Tate Modern has posted this message of support for the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained on Sunday at Beijing Airport, on its façade. The British arts organisation is also encouraging people to sign this petition calling for the artist’s release [via CR] who is accused of “economic crimes”. Read more
The “Great Firewall of China” (GFW), officially know as the Golden Shield Project (金盾工程), is the system which filters, blocks and censors the flow of information online within the People’s Republic of China as sanctioned by the government to “protect” its citizens from content it deems harmful to societal stability (or “harmony” as they call it here). Read more
A friend of mine noticed something odd while visiting Hong Kong last weekend. Despite Hong Kong not being subject to the heavy internet blocks and censorship on the mainland he still couldn’t get Facebook or Twitter to work on his iPhone (which had international roaming turned on). Hong Kong residents using one of the local providers don’t face any such restrictions and after testing out a few different apps as well as making sure the sites worked fine on a normal laptop we began to become suspicious. Read more
Google dropped a bomb on China and the world today when it revealed a string of sophisticated cyber attacks against its infrastructure targeted against human rights activists’ email accounts which had originated from China (similar to the GhostNet attack in 2009). In response Google has decided to cease censoring Google.cn search results (demanded by the government): Read more
After the Beijing 2008 Olympics most people anticipated that internet censorship in China would ease but contrary to expectations the situation continues to get worse with more sites being blocked by the week (see whatblocked.com for the latest). Traditionally people bypassed the blocks using anonymous proxies and other free services but many of these have also been barred by the government and those which remain are usually so overwhelmed that service is patchy and slow at best. The best solution for foreigners in China and anyone wanting to access sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook these days is to get a personal VPN account using one of the commercial services available.
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, basically allows you to create a secure tunnel through your existing internet connection to a server in another country (usually Europe or America) where you can then enjoy complete freedom to surf as you would anywhere else. The technology is exactly the same as corporations use to allow their employees to work from home but is now available for personal use. Whilst it isn’t free they’re usually a lot more reliable and faster than the alternatives.
I recently got the opportunity to try a relative newcomer to the area called 12vpn (having also previously reviewed Witopia). Founded in 2008 by a group of expats in Asia who began by offering IT services to businesses, Anuson Limited opened up their VPN solution to end-users earlier this year.
They offer two basic packages for individuals – “Lite” ($30/year) and “Personal” ($70/year) with the only real difference being that the former has a bandwidth cap 10gb per month. Both provide multiple protocols for accessing the service (OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec, IKEv2 and Cisco) meaning that you can use it on virtually any device. I tested it on a Windows 7 laptop, a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard, my iPhone (first generation) and iPad (running iOS 4.2).
First impressions were good – sign-up is easy with a variety of payment options including PayPal and a 7-day money back guarantee if you’re not satisfied. Once this is complete you’re provided with setup instructions and emailed security certificates which allow you to connect to the service. The configuration steps are extremely simple with an automated installer being provided for your platform of choice (Windows/Mac…). As this is a true VPN service (not a proxy) all your applications will work without any need to change anything – you just hit connect and away you go.
The first thing you’ll notice once your connected with 12vpn is that you can now access to all your favourite sites again. The second thing is the big speed improvement for international sites. Whilst your download/upload speed is still limited to your physical connection things feel a lot quicker since the route the traffic is taking is far more direct and stable. In my tests YouTube videos streamed with minimal buffering time and downloading large files worked without any issues. In comparison to Witopia there isn’t any noticeable speed difference although 12vpn felt faster to connect but this isn’t something I can verify.
The service also offers a choice of servers in the US, UK and Germany which you can choose to use although I found the default to be more than adequate. If you want to use services like BBC iPlayer or Spotify then be sure to connect to the London server (and vice versa for US services).
One of the great thing about 12vpn is that you can also use it on your smartphone (using L2TP usually). Setting it up on my iPhone was simply a matter of emailing myself a configuration file which when opened on the phone set everything up without any need to delve into any technical details. In China most people still use EDGE on their mobile for data services (3G coverage is patchy) and I had no problems connecting. This was far easier than with Witopia which I could never get to work on my phone in the past. Being able to twitter on the go is a small pleasure but one which is strangely appreciated when so far from home.
12vpn is a great service that I would recommend to anyone needing to bypass the great firewall or just those looking for an extra layer of security. Where the service differentiates and excels in comparison to the competition is in its flexibility to be used transparently on almost any device you might have with minimal fuss. While in an ideal world a VPN wouldn’t be necessary it’s a small price to pay for freedom.
12vpn have kindly offered to give Randomwire readers who sign up a 10% discount – enter the promotional code RANDOMWIRE when you sign-up to qualify.
I recently compiled a list of popular English language sites which are currently blocked, or have been at some point in the past, in China (you can find the most current version on whatblocked.com):
What struck me is how this has changed over the past few years; before mainstream news organisations (e.g. BBC) and various activist groups were the clear targets but today this has dramatically shifted towards social media (e.g. Twitter) and services which allow the free sharing of content outside China’s digital borders (e.g. YouTube). Within China clones of sites like Facebook (e.g. RenRen) have been allowed to flourish under the direct control of the government who are free to monitor and censor at will.
After the 60th anniversary celebrations at the beginning of the month commentators were expecting the government to ease the blocks but in fact the situation has actually gotten much worse with many more sites being block without warning. There are even proposals being floated to only allow content to be posted by accounts liked to a users national ID.
From all this I think we can infer a few things:
- The Chinese government really doesn’t like *the people* expressing themselves without any means of control or identification (obviously)
- Freeing the mainstream media allows them to avoid the old accusations of media censorship so the issue fades from the spotlight (if anyone questions this they can just say that bloggers aren’t reputable and need controlling etc.)
- If your web app contains any kind of social or crowd-sourced component forget about trying to launch in China (unless you’re prepared to do the government’s bidding – Google is having a rough ride here trying to balance on the wall)
- Blocking foreign sites may be bad for foreign companies but is good for the local competition who take over and fill the gaps
- The Chinese government clearly has the technology to enforce these policies (probably provided by western companies) and see no reason not to use it – bypassing restrictions will be a constant cat-and-mouse game
In summary this was succinctly put by@illuminantceo who tweeted “China no longer has internet. It has LAN”. It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs to be experiencing in 2009 after the amazing Beijing 2008 Olympics which were supposed to a key moment for China to turn the corner towards freedom. Sadly it looks like we’re a long way from seeing a truly open China.
The GFW actually creates more problems than it is intended to solve. It creates more anger and dissent. It creates more obstacles to trade and discussion of ideas, yet at the same time increases and furthers more bad-mouthing of China. It makes the government look stupid, scared, paranoid and childish as well as being totalitarian. It does nothing to encourage trade and business, if anything it scares investors, expats, foreign experts and others away. [from Lost Laowai discussion]
Ultimately China will suffer from this restrictive approach which stifles creativity and innovation which is exactly what Chinese needs in order to develop from a follower into a world leader. The inconvenience alone makes me seriously consider my future here, let alone the issue of human rights.
If you ever wanted to know what it feels like living in the dark ages come to China right about now. Seemingly in timing with the 20th anniversary of the 1989 “incident” (as they call it around here) many popular international websites have been blocked (including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, WordPress, Blogger & Hotmail) and anything that isn’t blocked is loading at a snails pace probably due to extra filtering/monitoring going on.
As a citizen of the internet this makes me mad and not just because I can’t share my inane thoughts with random people online any more but because I know full well that the anniversary will pass here and no one will bat an eyelid. Whether they don’t know or don’t care after all the bloodshed the wrong side won and tyrannical suppression continues in many forms. Sometimes it feels like freedom is a low priority here as long as you’re making money.
Political and human rights rants aside there are still plenty of ways to get around the great firewall. Here are options which should provide you with unfiltered access (continually updated):
- 12vpn (paid) – VPN service with optimized configurations for selected regions. My review here.
- Witopia (paid) – VPN service which provides relatively fast service. My review here.
- Other personal VPN providers: Astrill, ibVPN, Strong VPN, SwitchVPN (comparison here).
- Tor (free) – slow but very secure and reliable p2p onion routing network. My guide here.
- Hotspot Shield (free) – another VPN service which provides free service but slow.
- Freegate (free) – proxy service created by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (download here).
- Freedur (paid) – simple software but plagued by security and technical issues in the past.
- SSH tunnel (requires server) – for more technical people see this guide here (if you don’t have a server try this one).
- Anonymous proxy (free) – many free services provide web-based proxies but insecure [1, 2, 3].
If you don’t know what a VPN is then check out VPN Resource for a simple guide. If you’re using an old fashioned proxy server you may find Firefox plugins like FoxyProxy or Gladder useful for switching connections across multiple proxy servers based on URL patterns. For Chinese speakers (and savvy non-speakers) you may find this site very useful.
If you know any other good ways around the GFW please leave a comment below.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 updated for 21st Century China (and my current mood):
Photo by wvs
Oh Great Firewall shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
No, I shalt compare thee to a thorn in my backside.
Thou art more restrictive and more disruptive.
Rough connections do shake the darling congress of March,
And 1989’s memory hath all too long a block.
Sometime too hot the eye of CPC shines,
And often is Youtube’s complexion dimmed;
And every post from BBS sometime declines,
By chance, or golden shield’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal censor shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that power thou ow’st,
Nor shall freedom brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can browse, or hands can type,
So long lives this, and this gives frustration to thee.
The world economic crisis created in America is having knock-on effects around the world. As people in the west stop spending so the demand for manufactured goods from China is slowing down putting millions of migrant factory workers out of work.While the government does it’s best to keep the lid on free speech which might insight civil unrest the people still find other forms of expression to vent their feelings and resist censorship (known locally as “harmonization“) through the use of allegory, puns and seemingly innocent comics or videos.
The following comics appeared in my inbox today humorously depicting the every-day impact of the economic crisis and how people have reacted in China (which some friends helped me translate). Each should be read from top to bottom – left and right are separate comics:
The economy aside, while this example is fairly tame, an interesting point raised here asks…
Will the Chinese people rise above cyber-vigilantism and use the Internet to build a just and fair society governed by accountable leaders? Or will the majority be be happy to wield their new-found powers of online speech in random fashion? … It’s hard to know whether people beyond the elite intelligentsia will pay attention to such concerns.
Considering the mass appeal and reach of the internet I’d like to say yes but knowing the Chinese’s lacklustre interest in politics it’s difficult to see it happening on a mass scale soon. The Chinese government maybe beginning to warm up to the idea of online debate but you can be sure it wont be democratic in any sense of the true meaning.
More comics after the break…
Last year I talked about using Tor to bypass the internet censorship in China but the problem is that it’s painfully slow, almost to the point of being unusable. There are other options such as anonymous proxy servers (again slow) and corporate private networks but for most individuals these are not an option and fiddly to configure.
I have however discovered another alternative which provides both security, stability and speed – it’s not free but certainly isn’t expensive either. Enter Witopia personalVPN – costing $59.99 per year this basically creates an encrypted tunnel out to Witopia’s secure internet gateway giving you unlimited access to the internet without any blocks or restrictions. Set up is simply a matter of installing a simple piece of software which is sent to you pre-configured by email (there are clients for Windows, Mac & Linux).
Establishing a connection takes a matter of seconds and then you’re good to go. No messing around with any computer or internet settings as you would with the other solutions. What makes this even better is that the speed is fast, in fact I’d swear its faster surfing international sites using the VPN connection than without it normally making me extremely happy!
This of course will work world-wide once you’ve subscribed and can be useful in other situations where you want to ensure your connection is secure. Although I’ve only been using it a short while I’d thoroughly recommend it, especially if you’re in China.
N.b. as a side note if you use Mac OS X I’d recommend using the Viscosity OpenVPN client, rather than the included Tunnelblick application as it has a much better interface. It will import the connection settings automatically the first time you run it.
Update: for those in China blocked by the great firewall you might also like my guide to the various other ways of bypassing it.