China’s ‘Great Firewall’ has long been a powerful symbol of state censorship and, although other countries have attempted to replicate it, it remains the most sophisticated digital censorship apparatus ever created. It blocks access to hundreds of websites, denies sensitive search terms and constantly tracks users’ online activity.
For several years, however, there has been a way around the ‘Great Firewall.’ A Virtual Private Network (VPN) works by creating a virtual tunnel between a device and a remote VPN server which encrypts data in transit. By using a VPN, Chinese citizens were able to bypass the firewall and access otherwise blocked sites, free from the prying eyes of the state. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this didn’t last long.
In December 2017, Wu Xiangyang was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for running a VPN service in a move that reflected a large-scale crackdown of VPNs across China. In the same year, Apple were forced to remove over 60 VPN apps from their App Store. The crackdown culminated in March 2018, when the Chinese VPN ban came into force.
Are VPNs Legal in China?
The VPN ban that came into effect on 31st March 2018 sought to crackdown on all ‘unauthorized’ VPN providers. However, since the passing of this legislation it has remained unclear how it will actually affect citizens, businesses and tourists.
VPNs are an essential tool for many international businesses based in China that require access to Google and other Western media sites. Additionally, many students, tourists and expatriates have continued to use VPNs, despite the official ban. It appears unclear, therefore, which VPNs are ‘authorized’ and which are not.
More surprisingly is that despite the ban, a large number of free VPN providers continue to have strong links to mainland China. The implications of this are murky, but it certainly suggests that certain VPN providers have been permitted to operate.
All of this means that the legality of VPNs remains a grey-area. Importantly, despite the official ban, there hasn’t been any high-profile cases of tourists being fined or imprisoned for using a VPN. Also, given their importance for international trade and academia, it’s unlikely that China will be able to eradicate VPNs entirely.
Why You Need a VPN in China.
If you’re travelling to China and want to access websites like Facebook, Twitter or popular Western news sites, a VPN is essential. Not only that, a VPN will allow you to surf the internet without the state authorities being able to spy on your activity.
It’s worth noting, however, that the number of VPNs that still work in China is constantly changing, so it’s important that you check an updated list before you travel. Another point to remember is that, as the majority of app stores have now deleted VPNs in China, you’ll want to download the software before you leave.
You should also research where the server is based before choosing a provider. Normally, you’d want to connect to a server in the same country as you to limit poor connection speeds. However, given that the majority of VPNs are now banned in China, you’ll need to find a VPN with servers in a neighbouring country like India, South Korea and Japan.
Even for a state with the most advanced censorship apparatus the world has even seen, banning VPNs in totality has not been easy to achieve. Instead it appears that, due to the inherently interconnected nature of trade, academia and travel, VPNs will be tolerated in an inconsistent and varied way.
If you’re planning on travelling to China, a VPN is an essential piece of tech if you want to retain access to your favourite websites. However, before you go it’s worth spending some time researching the list of VPNs that work in the ongoing cat and mouse game between VPN providers and the Chinese state.