You can still get a VPN, which means an internet-based secure tunnel between devices that lets users see any website without interference.
If you’re a common netizen in China, the 2018 ban on unauthorized virtual private networks means it’s harder now than ever to look at blocked websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube. Chinese officials worry those sites and others from overseas may contain anti-government ideas.
Chinese internet authorities, including a monitoring force estimated at 40,000 people, had been shutting virtual private networks (VPNs) hit or miss for about a decade. Often internet who lost one would just find another that the authorities hadn’t found. On March 31 that process got harder as China said it would stop all unrecognized VPNs and allow just a few authorized ones.
That’s a concern among foreigners, from conference hosts to traveling academics, who are used to communicating by Facebook or Gmail. Gmail, Google searches and Google Docs don’t work. WhatsApp works moodily at best. Foreign news websites that cover topics that make China squirm, for example Tibet and Taiwan, are often blocked, too.
How to get a VPN now
Ban aside, you can still get a VPN, which means an internet-based secure tunnel between devices that lets users see any website without interference.
The best way to get one is through a foreign company with China offices. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s notice last year that led to the March 31 ban probably targets the Chinese public rather than foreigners, experts say.
More than 35,500 foreign companies set up in China in 2017, more than in 2016. China is third biggest foreign investment destination after the United States and United Kingdom.
Chinese academic institutions may still qualify for VPNs too without protest from the authorities. They need to follow the outside world for research reasons.
“If the past is any guide, it seems there’s a good chance the authorities won’t take away VPN access from this very vocal group of users, foreign businesses and Chinese academic institutions,” says Mark Natkin, managing director with market research firm Marbridge Consulting in Beijing. “Typically such bans have been focused on locally provided VPN services that are aimed at the mass market.”
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Companies are likely to be approved for VPNs by telecom firms if they show a business need to contact websites overseas, says Xue Yu, senior market analyst for internet research with IDC. Those applicants could be local or foreign. The sponsor of a conference in China, for example, could apply for a VPN from a Chinese telecom firm, Xue says. Their foreign guests could access any website.
“VPNs can and do still operate in China so long as they are managed by companies registered in China to provide those services,” says Danny Levinson, China technology entrepreneur and past chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai’s IT committee.
Harder for the mass market, but still possible
The March 31 ban cut off the “global” internet for millions in China, the VPN review website best5vpn.com says. China has at least 751 million internet users. It also has the highest number of VPN users “thanks to strict censorship,” best5vpn.com adds. Common users can no longer get VPNs from official internet marketplaces or apps based on the March 31 ban.
A lot of Chinese netizens have migrated to the local equivalents of blocked websites, for example Beijing-based Baidu.com instead of Google for searches, as the domestic internet economy expands. The local services work with authorities to keep banned content out of sight. But those keen to see past the state-controlled internet can still try using networks sold from overseas, Xue said.