Travel China | How to stay connected behind the Great Firewall

Many readers contacted me to ask about the social medias and blogging platforms that are blocked in China.

Here is a post about China’s Great Firewall, the Western social media and news outlets banned in China, what are VPNs and why you should use them in China and how to buy a SIM card to stay connected while traveling in China.

Note that this article is about the situation in mainland China only. The following does not apply if you visit Hong-Kong or Macau.

Tian An Men Gate China Beijing Pekin

The Tian An Men Gate, symbol of Chinese power

From the Great Firewall to the Chinanet

China has set up the Great Firewall (watch this TED talk by Michael Anti). It filters and blocks all content deemed unnecessary to be viewed by the citizens of this great nation.

There are two main ways used to limit access of online content within the People’s Republic of China

  • blocking is the most common practice (the website you want to reach simply won’t load).
  • the ‘throttle’ is another technique used to significantly slow down the loading of websites. The website you wnat to look at loads, but very slow. So slow in fact that you are likely to give up.

The China Great Firewall has two functions:

  • blocking foreign websites including, but not limited to news outlets, social medias and blogging platforms which deliver content and information the Chinese government does not want its citizens to have access to.
  • fostering a 100% Chinese internet, the ‘Chinanet’ (read this interesting article about the creation of the Chinanet) which can be controlled and monitored by the government.

In this Chinanet, most Western social medias have an updated and often improved Chinese counterpart : YouTube has Youku, Twitter has Weibo, Facebook has Renren, Whatsapp has Wechat (or Weixin in Chinese) and let’s not forget the instant messaging software Tencent QQ without which the Chinese business world would not be able to function (properly).

Everywhere in China, you will find blackboards used to disseminate the party's ideology

Everywhere in China, you will find blackboards used to disseminate the party’s ideology

What Western Social Media are banned in China

First, keep in mind that situation may vary between provinces and cities. For example, following the deadly 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, Facebook was put offline in China and internet was cut off in the entire province of Xinjiang for ten months (but not in the rest of the country).

  • Western social medias and networking sites including :
    Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Instagram (depending on the provinces) and Flipboard which has its own Chinese version in the China app store. The regular non-Chinese version does not work in mainland China.
  • Online newspapers including the New York Times and the Guardian.
  • Blogging platforms like WordPress and Bloggers (and possibly other blogging platforms, again if my list is incomplete, contact me and let me know). Note also that all the websites addresses ending with .wordpress.com are also blocked, but WordPress-powered websites that have the .com suffix are not blocked.
  • All the other websites that are critical to China or deal with information or matters that displease China. If you want to know if a website is blocked in China, go to GreatFirewallOfChina.org. You will be able to test whether your website is blocked in mainland China.
Banner from the website

Banner from the website

Advice to Gmail and Google users

Since there have been some Google had pulled back from China, Google e-mail service and other Google products and Google-powered apps (including google maps) do not work very well. Depending on where you are, they are blocked or throttled.

If you travel to China and have a Gmail address, you should definitely try and set up a temporary non-Google account (where you can forward you google e-mails to) if you need access to your e-mail box.

VPN or Virtual Private Network

VPN or Virtual Private Network, allows your computer, phone or tablet to connect directly to servers located outside of China, in North America, Europe and other Asian countries.

Easy to install on your tablet, smartphone and/ or lap-top, the VPN is usually not a free service. If you plan on moving to China or traveling in China and still be able to blog and stay active on social medias like Facebook or Twitter, do consider buying a VPN.

Note that the government is frequently tempering with VPNs and sometimes successfully disrupt VPN services across the country.

China Internet

The 5 stars and the Tian’an Men Gate – the symbol of Chinese political power.

WIFI and SIM cards

Wifi available in most cities and town across China. If you plan on going to remote regions and still want to keep connected with the outside world (and if your device is not locked) you can purchase a SIM card.

Avoid China Mobile (中国移动) at all cost. They have not upgraded to 3G (at least in Guangzhou area) and go for China Unicom (中国联通).

China Unicom has two type of SIM cards : internet card (上网卡 shangwang ka)  and regular phone card (电话卡 dianhua ka). The first is internet only and with the second you can go online as well as give and receive calls.

What you should know about wireless and SIM cards

  • If you purchased a regular phone card, you will not be able to call outside mainland China unless you pay an ‘opening fee’ of 1000 RMB. You are able to receive international calls though. (note that if you buy a phone number with China Mobile in Guangdong province, you will be able to call from Hong-Kong and Macau).
  • You will be able to choose your number. Some numbers are more expensive than others, specially the ones ending in ‘8’ or ’88’ (8 is a lucky number and many Chinese are still very superstitious) while numbers ending in ‘4’ or ’44’ are cheap or even free (in Chinese, there is chose a different in tones for the word ‘death’ and the number four).
  • Many cards can be used only in the province you buy them. If you are traveling in different provinces, make sure you ask for 神州通 (shenzhou tong) so that you can use it everywhere in China.
  • You need your passport to buy a wireless and SIM cards.

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