The tech apparatus that’s responsible for censorship in China is known as “The Great Firewall.” It is responsible for content removal, website bans, and surveillance of citizens.
China uses this mechanism to control its national internet and limit people’s access to information. The list of taboo topics is ever-growing, significantly reducing people’s right to freedom of expression.
Chinese citizens or those traveling to the country can get around the Firewall by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). While unregistered VPN providers are officially banned in China, people aren’t persecuted for use.
However, there are some tips and tricks for using a VPN you should know:
- Install your VPN before you enter China.
- Make sure to test it properly.
- Always have a backup VPN if the one you’re using gets blocked.
- Use a VPN that supports OpenVPN and has obfuscated servers.
- Choose a provider with an extensive server network.
The best VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall is NordVPN. It’s reliable, fast, and doesn’t log your data, so you’re safe from government scrutiny.
China has one of the most restrictive internet censorship programs in the world: the Great Firewall.
The Great Firewall is a highly sophisticated censorship apparatus, designed to control access to information and monitor online activity. Any platform, website, or application considered a threat to the state is blocked.
Those who speak out against the government or share any information the state perceives as harmful face legal repercussions.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, censorship in China has only worsened. Journalists who dared to report critically on the global health crisis were persecuted, while discussion of the pandemic online was blocked.
Between January and May 2020, Citizen Lab found over 2,100 keywords banned on the popular Chinese social media platform, WeChat.
It’s but one example of how the Great Firewall operates. This article will explain how censorship in China is enforced, why China censors the internet in the first place, and different ways to get around restrictions.
The State of Media Freedom in China
Each year, the iron fist of censorship by Chinese authorities tightens, both online and offline. While the 1982 constitution grants the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the reality is that neither is honored. Instead, all media has to bend to the will of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
This was officially announced in February 2016, when Xi stated that “All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity.” Independent press, to the extent that there is any, is heavily restricted and subject to draconian censorship rules.
Various governmental institutions have been created to ensure that media outlets comply with the party’s wishes. In the first place, the Publicity Department of the CCP offers guidelines on exactly how topics can be covered.
Moreover, the Central Propaganda Department monitors the national telecommunications sector to ensure all media channels stay in line.
No freedom for journalists
As a result of heavy censorship methods, journalists in China are granted a very limited amount of freedom.
More often than not, reporters end up arrested or detained on charges as arbitrary as “subversion” and “separatism.” The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened these conditions since the government cracked down hard on those who dared be critical of the way the authorities handled the pandemic. As of December 2020, at least 47 journalists were behind bars.
Regular citizens, too, can be jailed for expressing their opinion, especially online. It’s unsafe to criticize political affairs or the Chinese Communist Party in general.
With smartphone use increasing in recent years, it’s become even more dangerous to communicate freely. Authorities employ sophisticated surveillance tech to get direct access to people’s personal data, which has led to even more arrests and detainment.
Religious and ethnic minorities in China are especially vulnerable to unjust punishments. Human rights workers and political advocates struggle to bring about any change on this front.
Foreign media in China
A significant number of international news outlets are blocked in China, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. Independent Chinese-language websites from Taiwan and Hong Kong are also banned.
International journalists in China regularly face intimidation, surveillance, and restrictions enforced by the CCP. Before being allowed to report from China, all correspondents must obtain permission. It’s not possible to report freely on sensitive topics, including economic and political affairs.
A 2016 report by PEN America on the constraints that foreign media in China are under, stated that Chinese officials increasingly perceive foreign media to be biased against China. Journalists are instructed to provide “balanced coverage” of current affairs, but Chinese citizens and authorities alike, are reluctant to serve as sources, for fear of being persecuted.
Since the Chinese media environment is difficult for foreign journalists to navigate, there is a degree of self-censorship. International outlets do not always dare publish stories in their Chinese language publications.
Moreover, the restrictions of the Great Firewall make free communication nearly impossible.
What is the Great Firewall of China?
The comprehensive internet censorship program implemented by the Chinese government is called the Great Firewall. It is a subsystem of the Golden Shield Project, which was developed in 1998 to safeguard national security.
In the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party feared that the arrival of the internet was allowing the China Democratic Party to build a powerful online network, and they designed the Great Firewall to prevent this from happening.
The “Golden Shield” software initially allowed the government to monitor any transmission of data and block certain IP addresses. In the 2000s, the government further expanded its efforts by passing additional regulations.
When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, censorship became more intertwined with the spread of propaganda and ideology. Dissidents of the political ideology face harsh punishments.
Independent media have often not been able to withstand the pressure. The Great Firewall is a system designed to stop ideas from entering China, as much as it was created to prevent information from going out.
Over the years, the Great Firewall has developed into an advanced, multi-layered tech system that has left Chinese internet users with a highly manipulated version of the world wide web.
All internet traffic is routed through a handful of access points that restrict people’s access to blacklisted websites. Authorities use large-scale deep packet inspection technology to filter content and block access to websites.
The Firewall is also a mechanism for surveillance, bandwidth throttling, and mining user data.
Effects of the Great Firewall
According to Freedom House, China is “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom.” The list of websites and social media platforms that are blocked in China is ever-expanding.
Most international domains are permanently banned. For Chinese citizens, this has significant effects on the accessibility of information.
Global search engines, including Google and Yahoo, are banned. Additional Google services such as Google Maps, Google Translate, and Google Scholar are also blocked. Blacklisted, too, are the discussion forum Reddit and all foreign language pages belonging to Wikipedia.
This way people won’t be able to research any sensitive information that could portray Chinese authorities in a bad light.
Any attempt to provide Chinese citizens with wider access to the internet is harshly shut down. In 2019, a web browser called Kuniao, was to get around censorship. It was taken down days after its release.
Similarly, an Android app called Tuber was released in October 2021. It allowed users access to blocked websites but required real-name registration. Like Kuniao, it was taken down soon after release.
Censorship of Social Media
To limit further discussion, most international social media and messaging apps are also inaccessible. Since they can’t provide the Chinese government access to user information, they were outlawed. This includes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and many others.
Encrypted messaging services such as Telegram and Signal are also blocked. In February 2021, the new Clubhouse application was taken down, after thousands of people started using the app to discuss the Xinjiang detention camps.
In fact, it was never even released, since the streaming company realized it wouldn’t be able to comply with China’s media regulations.
In general, there is a high degree of self-censorship on the side of international companies, especially when it comes to social media and platforms with user-generated content.
Since China makes companies themselves legally responsible for what’s on their platforms, they easily risk violating these regulations. This can result in fines, shutdowns, and worse consequences.
Companies that want to be active in mainland China are subject to the Publicity Department. This way, the Chinese government ensures that companies operating within its borders censor themselves.
Social media as a propaganda tool
In recent years, however, the CCP has also begun realizing the power of social media platforms. As a result, banned platforms are also utilized by the Chinese government to influence online discourse internationally.
A 2019 report by the Oxford Internet Institute includes China in a list of countries that “aggressively” use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread propaganda and disinformation.
Chinese citizens and those visiting the country, are often looking for ways to get around censorship and get access to blocked websites.
For a long time, virtual private networks (VPNs) were the way to go. Their use, however, is becoming more and more compromised, especially free options.
Why Does China Censor the Internet?
According to the Chinese government, the internet falls under national sovereignty as much as any other element of their society. Authorities use censorship as a means to safeguard national security, keep tight control over its population, and shape public opinion.
One objective is isolating Chinese citizens from the outside world. By limiting what information people can and cannot access, the view they hold of what is going on inside their own country can become distorted in favor of the Chinese Communist Party.
While this is true to an extent for any country, the levels of censorship and content manipulation in China are extreme.
To make sure propaganda reaches the population, the Publicity Department of the CCP employs millions of “public sentiment analysts” to shape public opinion, both online and offline.
When it comes to forums and websites, an informal group of internet commentators, known as the 50 Cent Party, flood message boards and coordinate smear campaigns against those who are critical of the government.
Another reason for Chinese censorship is economic protectionism, since it’s easier to legislate and control domestic companies. This is why Chinese social media industries are quick to develop alternatives to popular platforms.
Instead of Google, Chinese people use Baidu. Instead of Snapchat or YouTube, there’s Douyin. This is the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, which, despite being owned by a Chinese company, is banned, too.
What Content Does the Government of China Censor?
Initially, the Great Firewall only blocked a handful of anti-Communist Party websites. But under the guise of national security, censorship has grown significantly since the early 2000s.
The main objective of China’s censorship strategy is to block political content that criticizes the government. Any websites or platforms that question the current regime are taken down.
Moreover, the Great Firewall targets online content that’s deemed “immoral” by the Chinese government. This usually includes pornography and positive depictions of the LGBTQIA+ community.
In 2021, the government launched a hotline for citizens to report on each other in case they notice inappropriate political or cultural content.
Below, we’ve outlined the main topical categories that are subject to censorship.
China allows a small margin of criticism of its government. However, in order for critical content to be published, online or in print, it needs to be approved first.
With levels of intimidation and punishment as high as they are, this is not a reliable system for honest public discourse. Censored topics include:
- The reputation of the Chinese Communist Party
- Commentary on foreign affairs
- Discussions about health and safety
- Discussions about economics or the people’s financial well-being
- Any human rights abuses within the country
Online, political dissent gets taken down per order of the authorities. If a content platform refuses to comply with China’s censorship legislation, the platform will be banned altogether.
This has happened time and time again with big sites and platforms like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Twitter.
Historic and cultural content
China uses the Great Firewall to censor information about certain historic events and promote a different narrative instead.
Various topics — for example, the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghurs, in Xinjiang and Tibet — have been made completely taboo.
Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has begun to censor digitized archival documents. Historic accounts of the Cultural Revolution, for example, are altered to minimize the detailed histories of suffering, violence, and brutality.
China uses the Firewall to ban content that’s “contrary” to the state’s beliefs, such as pornography and violence. Additionally, depictions of “low-culture” or “problematic” performances in music videos or popular media are banned. Gambling is also illegal.
Since the Chinese government places a lot of emphasis on traditional gender roles, anything that doesn’t fit the patriarchal norm is banned. In 2021, broadcasters were ordered to ban depictions of effeminate men on TV.
In 2017, the China Netcasting Services Association categorized homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior.” As a result, positive LGBTQIA+ content is explicitly forbidden by the government.
When queer coding is present in media productions, China will only sign off on it if the characters are the villains. In 2021, the popular social media platform WeChat was found to have permanently suspended the accounts of over a dozen LGBTQIA+ university groups for Chinese students.
China recognizes five religions
The practice of any religion outside of these five by Chinese citizens is strictly illegal. Any proselytizing of other religions on the internet is banned and usually taken down. The Chinese government also uses keyword filtering to block religious free speech. Users’ accounts may be deactivated if they spread religious ideas.
How Does China Censor the Internet?
China enforces censorship through state-controlled media and the Great Firewall. Outlets are under clear instruction about what they can and can’t discuss. If they fail to comply, they face severe punishment.
Online, the scale of content removal expands more each year. The government uses extensive surveillance tech to ensure banned material doesn’t slip through the cracks.
The Chinese Communist Party has controlled the press, film, radio, and TV industries for years. Multiple agencies are involved with regulation, including the Central Propaganda Department, the Cyberspace Administration of China, and the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission.
These government bodies regularly order “clean-up” campaigns to clear the web of illegal content that threatens national security. Baidu, China’s main search engine, deleted over 51.6 billion items in 2020 alone.
In 2021, amendments were made to the Radio and Television law in order to cover online video platforms. Content can be banned on charges of “endangering security”, “slandering Chinese culture” or failing to help Chinese youth “establish the correct world view.”
Bandwidth throttling and shutdowns
Internet speeds in China, as a result of the Great Firewall, are slower than in other parts of the world. Since all traffic has to be routed through various points and filters, low connection speeds are an inevitability.
However, slowing down connection speeds is also a deliberate censorship method. This is known as bandwidth throttling.
The Chinese government has also, on several occasions, shut down the entire communications system. This happened in 2009: for a period of 10 months, the government shut down internet access in Xinjiang after ethnic violence. Officials claimed to have done this in response to national security concerns.
The Great Firewall
The Chinese government uses the incredibly sophisticated Great Firewall to limit people’s online freedom. Attempts to circumvent the Firewall are prohibited. The following internet censorship tactics are used in conjunction with others too:
URL analysis and filtering
The main censorship method is filtering URLs and the content of webpages for target keywords. If a keyword is blacklisted, the site won’t be accessible to users.
If you want to access a website, your request initially goes to the domain name system (DNS). This is where it connects you to the IP address of the site you’re looking for.
The response from the DNS, however, can be manipulated. This is called DNS spoofing, and it’s done extensively by the Chinese government.
If your request has a banned keyword in it, the Firewall will respond with a spoofed DNS reply. You won’t be able to access the website.
Deep packet inspection
Deep packet inspection is a way of processing data that checks incoming and outcoming data for sensitive information or information that is censored by China. It goes beyond normal inspection and examines a large range of metadata that significantly infringes upon people’s privacy and online freedom.
Internet police forces
China has enlisted over 50,000 people as part of an internet police force. Their job is to find and block IP addresses and URLs manually.
As stated before, any attempt at getting around the Great Firewall is shut down. In order to prevent people from accessing information, China pushes back against circumvention tools, especially VPNs (Virtual Private Networks).
In China, private networks can be used for a variety of reasons. Governmental institutions or universities often use a VPN system to isolate their internal network. These VPNs are registered and need to comply with strict regulations. Unlicensed VPNs are banned, however.
How to Bypass the Great Firewall of China
If you want to get around the Great Firewall, your best chance is still a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is a censorship circumvention tool that allows you to browse the web with a different IP address than the one you’re really using. When it comes to using a VPN in China, there are some drawbacks, though.
China generally only permits VPN providers that are registered and comply with their strict censorship laws. The Chinese government puts a lot of effort into blocking the use of unregistered VPN providers or making their websites inaccessible.
This is why it’s important to know a little bit about how China deals with VPNs and choose a provider that’s specifically designed to get you around the Chinese Firewall.
Using a VPN in China
When it comes to VPNs in China, there’s a cat-and-mouse game between Chinese authorities and VPN providers. Providers get busy developing ever more sophisticated tech to circumvent the Great Firewall. In response, China works hard to make it difficult to use a VPN.
In January 2015, the Chinese government first started blocking many of the VPNs used to bypass the Firewall. In 2017, unlicensed VPNs were officially banned. As a result, many VPNs and their official websites currently don’t work in China.
However, there’s no immediate reason to panic. It is still very much possible to use a VPN. The ban on unapproved VPNs is only selectively enforced and China’s approach to VPNs differs from countries like Russia or Myanmar, where using a VPN is fully criminalized.
Let’s have a closer look at how this works.
Are VPNs legal in China?
Information about whether VPNs are legal or not in China is often contradictory. Some sources claim using a VPN won’t give you any issue whatsoever, while others claim that VPN use is completely illegal. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
VPN technology is not illegal in China. Rather, there are limitations on who can use a VPN and for what purposes. Because VPNs are necessary tools for international business, the Chinese government has put a ban on unregistered VPNs.
This is to prevent people from using a VPN that doesn’t comply with censorship regulations. In other words: what can get you in trouble, is not so much the use of a VPN but whether you use it to access banned content.
Now, if you’re a Chinese citizen, using a VPN to browse international news or access social media accounts, could be considered an act of political dissent.
Therefore, Chinese journalists and human rights activists have to be careful when using a VPN. For those in politically sensitive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, it can be unwise to use a VPN.
For tourists, however, using a VPN has no legal consequences. There are no accounts of foreign visitors being persecuted or punished for using a VPN. What can happen, is that access to your VPN will be blocked.
This is how the VPN ban on unregistered providers is enforced.
While VPN use in China likely won’t result in consequences, we do advise our readers to be cautious. Make sure you stay up to date on any VPN-related news for China. Avoid going on the dark web without adequate protection and act with common sense.
While many VPN providers have pulled out of China, there are a few that work just as well. While China’s firewall methods are good, some VPN providers have found a way around it.
How to Pick a VPN for China: 6 Essential Tips
Only the best VPNs know how to get around China’s Great Firewall. Considering how much effort China puts into blocking VPNs, it’s good to be prepared.
If you want to use a VPN in China, you should always set up your VPN before you visit the country. Since China continuously blocks access to the websites of VPN providers, it can be difficult to get access to a VPN from within China’s borders.
Besides VPN websites, the Google Play store and the Apple AppStore are also blocked in China. This prevents you from being able to download apps for your phone or tablet, so install your VPN on all your devices before you enter the country.
Once you’ve done this, it’s a good idea to test your VPN, so that you know how to manage your features.
Moreover, make sure that your VPN is always updated to the latest version. This will create optimal conditions for getting around the Firewall. It’s also highly recommended to get a backup VPN.
Should China manage to block your VPN provider, having a backup will help you get back online. It’s also important that you choose a VPN with a built-in kill switch. In case you lose connectivity, the kill switch will hide the fact that you were connected to a VPN.
Below, you can find specific tips for finding the best VPN for China.
If you visit China, it’s important that you select a VPN provider that’s designed to get around the Great Firewall. When comparing VPNs, keep the following things in mind.
1. Choose a VPN that supports OpenVPN, Lightway, or WireGuard
The best VPN protocol for China is OpenVPN. It’s a secure open-source protocol that’s constantly being improved and updated by programmers around the world. Since its encryption cipher is incredibly robust, it’s perfect for China.
Lightway and WireGuard are more recent protocols that are also suitable. When selecting a VPN, make sure you look at the protocols it supports.
2. Make sure the VPN has servers that are geographically close
Since the performance of your VPN generally depends on your proximity to a server, especially when it comes to speed, choose a VPN with servers in nearby regions like Japan, South Korea, or Hong Kong.
However, keep in mind that these servers can get crowded. Sometimes a more distant server might actually result in a stable connection.
3. Check the VPN’s support services
Should you run into trouble, you want to be able to contact customer support quickly. Ideally, you should choose a VPN provider that offers 24/7 live chat at the very least to answer your queries.
4. Use obfuscated servers
These are servers that use extra encryption layers to hide the fact that you’re connecting to the internet via a VPN server. In a place like China, obfuscated servers are very important.
Keep in mind that they do slow down your connectivity speeds, so changing to a faster protocol such as WireGuard can be a solution.
5. Don’t use a free VPN
While a free VPN might be useful and even beneficial in certain cases, the security risk in China is too high. Free VPNs are generally less privacy-sensitive and don’t offer the best features when it comes to security.
Our personal pick for China is NordVPN. It’s one of the safest and most effective choices, due to its user-friendliness and expansive server network. More importantly, NordVPN has special obfuscated servers that help you get around the Great Firewall without being noticed.
- Fast and large worldwide network of VPN servers
- Perfect for privacy and streaming
- Trusted by many, with over 14 million users
NordVPN is known for its strong levels of encryption and the fact that the provider keeps no logs of its users’ online activity. Altogether, an excellent choice for protecting your freedom when you’re heading to China.
NordVPN is also one of the few VPNs that work seamlessly in China, and it ticks all the right boxes. It’s got obfuscated servers, a kill switch, and even offers cybersecurity protection.
How to Install NordVPN
NordVPN is one of the best VPNs on the market today. They have a special protocol for China-based users: the NordLynx protocol. With many additional safety features and excellent customer service, they’re a great pick for China.
Here’s how you get NordVPN installed:
- Visit NordVPN’s homepage and click on “Get NordVPN.”
- Pick a subscription that you like. There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee on every single plan. The best value option for NordVPN is the two-year plan for $3.29 a month.
- Create an account by entering an e-mail address and payment details. If you want to stay completely anonymous, NordVPN does offer the option to pay with cryptocurrency.
- Activate your account by following the instructions in the confirmation email.
- Download the NordVPN software for the device(s) you’ll be using. There are instruction guides on the website You can download mobile apps too.
- Open NordVPN and log into your account. You can now choose a server and encrypt your connection!
Make sure to optimize the safety features and different options that NordVPN offers so that you can use your VPN optimally.
Accessing a VPN from within China
What if you’re already located in China and don’t have a VPN installed? Once you’re within the borders, you won’t be able to access VPN websites unless you already have a VPN installed. To get through to the NordVPN website, you’ll need one of these other tools.
- Lantern: This is a free circumvention software that uses a peer-to-peer tunneling network to get past the Firewall.
- Use a proxy: some proxies are available in China. However, always make sure you choose one that’s safe and secure.
- Tor: The Onion Router (Tor) is a secure browser that routes your data through a network of different relays. While you can’t access the Tor website from within China, you can obtain a link from its developers by sending an email to email@example.com.
Keep in mind that these options are not suitable as long-term solutions. We recommend you only use them to download a premium VPN, like NordVPN.
China remains one of the most oppressive countries in the world when it comes to internet freedom. Those who express critical opinions on sensitive topics, risk intimidation, abuse, and even detainment.
The mechanism at the heart of China’s censorship is the Great Firewall, which is part of the Golden Shield Project and restricts a great deal of online content. In recent years, legislation has only become more strict.
Every year, more and more websites, social media platforms, and applications get blocked. One way to get around it is by using a VPN.
While unlicensed VPNs are banned, people are not persecuted for using one. However, it’s important that you install your VPN before you enter China and connect to an obfuscated server.
This goes without saying, but do not use your VPN connection for illegal activities! If you want to be able to access content that’s otherwise inaccessible, a VPN like NordVPN is your best bet.
If our article didn’t answer all of your queries about the Great Firewall of China, don’t worry. Check our FAQ section below for more information.
The Great Chinese Firewall is an infringement on personal liberties, but it’s not unavoidable. With a reliable VPN (virtual private network), anyone can circumvent these geographical blocks and bypass censorship in China.
Websites blocked by the Great Firewall can’t be accessed with a Chinese IP. Luckily, there’s a way around it. With a reliable VPN, users from China can circumvent censorship and enjoy free internet. The VPN we’d recommend for this job is NordVPN.
There are no records of people being prosecuted in China for using a VPN. The government’s ban on VPNs is implemented through site and service bans, not prosecution of individual users. You can overcome censorship in China with a decent VPN.
Netflix has always been unavailable in China. From the start, the streaming service decide it wasn’t worth it to change its service to comply with China’s regulations on media, so it was never released there. There are ways to access Netflix in China though.
No, TikTok is not banned in China. It’s a Chinese company, after all, and protectionism is prevalent in the country. However, TikTok works a bit differently in China. There, it’s called Douyin, and it has strong measures in place to limit use by children. If you want to find out more about Chinese censorship, read our article on The Great Firewall.
Yes, WhatsApp is banned in China. Messaging services in China are forced to give the government access to and the possibility to censor users’ private messages. WhatsApp can’t do that, so it was outlawed. If you want to find out more about Chinese censorship, make sure you read our article about internet censorship in China.
Yes, YouTube is banned in China. Like most western sites, YouTube was blocked because it doesn’t abide by the government’s heavy censorship rules. However, it’s not impossible to access. If you’re in China, you can use a VPN to unblock sites like YouTube, Netflix, or Reddit.