If you’re visiting China, the Great Wall is likely to be somewhere near the top of your list of priorities; but the Great Wall of China isn’t the only wall you’re going to come across – you’re also going to have to deal with the Great Firewall of China.
The Great Firewall of China
Just as the Great Wall once protected China from the Mongol hordes, the Great Firewall now ‘protects’ Chinese netizens from the perils of foreign influence. Basically, any website operating in China must be subject to Chinese government oversight and censorship, and the only way the CCP can ensure this is if those websites are hosted on Chinese servers.
Any website operating from servers outside China cannot be ordered to do or change or remove anything by the CCP, so their solution is the Great Firewall – that is, they simply block anything they don’t like, and track any users attempting to distribute or access such data.
A few years back, they would often allow websites through but block specific pages and search results e.g. when I was there in 2012 during this major scandal involving a Party bigwig’s son crashing his Ferrari and dying (while allegedly playing sex games with his two female passengers, both of whom survived but with severe injuries, and all three found naked or semi-naked), I could access the Guardian and BBC sites but when I tried to open the pages on that particular story my connection was severed; at the same time, even Google searches for the word Ferrari resulted in a blank screen.
These days (since Xi took over), they seem to take a more blanket approach and simply block entire sites which are deemed to help spread information which undermines the Party; this tends to apply to most western news outlets and social media.
So what does the Great Firewall mean for you as a traveller to China?
It means that without a VPN you’ll be unable to check social media, google for information on your next destination, or read many of your preferred news sources.
If you’re not sure what VPN means, it stands for Virtual Private Network; think of it “as a tunnel, between your computer and a server operated by the VPN service” thus allowing you to bypass the Great Firewall.
(Note that Hong Kong and Macau aren’t behind the Great Firewall – for now, at least, they maintain their online freedom and you don’t need a VPN there. This is supposed to be the case until 2047 for Hong Kong when the Sino-British Joint Declaration expires, and 2049 for Macau when the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration expires; after that, it’s probably up to Beijing what happens)
The first time I travelled around China, not having much internet access didn’t feel like such a big deal – it was 2007 and the internet actually wasn’t as useful then, and we mostly used the Lonely Planet book to navigate and find accommodation. In 2012 it was pretty frustrating being there without a VPN, and by the time I went back to live in Beijing for a while in 2013, a VPN was pretty much essential (especially for someone working online)
Even with a VPN, sometimes it just doesn’t work – the government is always trying to block them and they have to reroute, like a game of cyber cat & mouse. While I was in China I used ExpressVPN which worked really well at the time, so I used to recommend it to my readers via affiliate links. Unfortunately the Chinese government has really cracked down on VPNs since then, and it seems even ExpressVPN doesn’t really work well any more.
I do still have my ExpressVPN account as it can be a useful thing to have while living overseas – for example, I used it to watch 2019 Rugby World Cup matches on the internet (even though I was there in Japan where the world cup was taking place!) – but I can’t recommend it on commission any more for people going to China.
You should still try to find a reliable one (or a few) and set them up before you arrive in China, and fingers crossed they work at least some of the time. You can’t set up a VPN once you’re physically present in China, so do your research and get set beforehand.
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