Most Internet users, whether they have been to China or not, have probably heard of China’s “Great Firewall” and know of the rigid censorship the country has on its Internet. China is ruled by an iron-fist Chinese Communist Party, and websites or apps that have Western influence or are deemed to have potential to undermine their Government are typically blocked.
My first two trips to China were only a couple years ago. However, upon a recent trip back to Shanghai just last week, I can recount first-hand that the Internet censorship condition has worsened in just those matter of years.
Back then, I could still use apps like Instagram, Whatsapp, Google Hangouts and even third-party apps like Flipboard to access Facebook and Twitter.
While Shanghai’s bright city lights and architectural landscape had grown more beautiful than what I recalled from my memory, unfortunately the same could not be said about its Internet censorship, which had only gotten more bleak and sad.
I found that not only were the usual targets like Facebook and Google blocked, but this time round a whole load of other casualties were added to the list such as Whatsapp, Instagram, Telegram and also third-party apps I had previously used to circumvent the “Great Firewall”.
Friends had asked me how I could access Facebook in China. One friend thought I was somehow a professional hacker, while another assumed I had developed *magical powers* overnight.
Thankfully, there are ways one can bypass China’s Internet censorship (without the need for any spell-casting) to access banned apps and sites, whether you are a tourist or expatriate entering China.
Personally, the method I used and which most users would recommend as the best and safest option is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network).
The great thing about using a VPN over other alternatives is that not only can you access social media, apps and websites banned by China’s authorities, but you get the added bonus of having your Internet traffic encrypted.
Naturally when you enter any country knowing the power its authorities have over the surveillance of citizens’ online activity, keeping your online information and identity away from prying eyes would probably give you better peace of mind.
Be sure to install your VPN BEFORE you leave on your trip, in case your VPN’s main website is also blocked within the country’s borders.
For me, I used an iPhone and BolehVPN as my VPN provider during my time in Shanghai. In order to be well-prepared for my travels, I set-up both the ‘OpenVPN Connect’ iOS app and the ‘Wingy’ iOS app to test BolehVPN’s OpenVPN and Shadowsocks servers respectively.
Both worked like a breeze for me to access blocked apps and sites during my travels, although I did find during my experience that while Shadowsocks servers loaded items a tad bit faster, OpenVPN servers worked better with my Whatsapp messages.
Because VPN provider plans typically provide protection plans for different durations (1 week, 1 month, 1 year etc.), it is appropriate for all users; short-term users like tourists, or longer-term users like citizens, students and expatriates.
Another common way to access blocked content in China is to use web proxies. Essentially, web proxies work like this: To access websites that are blocked, you need to use a website that is not blocked (where a web proxy comes in) to access the websites that were banned.
However, the downside of web proxies is that your information sent over the web is still not encrypted. And with the majority of these proxy websites being free and laden with ads and pop-ups, surf at your own risk while trying to avoid hidden malware.
Additionally, web proxies may only be used to access banned websites, but less for apps which are banned in itself (for instance, you can use a web proxy to access Facebook on browser, but not the Facebook app).
While I did not test this method, some have claimed that if you use data roaming from your smartphone (maintaining the data plan from the telco of your home country like Celcom, Digi or Maxis), you are also able to browse freely.
The reason behind this is that your data traffic will firstly be routed through your home country’s telco before it is passed to the foreign country’s. Nevertheless, this method is only said to work if you are on mobile data and not Wifi for the duration of your travels (which is sure to incur one hefty bill!)
You may be able to access banned apps via third-party apps not banned in China yet. Third-party apps are apps not from the official company, but with which you have authorised these apps using your official login information (username and password) to connect to your account page.
For instance; using Flipboard to access Facebook and Twitter, or Microsoft Outlook to access Gmail. The problem with this technique though, is that these third-party apps can eventually get banned themselves (such as in Flipboard’s case), or be really unlucky and get hacked by the Chinese authorities instead (we’re looking at you Microsoft Outlook).
For someone who works as a social media manager, makes my smartphone a fixture to my arm, and found that 85% of the apps on my phone did not work while in China; I would say YES, a VPN is crucial before making a trip to China.
Maybe you value the ease of being able to navigate Google Maps when you are lost in a foreign country; or cannot wait to upload that Instastory video of the Chinese temple you’re currently exploring; or maybe you just wanted to perform a quick search of a Youtube review on a certain Chinese electronic product before buying it. Either way, a VPN could be one of the best investments for your smartphone before entering China that you would thank yourself for later.