‘If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in’
As China opened up to the rest of the world with the economic reforms known as the ‘socialist market economy’ through the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, its population became increasingly exposed to ideas and attitudes that the leading Communist Party of China saw as a threat to its values and political ideology. The arrival and increasing penetration of the internet caused particular concern, as the Chinese authorities saw its value as tool for economic growth, but also its potential for furthering the exposure of the Chinese people to ‘dangerous’ ideas.
In 1998 it therefore initiated the ‘Golden Shield’ project, better known throughout the rest of the world as ‘The Great Firewall of China’, the first phase of which was completed in 2006.
The Great Firewall of China in Practice
Managed by between thirty to fifty thousand ‘cyber-policemen’, China’s system of internet censorship has become increasingly wide ranging and sophisticated as new tools and techniques are developed to counter attempts to circumvent it. With only three internet access points in the whole county, and a range of methods used, including IP blocking, DNS filtering, URL filtering , packet filtering, and others (a good discussion of the censorship techniques used can be found here), the Great Firewall of China (GFW) is highly effective and becoming more so.
However, actual implementation is very patchy and inconsistent, with websites that are blocked in one province or jurisdiction often accessible from one next door, and many totally innocuous websites that are apparently devoid of political or otherwise objectionable content finding themselves blocked. Sometimes even widely blocked websites such as Google+ are occasionally accessible.
A visitor to China will be particularly struck by their inability to access major websites such as anything owned by Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia. Whether or not a particular website can be accessed from within China can be checked using free tools available here and here, although as noted blocking can be inconsistent.
Piercing the Wall
There are number of tried and tested ways to get around the GFW, but it should be noted that the Chinese government is ceaseless in its efforts to find new ways to shut down, or to at least hamper, unauthorised internet access.
The easiest way to access blocked websites from within mainland China, most web proxy services do work, and as they are accessed through an ordinary web browser window, require no special software and are usually free. The price is that they tend to be glacially slow and bombard you with adverts. They also usually handle anything on a web page more advanced than HTML very poorly, so good luck with watching a YouTube video or accessing your Facebook content!
The GFW make a concerted effort to block known web proxy sites, but this is typically haphazard in its execution and the tools noted in the previous section can help determine whether a particular web proxy site is blocked.
According to this WebsitePlus tool, the Hide My Ass web proxy page is accessible from mainland China at the time of writing.
Public and Private HTTP Proxy Servers
Thanks to the low processing power required to maintain an HTTP proxy server, there are a great many that are open to the public, as well as many private ones. Although they take a bit more setting up than a web proxy (which requires none), every browser can be configured to use a proxy (here are some instructions) and the results can be much faster, and will load all website content. In addition to this, given the sheer number of them, HTTP proxy servers are much less likely to blacklisted by the GFW.
The main problem with using HTTP servers is that the traffic is not encrypted unless connecting over SSL, so it is possible that the GFW will be able to snoop on and intercept your internet traffic. In addition to this, public proxy servers are notoriously unreliable, coming on and going off line at almost random intervals. A good real-time list of public proxy servers is available at Hide My Ass.
The Tor Network
The Tor network was designed to bypass censorship while maintaining the highest level of personal anonymity. As such, it has unsurprising it been the focus of concerted attacks by the GFW. Of the almost 3000 public relays listed by Tor, almost all are blocked, as are an increasing number of the private ‘bridge relays’ that Tor has set up to counter this. In the latest round of this technological arms race Tor has introduced Obfsproxy bridges to add another layer of obfuscation, but this solution is likely to be countered again by China in the future. A good discussion on how China blocks the Tor Network is available here.
As it is, most people are able to use Tor to access banned web sites form within China, although as is common everywhere, web access using Tor can be very slow as the data is bounced to at least 3 other users anywhere across the world, each time receiving an extra layer of encryption. The regular HTTP Tor website is blocked by the GFW, but the Tor Bundle can be downloaded from the HTTPS website.
Virtual Private Network services are by far the easiest and most effective means of circumventing the GFW, as by creating a secure encrypted tunnel between a computer in mainland China and a VPN server somewhere else in the world, it is impossible for the GFW to determine what websites are being visited.
This is not to say however, that China has taken this lying down! In 2011 a concerted attack was made on VPN use, with many reports being made that VPN servers were unreachable. However, since then most people have had no trouble using VPN to access websites banned in China.
The biggest problem with using VPN in China is that the laws of physics, where even electrons take measurable amounts of time to travel thousands of miles down fibre-optic cables. This means that connecting to the internet via VPN servers in North America (or even worse Europe) can be a frustratingly slow experience. Fortunately, the former British colony of Hong Kong allows restriction free access to the internet, and VPN servers located there allow high speed internet access.
The GFW does not block SSL, as doing so would cripple the basic functionality of the World Wide Web (which is one reason why VPN has not been blocked as OpenVPN uses SSL). This means that web sites beginning with https//: should be accessible from mainland China.
Although the most expensive option, VPN is really the only way to access blocked websites from behind the Great Wall of China without considerable loss in terms of functionality and user experience. Proxies are unreliable and typically offer a degraded web experience, while Tor is slow and locked in battle with the Chinese government, although for individuals who cannot afford a full VPN service, Tor may be the best choice available.