If you’re visiting China, the Great Wall is likely to be somewhere near the top of your list of priorities; but the Great Wall of China isn’t the only wall you’re going to come across – you’re also going to have to deal with the Great Firewall of China.
The Great Firewall of China
Just as the Great Wall once protected China from the Mongol hordes, the Great Firewall now ‘protects’ Chinese netizens from the perils of foreign influence. Basically, any website operating in China must be subject to Chinese government oversight and censorship, and the only way the CCP can ensure this is if those websites are hosted on Chinese servers.
Any website operating from servers outside China cannot be ordered to do or change or remove anything by the CCP, so their solution is the Great Firewall – that is, they simply block anything they don’t like, and track any users attempting to distribute or access such data.
A few years back, they would often allow websites through but block specific pages and search results e.g. when I was there in 2012 during this major scandal involving a Party bigwig’s son crashing his Ferrari and dying (while allegedly playing sex games with his two female passengers, both of whom survived but with severe injuries, and all three found naked or semi-naked), I could access the Guardian and BBC sites but when I tried to open the pages on that particular story my connection was severed; at the same time, even Google searches for the word Ferrari resulted in a blank screen.
These days (since President Xi came in), they seem to take a more blanket approach and simply block entire sites which are deemed to help spread information which undermines the Party; this tends to apply to most western news outlets and social media.
So what does the Great Firewall mean for you as a traveller to China?
It means that without a VPN, you’ll be unable to check Facebook, Tweet about your adventures, Google for information on your next destination, or read many of your preferred news sources.
If you’re not sure what VPN means, it stands for Virtual Private Network; think of it “as a tunnel, between your computer and a server operated by the VPN service” thus allowing you to bypass the Great Firewall.
(Note that Hong Kong and Macau aren’t behind the Great Firewall – for now, at least, they maintain their online freedom and you don’t need a VPN there. This will probably be the case until 2047 for Hong Kong when the Sino-British Joint Declaration expires, and 2049 for Macau when the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration expires; after that, it’s probably up to Beijing what happens)
The first time I went to Mainland China, not having much internet access didn’t feel like such a big deal – it was 2007 and the internet actually wasn’t as useful then, and we mostly used the Lonely Planet guide to navigate and find accommodation. In 2012 it was really frustrating being there without a VPN, and by the time I went back to live in Beijing for a while in 2013, a VPN was pretty much essential (especially for someone working online). I tried a few out, and found Express VPN to be the most reliable VPN service to use in China.
Even with a VPN, sometimes it just doesn’t work – the government is always trying to block them and they have to reroute, like a game of cyber cat & mouse. There are cheaper options out there than Express VPN, but it seems you get what you pay for. As I work online a good connection is crucial, and the first couple of VPNs I tried were a bit of a nightmare; once I switched to Express VPN, I could work (almost) normally. They have servers available in 145 cities across 94 countries, and you can select which one to route your signal through allowing you to jump around if one goes bad.
This last point is also very useful for region specific content, e.g. videos which are only available in your home country but you want to watch from overseas. This of course isn’t limited to being useful in China; for example, living in Japan before Netflix became available there, a VPN enabled you to route your signal through the States and use Netflix USA.
So it really is a useful service to have if living overseas, and again, essential for even a short visit to China. In my experience, Express VPN is a solid option and by far the most reliable I’ve used – my account is presently inactive, but whenever I go back to China I fire it back up again before heading there.
And that’s one more important point to be aware of – you can’t set up a VPN once you’re physically present in China. The VPN companies’ homepages are all blocked within China so that Chinese users can’t just sign up and easily circumvent the Great Firewall, which means you have to get your VPN set up before arrival.
Sign up for Express VPN here:
Any questions? Drop me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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See my China overland travel guide here
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