tool for tweaking server settings to match your preferences and needs. This allows you to tailor the VPN to certain functions, such as accessing downloaded videos and streaming content from specific regions.
This is a simple yet reliable VPN service that works well within Chinese borders. It has dedicated clients for Mac, Android, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Windows, and iOS. In addition to VPN services, the provider also offers SmartDNS services, which is useful for unblocking streaming content from Hulu and Netflix in HD.
The VPNs to Avoid
Note that the Chinese government frequently makes changes to the rules regarding blocking the use of VPNs in the country, so you should choose a VPN provider that can quickly adapt to these abrupt changes. This means that small VPN providers or free VPN services will be of little use because they don’t have enough resources to keep up with the technology used by the government to block VPNs.
Ask about the customer support of the VPN provider and whether they require your phone number to authenticate your identity. This authentication method is perilous because the authorities can use it to discover your relationship with the VPN provider. We insist on careful research of all the prospective VPN providers you are considering.