Despite China’s rapid rise and receptiveness to trade over the past half-century, some anachronistic views remain regarding freedom of expression and access to information. Tight restrictions imposed on internet traffic, both in and out of the country, have resulted in a highly controlled experience for natives and travelers in China alike.
Alphabet Chairman (Google’s parent company), Eric Schmidt posited that encryption technology could put an end to censorship within the decade. He made this prediction in 2013, during a lecture at Johns Hopkins University focused on countering the restrictions on internet usage imposed by China and other nations. In a conversation with the Wall Street Journal last year, Smith said that roughly “85 percent of industrial espionage is thought to be done by China.”
Two years on and the results of Schmidt’s prediction are decidedly mixed, with September’s announcements (run translate since link is in Thai, under paragraph 1.) that Thailand is set to enact a Chinese-style firewall on web-traffic, in a similar vein to their authoritarian neighbors in the region. The single gateway for traffic was aimed at upgrading speeds and cutting costs, in addition to controlling information deemed inappropriate – according to State officials – though Thai netizens, freedom activists, and the gaming community saw things differently. Grassroots DDoS attacks were synchronized by those concerned through Facebook groups, and executed by refreshing government websites to the point of server overload. Anonymous also reportedly targeted the Thai-er-wall project, according to Twitter, under #OpSingleGateway.
On the other hand, ‘climbing’ the multi-gateway GFW (the result is already the same as what would be taking effect in Thailand pending enactment though the method differs), is increasingly easier despite the febrile pace at which site-blocking continues in China. The proliferation of VPN’s and other services offering end-to-end encryption, anonymous payment options, and servers around the globe turn what once seemed like a trek up Kilimanjaro into something more akin to hiking up a local mountain, replete with a picnic and unobstructed view. All is not rosy, however.
Freedom House’s annual Freedom On The Net Report for 2015 ranked China dead last out of 65 countries – categorically not free – citing President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on “cyber-sovereignty”. While cyber-control has historically been a priority policy in China, internet blockading is gaining increasing momentum. Freedom House mention nine censorship methods States may use, such as social media blocking, pro-government posting and regulation in chatrooms and forums, and laws upping surveillance powers or curbing anonymity, among others. China was the only nation to earning a dubious perfect score.
Image courtesy of Citizen Lab
This year also saw the Cyber Space Administration of China (CAC), those responsible for enacting and maintaining the GFW, launch an offensive cyber-weapon dubbed The Great Cannon. CAC used the Great Cannon to initiate MITM attacks on the activist site GreatFire.org, and several of their affiliate pages.These attacks were a direct response to GreatFire’s attempt to offer mirror sites on servers belonging to web monoliths – such as Amazon – that Chinese cyber-agents would hopefully consider too inefficient to block. Instead, government agents redirected massive amounts of traffic from Baidu (Chinese Google), to the mirror servers, crashing them in the process.
Image courtesy of Citizen Lab
Even more worrisome are reports on the introduction of a social-credit system, or S.C.S., a project to develop an aggregated national database from government and fiscal data of Chinese citizens, think Social Security in the US – from a purely data-centric perspective. How that can possibly happen without collecting and compromising personal information is a scary thought. The system would assign each citizen a number rank according which corresponds to how trustworthy that person is, based on the aforementioned data and including any run-ins with the law, quite possibly including any online actions seen as dissident or deviant. We are worried about this development, but with a target date of 2020, there’s hope that the plan gets scrapped altogether – however unlikely that may seem in the face today’s kyriarchal state of affairs.
In a New York Times Op-Ed, Chinese anti-censorship activist and author Murong Xuecun, expressed his pessimistic – yet quite realistic – view that should the GFW’s reach continue unabated, “China will eventually revert to what it once was: a sealed off, narrow-minded, belligerent, rogue state.”
What solution is there if you’d like to express your voice freely online, or access information deemed unsafe or inappropriate for you while residing in or traveling through mainland China – where a significant amount of well-trafficked websites are prohibited and vigorously blocked by the Chinese government? You’ll need a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
What is a VPN?
A VPN masks your I.P. address so that the devices you connect to the internet show their location as the US, UK, or anywhere else the VPN provider has servers. Most providers host servers throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, though some also run servers in Latin America, and Australia. Please note, not all VPNs are equally suited to getting through the Great Firewall of China (GFW), more details below.
When should you install the VPN?
VPN software meant for smartphones should be installed before traveling to China, if possible, as the Google Play Store is blocked in China, and many VPN website domain names are blocked as well. Alternatively, you can still install a VPN service while in China, it’s just harder to do so. Once you’ve read over our picks for the top VPNs to use in China and made your decision, it’s time to download and install your VPN following the provider’s given instructions.
You’ve signed up and installed a VPN Client. What now?
Open and run your VPN client according to the instructions given to you, then open your web browser. In the URL bar at the top, type the name of the site you wish to visit then press enter. That’s all!
What is the top VPN for China?
All points considered when looking for a VPN with both strong performance, and encryption, ExpressVPN is the winner. It uses 256-bit security with OpenVPN as the standard protocol. Alternatively, you can use L2TP or PPTP, for faster speeds, though they already provide excellent bandwidth. These are also supported on its mobile apps. ExpressVPN run servers in 78 countries. The important part is that they maintain dedicated ‘stealth’ servers in Hong Kong specifically to circumvent the GFW.
Do note that regardless of the information posted here, or on other review sites, many listed VPNs aren’t working anymore because the GFW is constantly updated and increasingly difficult to bypass – it’s a fluid paradigm. Consequently, it’s best to check beforehand and semi-regularly if a particular provider’s site is blocked. Read on to see our Top 5 VPN picks for China.
We love ExpressVPN because as a large international company it has servers in 78 countries (including Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and West Coast US), it is very fast, it offers a very generous 30 money back guarantee, and it has great apps for both Android and iOS. It keeps no logs of users’ internet activity (although some connection logs are maintained) and allows up to 2 VPN connections at once. Even better for users in China, ExpressVPN offers stealth servers located in Hong Kong that are specially designed to evade the GFW. With lots of funky features, great speeds, and solid reliability, ExpressVPN is a great all-round choice.
This multinational provider is unique in being the only VPN service to own its own server network. This results in blazing-fast performance, and allows VyprVPN to offer proprietary ‘Chameleon’ anti-censorship technology which ‘scrambles OpenVPN packet metadata to ensure it’s not recognizable via deep packet inspection, while still keeping it fast and lightweight. The Chameleon technology uses the unmodified OpenVPN 256-bit protocol for the underlying data encryption’ to access international websites unhindered.’ VyperVPN also allows a generous 3 simultaneous connections, features a desktop app with a kill switch, and apps for iOS and Android. As with TorGuard, it seems the VyprVPN website is not currently blocked.
Dynamic port forwarding (port 443), real-time user and server statistics
Support for VPN over Tor
VPN through SSL and SSH tunnels
3 day free trial, uses shared IPs
3 simultaneous connections
Server in Hong Kong, 3 day trial
This Italian provider offers among the best security and anti-censorship technology available on the web, allowing both SSH and SSL tunnelling to evade the GFW (and also supporting VPN through Tor for maximum anonymity, making it a great tool for dissidents.) Add in some of the strongest encryption around, and a Windows, Mac OSX and Linux client with built-in DNS leak protection and a kill switch, and AirVPN should be on the top of every privacy fanatic’s wish list. As with most of the providers listed here, the AirVPN website is blocked by the GFW, but we are told that if you email AirVPN support, they can provide access to the website through a URL that is not blocked in China.
Encryption on most servers a bit meh • customer service could be better
Based in US
TorGuard uses an adaptation of obfsproxy for OpenVPN. This transforms the VPN traffic so it appears to be regular HTTP traffic, which makes it difficult for the GFW to filter. In addition to this, TorGuard runs servers within mainland China, which it uses to offer secure SSH tunnel services. Other than that, TorGuard offers servers in an impressive 42 countries (including Hong Kong, Japan, and West Coast US), allows up to 5 simultaneous connections, and supports port forwarding. As a bonus, for some reason the TorGuard website is not blocked in China (at the time of writing).
128-bit Blowfish OpenVPN encryption could be stronger
Based at an off-shore location somewhere along the Malaysian coast, this provider offers ‘xCloak’ servers designed to allow access through the GFW. We love BolehVPN’s no logs at all policy, plus the fact it has great connection speeds, and servers in Hong Kong and West Coast USA. The Windows and OSX client is also very funky, and features a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection.
Other VPN providers reported as working are MyVPN, PureVPN, and Hide My Ass (HMA) (reviewed) and TigerVPN and MoleVPN (not reviewed by us). IronSocket also offers stealth servers.
Best VPN to Unblock Websites in China Conclusion
We’ve gone through our top VPN picks to unblock websites in China, let’s review. The GFW blocks connections to websites for users connecting from China at the government’s discretion, making a VPN necessary to sidestep the controls. Choosing your VPN involves a balance of three factors: price, speed, and server availability, with ExpressVPN a solid option. Sign up to a VPN service below for an unfettered online experience.