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Using the Internet from China

The Chinese flag atop a computer keyboard.
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If you visit China and want to use the internet, you will be in for a nasty surprise: many sites that you take for granted, such as Google and Facebook, cannot be accessed from the People̵

7;s Republic. Often referred to as the Great Firewall, this block can be annoying, although there are some ways to get around it.

What is the Great Firewall?

The Great Firewall blocks outgoing traffic from Chinese IP addresses. So if you’re connected from Beijing or Shanghai (and recently Hong Kong), you won’t be able to access sites like Facebook, Google, or a host of Western media (an example of the ever-changing list is here. How-To Geek states not on it, or at least not yet.).

We have a full guide on how the Great Firewall works, but in short, it blocks traffic in several ways, making it very difficult to get to. For example, if it detects that a particular keyword is being used on a site, it will cause any request to connect from a computer in China to that site to return an error. The best example is the phrase “Tiananmen Square Massacre”, an event in 1989 when the Chinese army murdered protesters in a central square in Beijing.

The Great Firewall – also known as the Golden Shield Project – was set up to regulate what the Chinese people see online. The criterion appears to be anything considered harmful to the Chinese public and, given the People’s Republic’s ideas about freedom of the press, that includes many foreign media outlets as well. There are also social media sites, which are banned mainly in the name of preventing “misinformation” about what is happening in the country.

In addition to limiting the flow of information, the Great Firewall also focuses on things like online gambling, depictions of excessive violence, adult entertainment, and LGBT content.

How to Get Past the Great Firewall

If a government-censored Internet doesn’t sound all that great to you, or if, like a Chinese citizen we spoke to, you need access to Google’s search engine and email services for your work, there are two reliable ways to get past the Great Firewall. You can use Tor or a virtual private network (VPN). Since Tor requires some expertise to set up, we’ll focus on VPNs.

VPNs are useful privacy tools that redirect your internet traffic to a server owned by the VPN. Instead of your connection going directly from your laptop or smartphone to the site you want to visit, connect first to the server and then to the site in question. This means that only the VPN you are connecting to knows and the website only sees the IP address of the VPN server. Theoretically, at least, whether a VPN really keeps your activity private is a topic that’s up for debate.

RELATED: What is a VPN and Why Do I Need One?

For example, if you’re in China and want to connect to Twitter, the Great Firewall can stop you by blocking Twitter’s IP address, poisoning its DNS server (a method that causes websites to take you to the wrong IP address), or even blocking the information packets sent to you from the site. It’s an effective system and works like a charm on any Chinese IP address (or those from Hong Kong and Macau).

However, you can get around these blocks by using a VPN server outside of the People’s Republic, provided it is not blocked by the censor. So instead of using a Chinese IP address, you can divert your traffic to a nearby country without censorship (Taiwan and Japan are the top favorites), and enjoy their regular, free internet just like at home.

How China Blocks VPNs

But unfortunately, there is one problem for anyone visiting China who uses a VPN to bypass the Great Firewall: not all VPNs work. All of our contacts have ever had problems tunneling under the Great Firewall. In most cases, you will just see the VPN connection fail or get a site error despite being connected through a VPN. That said, none of our contacts got into trouble using a VPN in China, and the only punishment we could find online for it is in the form of a $ 145 fine, although Tom’s Guide claims that no foreigner has ever received one. Still, it is always best to avoid the attention of the authorities in a totalitarian state.

Exactly how China can detect VPNs isn’t clear (the censor doesn’t really advertise its methods.), But most likely it does so in the same way that it blocks other sites, through what’s called ‘deep packet inspection’. Packets, the bits and bytes that make up a block of text or an image, contain the information that is sent over a connection. China has developed technology that can intercept a packet and look inside to see if the information is on the naughty list.

What experts think has happened is that China can now also inspect a package to see if there is any evidence that it came from a VPN. When you connect to a server outside of China, the system checks for signs that you are connecting to a VPN. If so, the connection will be blocked. The trick to bypassing the VPN detection system is to use a VPN that masks its connections in such a way that they look like any other.

However, as many of our sources have confirmed, there is no secure way to check which VPNs are working and which are not. While many VPNs advertise that they work in China, the only way to be sure is to go to China and find out. Or, even better, you can ask anyone you know out there which services work best for them.

That said, there are a few VPNs that came out as reliable a few times when we spoke to our contacts, namely ExpressVPN, VyprVPN, and Windscribe, although in all cases there were sometimes problems in the form of blocked servers or severe slowdowns. As far as we can tell, there is no VPN that always works perfectly in China.

Download before you go

Usually the sites of these VPN services are blocked from China, which means that you cannot download the program there. If so, you should probably sign up for your service of choice (maybe even two) before going to the People’s Republic, just in case.

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