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The Great Firewall of China Explained

What to know and why it’s important to you

Upon arriving in China and witnessing what, on first take, appears to be random chaos due to the large amount of humanity everywhere, most are surprised to find out that China is a highly regulated place.  And as with other developed countries, people are law abiding for the most part.  Developed governments seek an orderly and just society and the improvement of the lives of its citizens and regulations are part of that.  Basic stuff.  So what does that have to do with The Great Firewall or GFW for short?

Of the levers of governments everywhere, information is one of the most powerful. Through a system of legislative actions and technologies the GFW is internet regulation objectified as a firewall.  All developed countries engage in some form of internet regulation even though that regulation is mostly focused on commerce and crimes. What has made the GFW  such a big thing is not really what it blocks overall but that it blocks Google and all its subsidiaries.  The pervasiveness of Google products in the daily lives of people globally is immense relatively speaking. So much so that preventing access to their products affects peoples lives until they can replace those services with others. 

The ongoing dispute between Google and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or rather the PRC central government, dates back to 2009 when users of Google’s YouTube video sharing platform uploaded video of Chinese security forces beating Tibetan protestors.  The reaction from the central government was to block YouTube and deny access to other Google services such as Gmail. Later that year, Google reacted to a cyber attack originating in China by refusing to comply with censorship agreements previously made and redirected google.cn to google.com.hk, which was not part of the existing censorship agreement. This led to China banning all Google searches on March  30, 2010.  At some point following that ban the nomenclature Great Firewall of China came into existence to describe the regulatory move by the Chinese Central Government.

Some argue that the move had less to do with censorship and more to do with using that lever of government to support the fledgling Baidu search engine which benefitted immeasurably from the policy.  Baidu is now one of the biggest artificial intelligence and internet companies in the world.

Enter the virtual private network

Theories about the rationale for the move that made the GFW notwithstanding, it’s there and if you are moving to China you are most likely going to need to adopt some new tech. That new tech is called Virtual Private Network and has been around as a remote office network tech for 20 years.  Now however it has been issued a new lease on life as a means to get past the GFW. 

There are a wide variety of VPN providers as it is a lucrative business. Essentially, when you purchase or download a paid or free version of the app to your phone or computer, you are purchasing access to their virtual private network, which would be a secure server farm somewhere cold with supporting regulation or lack thereof if possible.  By opening the app, you are opening a secure connection or ‘tunnel’ to their server farm and all your internet traffic goes through this tunnel to the farm and then out into the world and conversely, all inward traffic comes through the secure server farm, then through the tunnel to your computer or device.

The grey area

You would be correct to assume that VPN services are not totally ok in China.  Though not something that would make big news, it seems likely that there is a global game of ‘whack a mole’ going on between the people blocking IP addresses in China and the VPN companies. Due to this, the names of the apps and their designs change as one VPN company gets blocked and morphs into another on Google Play or the App Store. Generally the bigger the VPN company, the better the speed, however, the bigger the company, the more likely it is to get blocked.  The result is that the App you found with great speed and connectivity (reliability is always an issue) will probably eventually get shut down.  The problem is you can’t access Google Play as it’s blocked and since July 2017, VPN apps have not been available on the App Store. So you need a VPN to get a VPN in other words. The simple way around that is to download all the free ones and put them in a folder on your phone before you move to China and you’ll be sure to have access once you arrive. You may want to purchase one of the higher rated paid VPN apps before you arrive but choose the monthly billing plan so you can cancel when it gets blocked. Depending on the app, the premium paid version will have much better connectivity and speed which can be important – especially if you are using Google Maps to navigate after you arrive in Shanghai.

Expats in China wanting to use Google services are not the only users of virtual private networks. People who want to gain access to regionally restricted content on sports and news sites can choose within the app to have their tunnel go through a specific server farm in a specific country or part of a country that is unrestricted– sports broadcasts often have regional blackouts. 

The censorship of the internet that goes on globally is mostly about protecting commercial rights to content.  The way around that restriction from years past was illegal satellites for TV both in China where it is illegal for any Chinese citizen to own a satellite and in other parts of the world. Those satellites gave those users access to a network of signals from all over the world in the form of channels processed by a receiver under their TV. 

Those satellites have now been replaced by TV internet boxes that are basically small computers that connect your TV to the private network that displays on your TV screen in the familiar format with more bells and whistles.

For those who like to digest their content across multiple devices as families usually do, hosting the movie or music file locally is convenient with a wireless network drive that you set as the destination for your movie and music torrents.  Bit Torrent technology that allows users to share large packages of data with a large group of users and is the tech that is the backbone of internet piracy of music, movies and books globally. Filesharing software companies and websites hosting the files have been fighting running legal battles with global authorities for years.  The massive raid by FBI and New Zealand authorities on the mansion of Kim.com (this is his real name) the German founder of MegaUpload in 2012 being the most spectacular involving 76 officers and two helicopters. He was basically the owner of some of the server farms that people paid to have access to through a VPN type service.

This is all said to creatively emphasize that filesharing is illegal and is not recommended in any way. Interestingly, a few filesharing sites are allowed to exist in China though with a VPN this wouldn’t be an issue as your traffic is hidden from view… all that can be seen from the outside is data entering a server farm and encrypted data coming out the other side destination unknown.  If that part of the issue is a concern, after arrival in China you’ll see that concern is misplaced. IP law enforcement is a battle being waged at a country level with the big studio lobbies pushing American politicians to do more about getting China to comply with international law. If there is a change to how existing law will be enforced in China, it will be big news. At home, this practice will prompt a warning notice from your Internet Service Provider at the very least.

With this information, you should have a seamless tech transition to the Middle Kingdom.