Despite some positive advances in international relations and improvements in civil rights over past two decades or so, the Chinese government still retains elements of strict control over its citizens. Despite there now being a higher availability of international media and more options for internal communication, internet access is still strictly controlled with many foreign and even some domestic websites blocked by sophisticated firewalls. This choke allows the Chinese government to control content that they deem unfit to be shared by the general populace. These internet controls can often be problematic for business travellers, as certain file sharing services or foreign servers may be blocked by a firewall, preventing remote access to emails or stored files.
There are also problems for Chinese people wishing to access Chinese websites from abroad, with some Chinese sites inaccessible from other countries. Surprisingly, global internet giants like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are not above the censors and are inaccessible from China. The government strictly controls social media and even Chinese Facebook and Twitter alternatives such as Ren-Ren and Weibo are heavily monitored.
Despite the ‘Big Brother’ attitude taken by the government, both Chinese internet users (often called ‘Netizens’) and international surfers have taken advantage of numerous workarounds to enjoy the freedom of access usually found in other countries. One of the best known methods to get around internet controls is to take advantage of a Virtual Private Network (VPN), a tool which allows users to fool ‘The Great Firewall of China’ by making it look like your computer or device is accessing the internet from a different part of the world. This even works the other way around, so Chinese websites can be accessed from abroad by making it look like the computer or device is in China.
Chinese government technicians are aware of this trick and have managed to develop more stringent software and firewalls to block certain VPN services. However, some VPNs still work and are used by travellers and Chinese citizens alike to gain access certain blocked content, a boon for business men and women who need to reach foreign email and storage servers or visit work-related websites that are on the blacklist.
VPN services are easy to use and are often controlled by an app which configures a device’s internet settings, allowing common firewalls and censorship software to be circumvented. Apps can be downloaded from trusted websites or through the App Store / Google Play, but always make sure that your software is installed before you enter China, as Google play is also blocked. Some VPNs require advanced configuration, but most pay services include instructions and product support that make installation easy. VPNs will allow access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and Google Documents, as well as foreign storage servers and blocked foreign websites.
A very popular pay service that still works is ExpressVPN, a robust pay-monthly VPN service with multiple options to maintain private, secured connectivity, even on unreliable internet connections or public Wi-Fi. ExpressVPN is available for PC, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows Phone and offers a free trial.
Staying in touch and accessing important work documents will be helped greatly by using a VPN service, but there are other ways of staying connected with the outside world. Calls to foreign networks from mobile and landline phones are blocked, and there’s confusion as to whether Skype still works and a great Chinese app, WeChat (similar to Whatsapp) makes it easy to make internet calls and send instant messages. Be warned however, as there is a certainty that messages and calls within China are being monitored and there is a high likelihood that external communications are also subject to the same scrutiny.
Staying in touch from China and accessing work files and emails can be made easier and a VPN service is strongly recommended as it doesn’t look like the Chinese government’s stance on internet censorship isn’t going to change anytime soon.