Using VPN in China is used to access blocked websites and for anonymity. As Internet censorship in China affects both the publishing and the viewing of online content, it comes as no surprise that people have to find effective ways to circumvent censorship to reach certain content. The country's censorship mechanism, known in aggregate as the Great Firewall of China (GFoC), is more sophisticated and comprehensive than that of any other nation in the world, thus creating a tricky situation for publishers and readers alike.
Since the Great Firewall of China prevents users from accessing certain websites outside of China, using a VPN is one of the means to browse the Internet otherwise inaccessible to Chinese netizens, popularly known as "getting over the wall." Highly secure VPNs can provide access to blocked content while at the same time protecting the user's identity from government surveillance. However, China has recently heightened its crackdown on foreign VPN solutions, rendering most of them ineffective in providing the desired efficacy. So the question becomes whether ordinary Chinese consumers take great pains of using a VPN to visit blocked websites.
Many people wonder whether it is even legal to use VPNs within China. It is actually a bit murky since the government is yet to enforce laws barring individuals from using unauthorized VPNs. Nevertheless, the Great Firewall has VPN detection technologies, making it difficult to plan or deliver website content or applications to mainland China.
Are VPNs legal in China?
There has been quite a bit of debate over whether the Chinese government has illegalized the use of VPNs. The government has threatened to ban all VPNs and remove VPN applications from China-based app stores. So, the million-dollar question is why China has not blocked VPNs while numerous benign applications have been blocked?
The answer is actually very simple. VPNs are essential and necessary components of securely doing business online. VPNs are particularly critical for international companies with a business presence in China or Chinese companies with an international presence. VPNs allow China-based companies to share information with the rest of the world securely. Global organizations use VPNs daily, and if China were to illegalize and ban VPNs, it would make it very challenging for companies, both foreign and domestic, to do business.
As such, there is a lot of grey area when it comes to individuals using VPNs in China. There have been reports that some individuals have been reprimanded or detained by local authorities for using VPNs to access unauthorized contents. Such incidents make it confusing whether it is illegal to use VPNs. What most people fail to understand is that China is very directive regarding how businesses use VPNs.
For an organization to use VPNs, it must obtain a government clearance. Companies can't just start using VPNs based on the notion that a VPN is crucial for business. They must first obtain approval from the relevant authorities before deploying VPNs. The laws, however, do not apply to individual users, though some Chinese citizens have gotten themselves into trouble because of VPNs. However, such incidents are few and inconsistent.
Do VPNs work in China?
VPNs do work in China. However, most free VPN services may not work or enable users to access the Internet freely. The reason is that VPN providers require obfuscated servers, multiple encryption protocols, and double VPN technology to bypass the robust restrictions the Chinese government has implemented on the great firewall. Free VPNs lack such features, and it is implausible that they can work in the country. Besides, the connection protocols and encryption methods in free VPNs are easily detectable, and the authorities can quickly identify users using them.
Moreover, VPN providers offering free services are often unreliable. The connections drop frequently, and this may leave users exposed to online surveillance.
Free VPN providers also have poor customer support and may not be available to assist customers facing issues. Even if they do work and manage to have a stable connection, the weak encryption may still expose users to surveillance, and the Internet speeds may be slower. Even worse, there are VPNs used as bait to get people to reveal their identity and their destination.
It is still possible to access and connect to a VPN service in China for determined minds. Although it is challenging to identify a working VPN and establish a connection, businesses and individuals in mainland China can use VPNs. For instance, it isn't easy to connect to VPN networks when there are important government meetings, sensitive anniversaries, or a significant holiday.
Despite the VPN service used to connect to the Internet, a few measures can ensure a stable connection. Not all VPNs work in mainland China, especially when there is a government clampdown on server connections. The following steps can provide the best VPN services that can bypass the robust firewall and Internet censorship:
1. Ensure the VPN application is always updated
One of the ways to ensure VPNs work in China is by installing the most recent updates. VPN services and providers tweak the deployed connection protocols when it becomes difficult to use them in China. Failing to update VPN applications may prevent them from working, and users may not be able to access blocked websites from within China.
2. Monitor VPN servers when using them.
VPN services dedicated to serving the Chinese market often have a status page informing users of timely updates, possible fixes to connection issues, and tips on how users can identify and connect to the fastest VPN servers. Monitoring VPN status informs users of the best servers to connect to when in China.
3. Change connection protocols and server locations frequently.
Numerous VPNs permit users to change protocol and server connections as often as necessary to get a stable and fast connection. If you cannot connect to a server, you can change the connection protocol and server location from the provided options. Using a VPN in China may become frustrating, especially when it fails to connect to the desired server. However, users should continue changing the VPN configurations until they get the best connection.
4. Be patient
Even if a VPN service works in China, the connection may be slow and unstable. Remember that China has the most robust firewall for monitoring Internet access such that it has slower internet speeds than most countries. VPN services may make the connection speeds to be much slower and more frustrating, and you should, therefore, be patient when using them.
The bottom line is that VPNs still work in China. Personal VPNs have remained mostly unaffected, but it is still vital for users to choose VPN providers accustomed to playing the mouse-and-cat game with the Chinese government.
Are VPNs commonly used?
With the country's poor Internet freedom for information access, one would probably expect that there is a high VPN usage rate. However, VPNs are not very common because the government must authorize organizations which VPNs to use. China has harsh restrictions on VPN usage such that it is not very common. Individual users may not use VPN services for fear of possible fines and penalties, or they may choose to rely on information readily available, or simply they don't like the hassle of using a VPN.
A recent report indicated that VPN restrictions disrupt crucial activities for students, businesses, entrepreneurs, scientists, and essential workers. One bold guess claims that about 30% of internet users in China use a VPN, but the true numbers should be much smaller based on observations from our QA engineers across the country. The government has tried targeting unauthorized VPN providers by shutting them down but has also tried to issue fines or harsher penalties to individuals. The battle is nowhere close to an end.
China's internet censorship prevents organizations and individuals from connecting to certain properties from the outside world. As such, it is pertinent for international and local businesses to not assume that the Chinese online community uses a VPN service. Whether VPNs are legal or illegal in China, website operators should understand that a VPN does not solve China's internet censorship problems as it is used almost like a last resort.
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To learn more about succeeding in China, check out our other articles.