Censorship in China: the Great Firewall and How to Get Around It

Chinese key on keyboard being pressed

China has one of the most restrictive internet censorship programs in the world, also known as the Great Firewall of China. This is a highly controversial system, with critics asserting that the Firewall limits freedom of speech, prevents access to information, and suppresses innovation. Read on to learn more about the Great Firewall of China, why the government enforces it, and what steps you can take to get around it.

What is the Great Firewall of China?

The Great Firewall refers to the internet censorship program implemented by the Chinese government. It was developed by the country’s Ministry of Public Security, which continues to operate the program today.

The foundation for the Firewall was laid in the 1990s, when Fang Binxing developed the “Golden Shield” software that allowed the government to monitor any transmission of data and to block certain IP addresses. The Chinese government began expanding their efforts in the early 2000s by passing additional regulations. Censorship increased dramatically after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Xi wanted all online content to benefit the Communist Party. This resulted in restricting dissenters, promoting Communist values, and preventing Western ideas from influencing Chinese society.

In recent years, internet censorship has further increased in China. This includes measures to block certain websites, to prevent anonymous posting on social media, and to hold companies responsible for how customers use their products. As a result of the Great Firewall, internet access in China is extremely restricted. You cannot use websites such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube. Platforms such as Skype and WhatsApp are banned as well.

How is the Firewall Enforced?

The Chinese government uses a variety of methods to enforce the Firewall. Some of these are technological, such as filtering URLs, disrupting DNS servers, and blocking VPNs. In addition, the government is continuously working to improve their technology and cybersecurity.

The government also enforces self-censorship within Chinese companies. They have passed laws making companies responsible for all their online content. This means the companies need to ensure that none of their content or platforms contain forbidden topics. If they violate these laws, they are subject to fines, shutdowns, and other serious consequences.

Another method the government uses is employing hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens to enforce the censorship laws. These employees are hired to monitor internet content, to report violations to the authorities, and to edit the content. Advances in AI will allow for these monitoring activities to be automated.

Why Does the Chinese Government Enforce Censorship?

In short, the Chinese government enforces censorship to protect Chinese society from foreign influences and Western ideas. In the 1980s, president Deng Xiaoping developed a market economy in China and implemented an “Open Door Policy.” At the same time, he stated, “If you open the window for fresh air, some flies will be blown in.” In other words, though the Open Door policy will benefit the Chinese economy, unwanted Western ideas will trickle in as well. Current president Xi shares the same mindset, and has sought to limit Western influences by imposing far more restrictions on internet access.

Can People Get Around It?

It is possible to get around the Great Firewall, most commonly by using a VPN. But it’s important to realize that this method is by no means perfect.

In January 2015, the government began blocking many of the VPNs Chinese citizens used to bypass the Firewall. The Chinese government officially banned VPNs in 2017 and continues to block them. This means many VPNs won’t work in China. Since many VPNs are blocked within China, you should always set up your VPN before you visit the country.

Some of the best VPN options for bypassing the Great Firewall are Stealth VPN or SoftEther, which were designed to appear like regular https connections and evade the government’s filters. As of 2019, ExpressVPN is one of the most popular choices among Chinese users for its effectiveness and user-friendly design. Another highly recommended VPN is VyprVPN, which uses an encryption protocol called Chameleon that scrambles metadata and effectively combats VPN blocking.

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In addition to select VPNs, there are a couple of other methods you can try to bypass the Firewall, though their effectiveness may be limited. Lantern is a free circumvention software that uses a peer-to-peer tunneling network to get past the Firewall. There are also proxy applications such as Shadowsocks and Surge iOS, which is geared toward developers.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Chinese government is constantly updating its rules regarding VPN services in China. Your best option is to use a VPN provider who can accommodate for these changes.

Final Thoughts

The Great Firewall of China is a powerful censorship system that restricts a great deal of online content. The government closely monitors all their citizens. At the same time, there are ways that visitors and Chinese citizens alike can get past the firewall and gain access to this blocked content. Using a VPN remains the most effective way to do so, despite the Chinese government’s efforts to block them. If you are planning to visit China and want to use a VPN, research providers carefully to be sure they haven’t been shut down by the government. You should also set up your VPN before you arrive. By taking these steps, you have a very good chance of bypassing the Great Firewall and accessing Google, Facebook, and other restricted programs and websites during your time in China.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. She has broad experience developing rigorous VPN testing procedures and protocols for our VPN review section and has tested dozens of VPNs over the years.