I have lived and worked and attempted to use the internet in China for close to eight months now. It is a fascinating country, rich in everything that makes a country worth visiting: culture, history, architecture and art, with amazingly diverse topography, geography, fauna and flora. Nevertheless, China can be a maddeningly frustrating place for ‘westerners’ to visit.
It is a land of contradictions. Its name itself in Chinese literally translates as ‘Middle Kingdom’, a misnomer of epic proportions. The government consists of the single party Communist Party, yet capitalism flourishes here and the gap between rich and poor is as pronounced as any country I have visited (with the exception perhaps of Mexico).
You are free to do pretty much what you like most of the time: there is a complete absence of the nanny culture that has pervaded many western countries. Yet religion is highly regulated, freedom of speech is considered a dangerous western ideology by the ruling classes, and the internet is infamously censored to within an inch of its comparatively young life. Bureaucracy is rampant with some of the most bizarre restrictions I have ever encountered.
With all this in mind, I have decided to provide a series of guides on how you can survive a visit to China. Let’s start with the most maddening of all the maddening things about modern China. The Internet.
Everyone has heard of the Great Firewall of China. There are currently two million civil servants monitoring, supervising and reporting on the growing millions of Chinese netizens. Many sites are banned, including those the government see as competition to Chinese online businesses or a platform for political insubordination. Pornography, even in its mildest form, is prohibited, down to amateur erotic literature and eating bananas provocatively on social media sites (I’m not making that up, honest). A certain historical event, circa 1989, cannot even be alluded to. And ‘subversive’ comment on the two ’T’s of territorial dispute could lead to your site being banned or worse.
More pertinent to western visitors is the banning of the following: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Blogspot, Dropbox, Picassa, and every Google service – Google’s crime was to stop censoring Google searches in 2011. Many online newspapers are also banned, particularly those who have been critical of Chinese policy in the past. Or, in the case of the New York Times, critical of a high ranking Chinese official’s finances.
Apple services are not banned, possibly because of the huge investment Apple have made in China. However, even Apple are not immune from the government’s ever changing internet policy. As recently as March this year, China passed a law that required all content shown in China to be stored on servers on the mainland. Consequently Apple’s iBooks and iTunes movie services were shut down. This prompted billionaire investor Carl Icahn to ditch all of his shares in Apple, citing China’s economic downturn and government interference as reasons. Apple says it hopes services will resume shortly.
The BBC’s excellent news and sport website is not banned so you can use that as a way to keep up with world events. My blog is currently not banned, though it may be after this post. If you don’t hear from me for a while please make enquiries…
Getting Around The Great Fire Wall – VPNs
It is puzzling why the Chinese government bother with such censorship when someone with the smallest amount of tech savvy can circumnavigate the Great Firewall with minimal effort. All one needs is to download a VPN app and the world wide web is your oyster. A VPN basically disguises your location, making it look as if users are accessing the internet from a different geographical location. Although it is illegal to host a VPN service in China it is not illegal to use one, so there is no fear of falling foul of the law.
For us foreigners, however, there is an unfortunate caveat. The internet in China is slow to begin with – Akamai ranks China 84th for average Mbps globally, behind the likes of Sri Lanka and Thailand – but government interference makes the problem far worse. Because banned western sites have no servers in China, they must be accessed from outside sources. The Chinese government deliberately restricts the flow of outside traffic providing just three internet ‘gateways’ to the west. The high volume of demand and the limited supply ensures slow internet for western sites.
To compound the issue, as soon as you access a western site you are electronically monitored resulting in even flying high-speed broadband connections plummeting to the equivalent of a leisurely stroll. Depending on time of day and where you are, sites like Facebook can slow to dial up speeds or worse. With a VPN you’ll be able to check your emails and update your Facebook status, but don’t expect to watch endless video clips on Youtube. Or check out what Jon Snow is up to on Netflix.
What You Can Do
Before coming to China, download a couple of VPN apps for your phone. You can do it here but it is better to have them set up before you come in case you have problems downloading apps without a VPN. There are lots of options, some free, some not. Some of the paid VPNs offer a free month so you can take advantage of this and cancel when you leave if you are staying for less than that, or pay if you are staying longer and think it worthwhile.
Personally, I think a free VPN is adequate unless you are going to be using it a lot – there are usually time restrictions on the free ones. I use the free GreenVPN which works well here for cell phones. I use the paid Express VPN for my laptop and tablet – you can use it on two different devices. Another popular VPN for Android or Windows systems is Psiphon. I have used it in the past but unfortunately Psiphon uses a unique system that makes it all but impossible to download or share online content. It is very reliable for browsing though.
Set up an email that is not Gmail if you don’t have one already. You will be able to access Gmail through your VPN but connecting takes time and it will not work 100 per cent of the time. Yahoo and Hotmail are not banned in China at time of writing. You may want to check this at time of perusal…
If you use Android, chances are you will use Google Play to download apps. This will not work in China unless you connect to a VPN, which is slow. Download an alternative app store. I used 1Mobilemarket when I first came to China and it worked really well but it has since been banned. Do some research but here is a page you may find useful. Trust me, you will want to download apps in China. Apple users will have no problem with Apple Store.
Skype is allowed in China but it doesn’t work well (does it work well anywhere?). Instead have your friends and family download a Chinese app called WeChat. This is a cross between a communication app and a social media platform. It works really well in China and is very fast. You can make standard calls, video calls, send pictures and videos, and set up chat groups for friends and family. It is really user friendly, unlike Skype. I hate Skype.
So there you have it. The first in a series of need to know information about China. Keep a look out for the next instalment – Transport.