The Great Firewall of China — And How to Avoid It

The internet in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is fairly heavily regulated in regards to content and networks. Almost everyone in the West is aware of this and it is often cited as a sort of damning evidence against the Chinese state in efforts to vilify the government as some sort of oppressive, totalitarian regime. Americans, especially, have a pretty warped concept of what life and government in the PRC is actually like; And, Americans, especially, enjoy vilifying foreign states that have been historical competitors or hold associations to the boogeyman that is Marxist ideology. Maybe that mentality is just a hold-over from the Cold War or maybe it’s actively fostered to maintain a sense of unease and distrust towards a major geopolitical opponent (who we might wish to be on unfriendly terms with in the future). Who knows? —None of that is what this blog post is intended to cover.

What is the “Great Firewall of China”?

The Great Firewall of China (GFW) is a combination of multiple technologies developed by the PRC to regulate and control their domestic internet, fundamentally turning it into a sort of mass-scale pseudo-intranet. While the West likes to argue that the role of the GFW is only for the purposes of political censorship and ideological control over information, its major purposes are more benign than that (Not that I like a controlled internet! Don’t take this as some sort of white-knighting endeavor!).
Primarily, the GFW was installed to control and foster the technological infrastructure of the People’s Republic of China. It serves to ensure that technology companies or services adhere to regulation, and it also serves to filter content from foreign entities entering into the Chinese technology sphere. In this way, the GFW acts as an economic and ideological filter against foreign technology companies who had been keen to curb the market on the burgeoning Chinese internet in the 1990’s.

As of 2017, we’ve seen western technology hubs such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google (and subsidiaries such as YouTube and others) actively censor content along ideological and political lines. We’ve seen these same companies also promote and disseminate ideological and political content more favorable to their agendas and end-goals. We’ve seen mainstream news and media networks actively push agendas — and, in some cases, outright fabricate information to suit manufactured narratives. The return of “yellow journalism” in the West is so rampant that it has fostered a massive growth in independent journalism, while trust in major corporate media is at an all-time low.
It’s no secret that the corporations and services many of us in the West are dependent upon are not benign, impartial, nonpartisan repositories of information or truth. The Chinese government already knew this to be the case as far back as the 1980’s. And, while nobody is going to argue that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a bastion of truthful, unbiased, and impartial information, it makes perfectly logical sense that the CPC would desire to control their own information instead of allow it to be beholden to the whims and agendas of corrupt western entities. As former CPC Chairman and renown reformist Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980’s, “打开窗户,新鲜空气和苍蝇就会一起进来” (“If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”). Thus, the GFW fundamentally acts a mesh window screen: intended to allow in fresh air, while simultaneously keeping out flies.

In the 1990’s, China did not have her own search engines, online marketplaces, online news portals, or any social networks whatsoever. A major fear was that, in a new and fertile market, western technology giants would simply move in and immediately hold a monopoly over the market with their own products and services — not only undercutting any chances for domestic technological development and growth to compete, but also handing these western technology giants the ideological keys to the dissemination of news and information. So, in acting as a metaphorical mesh screen against flies coming through an open window, the GFW held western companies and services at bay while the Chinese were able to develop their own domestic analogs free of competition from already mature, well-developed foreign competitors. Some might argue that such tactics are “unfair”, while forgetting that China isn’t their country, and that the Chinese internet infrastructure isn’t their creation or a product of their labor. It’s China’s, and China is free to do as they please to foster and develop their own domestic entities within their own sphere of control.

Now, in 2017, China’s internet is fairly well fleshed-out. While the West has Twitter and Facebook, the Chinese have Weibo and RenRen. While the West has Amazon and Google, the Chinese have TaoBao (a subsidiary of the Alibaba conglomerate) and Baidu. The Chinese internet is more open now, and some Western competitors have been allowed to move into the Chinese internet market. However, these domestic Chinese analogs hold majority user-share against their new, foreign competition. The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba brought in over 15 billion dollars of revenue in 2015 alone and has catapulted the net-worth of its founder, Jack Ma, to over 40 billion dollars as of 2017.

Altogether, the Great Firewall of China can be said to be an objectively successful product of China’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, whether you agree with it or not.

All of this is great, but I want to access Facebook and Google!

Facebook and Google are both two popular western internet services that are blocked or restricted within mainland China behind the GFW.
Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009 (though, as of 2017, accessible, but exceedingly slow) when Facebook refused to stop Xinjiang separatists from using it as a communication and planning tool (despite Facebook having no problem stamping out American conservative networks on it’s own volition).
Google has been blocked in China since 2010 after Google stopped complying with PRC internet regulations concerning content accessibility (despite Google actively de-ranking Russian news networks on its own volition).

Both Facebook and Google services can be accessed in the country, however, through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a private internet network existing within the broader public network, and allows users of a VPN to access data through private channels as though being directly connected to a private network. Think of it like a straw inside of a tube from which private content is free to flow without interference from its surroundings. It is fundamentally a private intranet — but, if connected to the global internet, allows users of the intranet to access the global internet through the private intranet. Others describe VPNs like a network of tunnels from which content is free to be trafficked without interference.

Virtual Private Networks are widely used by expats living within mainland China and by visitors entering the country who still desire access to their social networks and internet tools. Few Chinese make real use of VPNs, and this is primarily due to most Chinese having no real need or desire to use predominantly English-language networks and services which don’t provide any real useful benefit for a Chinese-speaker living within China. How many Americans do you know trying to open social media accounts on RenRen? How many Brits are you aware of trying to do their holiday shopping over TaoBao?

Without getting into too much technological detail, the good news is that VPNs are widely accessible and affordable. Some are even free, although your milage may vary. They are also extremely easy to install and get operational — about as easy as installing and opening any executable computer program or mobile phone application. They are so simple, in fact, that I actively use a VPN for daily use in the United States. Why not?

Two VPN services I can recommend are Private Internet Access and ExpressVPN:

Private Internet Access is the VPN service that I currently use, and intend to use on my next trip into the Middle Kingdom. It exists as a lightweight, bloat-free, simple application that runs in the background of my computer and allows for manual and automatic connectivity. The service is fast and reliable. It’s a paid subscription service, but the monthly fee is under $10.
ExpressVPN is the service that I used during my long-term stay in China when I was living and working in Fushun. It was recommended to me by my coworkers who also made use of it, and it did a fairly good job altogether. I did have some instances of connectivity problems, and the software itself is more robust (or bloated, depending on how you look at it) than Private Internet Access — but, when it worked, it absolutely worked, and I can attest first-hand to it being an absolutely viable option for use all across China. ExpressVPN is also a paid subscription, but the fee is approximately in the same ballpark: almost irrelevantly affordable.

EDIT: While Private Internet Access worked famously in the United States, and was a very “lightweight” and functional program, since returning to China I have not been able to get it to work. It will connect on the computer without too much trouble, but the speeds are abysmal and some websites won’t load at all. On my iPhone and iPad it is totally non-functional, and, while PIA offers some guides on how to manually setup a VPN functionality that should mitigate some of these issues, it’s just a headache I don’t feel like dealing with. I’ve since switched back to ExpressVPN while here in China and it’s working just as fine as it did the last time I was here. Nothing against PIA, but I’ll probably be ending my subscription and just sticking with ExpressVPN for the future.