VPN’s in China
Living and working in China for the past five years. I am often asked by other foreigners about VPN’s in China.
A VPN is a Virtual Private Network and is a way of connecting your computer (or smartphone) in order to circumvent the restriction on access to the World Wide Web.
VPN’s in China are an important part of life if you are someone who works online globally. A lot has changed during my time here including the use of VPN‘s. Initially there where a lot of free VPNs, but slowly these have become ineffective and now even the paid ones are slowly becoming less and less useful.
I haven’t used all of them but I have certainly tried many and I will tell you about the ones that still work for me. But first a little background on VPN’s in China.
The Chinese Government
The Chinese government is well known for its tight control over what its citizens can, learn, read, research, listen to, view and publish, within mainland China.
Access to the ‘Internet‘ is regulated in much the same way. China has a heavily censored Internet or perhaps more accurately one could say they don’t actually have internet, instead they have a China-wide intranet.
The Chinese authorities employ more than two million people to monitor web activity, on blogs and social media sites, such as the popular Chinese social media site ‘Weibo‘. They also block access and communication on topics or sites they deem to be ‘sensitive‘.
China censors content for a variety of reasons, often because it’s critical of the Chinese Government or is contrary to Communist Party propaganda or official policy, and also pretty much anything else which they deem, may cause ‘social unrest‘.
“This very post would certainly fall into the ‘anything else’ catergory”
China doesn’t only block individual websites, they use a variety of techniques to scan URLs and web content for blacklisted keywords such “Tiananmen” and when located, they block them and redirect the traffic to other places.
For example they block, Google and other western search engines, including news and information sites, such as The Wall Street Journal, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, just to name a few.
Why Do They Do That?
To answer that question comphrensively we need to first determine what is the very essence of government? After you cut through the rhetoric, the politicial B.S, the self interests and emotional attachments. You will find that the ‘very essence‘ of all government is force and the belief that they are better at managing ‘your affairs‘ and ‘controlling‘ your life, than you are. And they have the right to initiate force whenever its expedient to ensure that you agree with that position and comply with their wishes, where it’s in your interests or not.
Typically a Government is an organization that has the monopoly on the ‘use of force’ within a given territory. As Mao Zedong once said, “The power of government, comes out of the barrel of a gun.”
The past Governments of Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R, are now widely recognised as criminal entities on a grand scale. But at the time when these regimes held power, they were treated with the respect granted any official government system.
The fact that every government has been founded on, gross illegalities, war, revolt or revolution against its predecessors, is rarely considered an issue after the event.
Force is the essence of all governments and they become official by gaining power and then by maintaining a monopoly of control over the majority of its citzens. The possession of that monopoly almost inevitably requires the control of an area or a territory. And its the maintaining of influence over that region that is considered the test of a “successful” government.
So once force has been used to gain power. Its continuation is necessary to maintain control and influence over its citizens in order to secure its own survival. One of the ways to do that and to gain legitimacy for its authority, is to control the ‘narrative‘ and access to information that its citizens have is a major part of that statergy.
In January 2011, Egyptian activists began organizing a demonstration in protest against the longstanding Mubarak regime. In a matter of days, thousands of protesters had gathered in Cairo after learning about the event through the social media platform, Facebook.
In an attempt to quash this ‘civil unrest‘, and to prevent the activists from organising further demonstrations, the Egyptian government in an effort to assert its aurthority, resorted to an unprecidented action. They completely cut off access to the internet for the entire country. Sending shock waves around the world.
This action (cutting of internet access) caused the size of protests to swell from thousands, to millions of people and the Mubarak regime was ultimately forced to resign, after just 18 days of massive country-wide protests.
A Learning Experience
Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring‘ demonstrated three things: (1) the incredible organizing power of the internet, (2) how quickly a government could shut down internet access. (3) The under estimation of the peoples tolerance to such blatant abuse and overtly obvious manipulation of internet access as a method of implementing an information black out.
As a result ALL Governments, fearing a similar backlash, are now a little more cautions about how they implement internet restrictions and now do so in ways that are a lot less obvious and far more subtle. They implement cybersecurity laws, unertake internet surveilance and impose content restriction and censorship for the ‘public good‘ and dozens of other tactics designed to quielty control information sharing. Not that any of this is new.
Censorship in China
In September 2000, State Council Order No. 292, created the first of many content restrictions for internet providers. It stated that China-based Web sites could not link to overseas news Websites or distribute news from overseas media, without specific and separate government approval.
Only “licensed print publishers” have the authority to deliver news online. Non-licensed Websites that wish to broadcast news, may only publish information already released publicly by other licensed news media.
According to one Harvard study, at least, 18,000 plus websites are blocked from mainland China, including 12 out of the Top 100 Global Websites.
- Foreign media websites such as Yahoo! Hong Kong
- Voice of America (is occasionally blocked)
- the New York Times
- the BBC,
- Bloomberg News
The Chinese-sponsored news agency, Xinhua, stated that;
“censorship targets only superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling, and other harmful information.”
This appears highly questionable when for example the e-mail provider gmail.com is also blocked and it cannot be said that it falls into any of these categories.
Areas of Internet Censorship in Asia
From The Chinese Government’s Point of View
President Xi Jinping recently said;
“we have to take measures to control the Internet”
The Chinese government often criticizes Western leaders for ‘politicizing‘ the way in which China controls its citizens’ access to the Internet. They have also issued numerous statements in regard to this, such as:
“implementing monitoring according to a country’s national context is what any government has to do”
“China’s need to censor the internet is greater than more developed countries, because the Chinese society has less ‘information bearing‘ capacity than developed countries”
“The United States uses the Internet as a means to create worldwide hegemony based on western values.”
The Great Firewall of China
The Chinese have managed to figure out how to block sites by exploiting the Internet’s choke points, from which censorship is implemented and they have effectively set up what has since become known as the ‘Great Chinese Firewall‘.
The Great Firewall of China is considered the largest, most extensive, and most advanced Internet censorship regime in the world.
By blocking foreign social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and others, it forces their citizens to use Chinese alternative social-networking sites, such as Sina Weibo, WeChat, and QQ, which they can control and have the ability to censor content and posts on them.
Also by hiring thousands of people, to post content that’s favourable to the Communist Party and its policies, on the both the Chinese controlled and the World Wide Internet, helps its efforts to sway public opinion. This is known as ‘Soft Power.’
The Great Firewall of China, officially known the Golden Shield Project, employs a variety of methods to censor China’s Internet and block access to various foreign websites.
Understanding what the Great Firewall of China does in order to censor content helps us understand how other governmental organizations will want to implement Internet censorship throughout the world.
Experts have long known that China’s Great Firewall is capable of blocking most Web surfers from within the country, from accessing online sites, that host content which is deemed prohibited by the Chinese government.
- Falun Gong,
- police brutality
- Tiananmen Square protests of 1989,
- freedom of speech,
- Taiwan independence,
- Tibetan independence movement,
- the Tuidang movement.
This list is not exhaustive, as there is no transparency behind the wall, so we can’t know exactly how everything works.
However, you can discover if a website is blocked in China using a tool like the Pulse Great Firewall of China test tool. (as shown to the right)
Or you can test whether a particular URL is blocked using another Website the greatfirewallofchina.org (see below)
Many people had thought the Internet was impossible to control because of its very structure, in that it routes around points of failure searching for a connection. Therefore providing everyone access to a ‘democratic form’ of communication, free from governmental control. However recent events in Egypt and currently in China has proved this is not the case.
The Great Firewall of China has shown that its possible to exploit the Internet’s bottlenecks, which is where the censorship is implemented, and technologies like DNS is abused to aid them in their manipulation and the control of access to information.
To Find Out If a Website is Blocked
To find out if a site is blocked in China, use this link below;
Tricks For Censoring The Internet In China.
So just how is China censoring their Internet? Well, China controls the Internet gateways where all internet traffic travels between China and the rest of the Internet world. Through a combination of firewalls and proxy servers at these gateways, they can analyze and then manipulate the Internet traffic.
Censorship can often be indistinguishable from real website problems. For example, if you try to access a site, that is ‘blocked’ or ‘blacklisted’, you will not see a message informing you that the website is ‘blocked‘.
You may instead just experience timeouts, busy connections, and other website error messages because they don’t want you to know they are blocking the information they don’t want you to see.
- Is a website down or is the firewall blocking it?
- Did your VPN connection die because of a legitimate network problem?
- Or… Did the Great Firewall notice it and killed it?
It’s hard to know for sure because censorship is not transparent. The Great Firewall uses more than just one method to implement internet censorship. It uses a variety of tricks and I will try my best to explain some of the tactics they use.
Below are some sneaky tricks China uses to Censor the Internet
- DNS Poisoning: When your try to connect to a website like twitter.com, your computer contacts its DNS servers and asks for the IP address associated with the site. If you then receive an invalid response, it’ll look like the website has the wrong address, and you won’t be able to connect. China intentionally poisons its DNS caches with incorrect addresses for social sites like Twitter and Facebook making them inaccessible.
2. Blocking Access to IPs: China’s Great Firewall can also block access to certain IP addresses. For example, to prevent people from accessing Twitter’s servers even by accessing it directly at a certain IP or by using unofficial DNS servers that haven’t been poisoned, China can block access to the IP address of Twitter’s servers. This technique also blocks other websites located at the same address, if they’re using shared hosting.
3. Analyzing and Filtering URLs: The firewall can scan URLs and block connections if they contain sensitive keywords. For example, Website Pulse shows us that http://en.wikipedia.org is accessible from within China. However http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_People’s_Republic_of_China is not available as the firewall is looking at the URL and deciding to block web pages that appear to be about ‘Internet Censorship‘.
4. Inspecting and Filtering Packets: “Deep packet inspection” can be used to examine unencrypted packets, looking for sensitive content. For example, a search performed on a search engine will fail if you search for ‘politically controversial‘ keywords as the content of the search is examined and blocked.
5. Resetting Connections: Indications are that, after the Great Firewall has blocked communication between both computers, it sends a “reset packet,” essentially lying to both computers, telling them each that the connection ‘was reset‘ by the other, so they don’t talk to each other until the other resets again. You will get messages like “Connection reset by peer” or “Connection Closed Gracefully”
6. Blocking Free VPNs: In late 2012, the Great Firewall started to block VPNs. Virtual Private Networks were previously used to escape the Great Firewall. They’re also crucial to many foreign business users, so this was a surprising move. The firewall learns to identify what encrypted VPN traffic looks like and kills VPN connections using methods 1 & 5. (More about VPN’s coming up)
In recent years, the Government in China has been accused of using censorship not only for political protectionism but also for economic protectionism.
Chinese owned businesses such as Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, have now become amougst the world’s largest internet enterprises that have benefited directly from the way China blocks international rivals from its domestic market. Then by encouraging domestic consumption it creates high-value IPO’s which is then sold to western stock buyers.
The Great Cannon
According to researchers, the latest round of censorship innovation which the researchers have dubbed the “Great Cannon,” works by intercepting non-Chinese traffic and redirects it to the Baidu Website or other Chinese government controlled websites.
It targets Web surfers from outside the country. Anyone requesting various pages from outside the country are quietly redirected toward Github and greatfire.org.
Fortunately, the Great Firewall isn’t perfect; it’s impossible to hold back all information and to censor everything, although China is trying its best to do that.
Internet censorship in China is able to be circumvented by determined parties using proxy servers allowing users to go around some of the censorship and monitoring of the Great Firewall if they had a secure VPN or SSH connection method to a computer outside mainland China.
From using unofficial terminology for words that are uncensored, (effectively speaking in code), to using VPNs to tunnel out under the firewall, even the most extensive Internet censorship regime can be bypassed using some VPN’s.
What is a VPN?
When you connect your computer (or another device, such as a smartphone or tablet) to a Virtual Private Network, the computer acts as if it’s on the same local network as the VPN.
All your network traffic travels over a secure connection to the VPN. Because your computer behaves as if it’s on the network, this allows you to access securely local network resources even when you’re on the other side of the world.
You’ll also be able to use the Internet as if you were present at the VPN’s location, which has some benefits if you’re using pubic Wi-Fi or want to access geo-blocked websites.
When you browse the web while connected to a VPN, your computer contacts the website through the encrypted VPN connection. The VPN forwards the request for you and forwards the response from the website back through the secure connection. If you’re using a USA-based VPN to access Netflix, Netflix will see your connection as coming from within the USA.
Uses for VPNs
VPNs are not illegal in most countries, as they are simply a tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:
Access a business network while traveling: VPNs are frequently used by business travelers to access their business’ network, including all its local network resources, while on the road. The local resources don’t have to be exposed directly to the Internet, which increases security.
Access Your Home Network While Travelling: You can also set up a private VPN to access your network while traveling, allowing you to access a Windows Remote Desktop over the Internet, use local file shares and play games over the Internet as if you were on the same LAN (local area network).
Hide Your Browsing Activity from Your Local Network and ISP: If you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection, your browsing activity on non-HTTPS websites is visible to everyone nearby, if they know how to look. If you want to hide your browsing activity for a bit more privacy, you can connect to a VPN. The local network will only see a single, secure VPN connection. All the other traffic will travel over the VPN connection. While this can be used to bypass connection-monitoring by your Internet service provider, bear in mind that VPN providers may opt to log the traffic on their ends.
Access Geo-Blocked Websites: Whether you’re an American trying to access your Netflix account while traveling out of the country or you wish you could use American media sites like Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu, you’ll be able to access these region-restricted services if you connect to a VPN located in the USA.
Bypass Internet Censorship: Many Chinese people use VPNs to get around the Great Firewall of China and gain access to the entire Internet. (However, the Great Firewall has now started interfering with VPNs.)
Downloading Files: Many people use VPN connections to download files via BitTorrent. If your ISP is throttling BitTorrent and making it extremely slow, you can use BitTorrent on a VPN to get faster speeds. The same for other types of traffic your ISP might interfere with (unless they interfere with VPN traffic itself)
However Things Are Changing
China has been tightening its grip on the Internet, blocking many of the tools that allowed users inside the country to escape and circumvent the ‘Great Firewall of China.’
Recently disruptions of VPN services have been reported, and many of the free or popular services are now blocked. Including many users who were using paid VPNs to circumvent the Great Firewall are now finding that their internet connections are now subject to Deep-packet inspection. This is where data packets are scanned before being allowed to pass.
Some popular Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, are the latest victims of the sophisticated Chinese Internet censorship system, with several individuals and small businesses reportedly unable to use them at all to connect due to the new tightened censorship of websites. Many report that they can no longer use theri VPN’s to access blocked services like Gmail, Flickr or Twitter.
China Has Always Had Censorship
China has always been very aggressive in trying to control the Internet (sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have long been unavailable), but this recent crackdown on VPNs is the latest episode in a recent spike in online censorship and surveillance by the Chinese Government.
This is may explain why China ranks lowly at 175/180 in the Press Freedom Index which is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders based upon the organisation’s assessment of the countries’ press freedom records in the previous year.
It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations, and citizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.
The Big Question – Why Now?
China has always had the ability to block at least some VPN traffic, according to experts so the reasons behind this latest crackdown might be political. In fact, ever since Lu Wei, China’s Internet Czar rose to power, the country has ramped up its censorship capabilities.
(For more about Lu Wei see the video below:)
China has implemented several measures to block Google services for example. Activists and cyber security experts have accused the government of being behind intrusive cyber-attacks designed to surveil citizens using Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple services.
(Apple, China, now has a seperate data centre set up in China just for its Chinese customers and is no longer experiencing cyber-attacks.)
The government of course always denied these accusations. Yet, China is by far the main country of origin for cyber attacks, with 43% of the worldwide total.[source]
A Little History of Google in China
Google officially entered and established Google China in 2005, headed by Kai-Fu Lee, a former Microsoft executive. A Chinese-language interface was soon developed and launched in Jan 2006 (China-based Google.cn search pages) with search results subject to ‘censorship‘ by the Chinese government.
Despite questions about the government’s censorship policies, by 2009, one-third of all searches in China were on Google. However in March 2009, when access to Google’s YouTube site showing footage of Chinese security forces beating Tibetans, was blocked, (as was access to other online services).
Kai-Fu Lee, unexpectedly left, after four years leading Google China, to start a Venture Capital Fund (September 2009) amid debate about the government’s censorship policies.
Google now had a rocky relationship with the Chinese authorities and faced decreasing market share to local rivals Baidu and Soso.com. In January 2010, the Chinese Government told Google that they had to continue to block certain sites, or they could not continue to do business in their country.
When Google said that it was not willing to censor its Chinese search engine. It was forced to close down, it’s Chinese mainland operations. Google claimed its subsequent pullout was due to ongoing “sophisticated and targeted” cyber attacks coming from somewhere within China.
Accusations at the time by Baidu, a competing Chinese search engine, said, that Google had pulled out for strictly financial, rather than other reasons. Google countered they had “concerns about cyberspace security, coming from within China”.
It appears that the Chinese had managed to figure out how to block sites and would go on to eventually set up what has since become known as the ‘Great Chinese Firewall‘. Baidu is now the market leader in China with about 60% of the Chinese market, compared to Google’s once 31%.
Google Timeline of Business Operations in China:
- On January 12, 2010, Google announced that it was “no longer willing to continue censoring” results on Google.cn
- On March 30, 2010, online searching via Google was banned in mainland China; any attempt to search using Google resulted in a DNS error
- By October 2010, Google China market share had plummeted to 5%. It further declined to 1.7% in 2013.
- In 2014, China made Google services almost unusable by further tightening its Internet censorship, implementing what is now known as the “Great Firewall of China.”
The competitors of Google China include Baidu.com and Soso.com, often called the “Google of China” because of its resemblance and similarity to Google are the direct beneficiaries in all this as they become the only reliable access to the ‘internet’.
So now you have a little background about censorship in China and how vital a role VPN’s can play in keeping you connected in a quickly becoming, less free world.
Even when censoring measures are pervasive and effective, people continually find ways to slip between the cracks.
For years, people have used proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs) to access content beyond their country’s censorship wall, but censors particularly in China are getting better at discovering proxy servers and are simply blocking them as they would any other site.
A notable method of bypassing deep packet inspection is with an Astrill VPN using the OpenVPN setting and to forward traffic to TCP 443. Obviously, there are other tools that allow users to evade deep-packet inspection.
As I mentioned earlier most of the free VPN’s now are ineffective and I have tried a number of paid VPNs over my time in China (not all) and despite the promises, many fail when used inside China.
The two VPN’s that I recommend that current work (and I use them both) inside China are Astrill and Express VPN. I find that if one is blocked (which happens occasionally) then I can switch to the other.
You can test them out and discover the benefits of each for yourself. The direct links to them are below:
|TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ASTRILL You can use the LINK here|
If you are working in China or visting China you will be very glad to have either (or both) VPN’s in your as part of your technology.
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Acknowledgement: Credit for information about the Great Chinese Firewall; http://www.howtogeek.com/162092/htg-explains-how-the-great-firewall-of-china-works/
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