“How do you access things like Facebook and your blog in China?”
It’s one of the more common questions I get asked since moving here.
And I might add, it’s a very good question! Sometimes I wonder myself!
Well, it’s all thanks to a little help from a friend, called VPN.
Now for someone ‘technically challenged’ like myself, admittedly in the past I’ve (purposely) stayed in the dark about things that happen in cyberspace. Let’s just say, it may as well be a parallel universe and never the twain shall meet!
But coming to China where there is a great deal more control on what you can easily access, has forced me to open my eyes and focus on learning about those little things that can make my daily life a lot less chaotic in a foreign country.
(As if it wasn’t bad enough having limited access to chocolate in China, not to mention those gazillion other things you can’t get here; having no internet or access to the things online that make your world go round can send you, quite literally, around the twist.)
In fact, in all honesty, it is a wonder this laptop I’m using is still in tact, for there have been many moments of utter frustration where I’ve almost hurled it over my balcony. (Yes! That explains why the U key is missing!)
If you’re not really up with the ‘censorship’ situation in China, let me give you a brief backgrounder.
China’s internet control system is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world. Government authorities not only block website content but are also known to monitor the internet access of individuals. (I’m told there is actually a department within the local police bureau here, to specifically monitor internet use.)
It is taken VERY seriously.
Amnesty International claims that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.”
You may wonder why? Basically, the Communist Party of China wants to protect the nation’s values and political ideals from any outside influence. There are many other reasons and they go far deeper than this simplified sentence, but for obvious reasons, I will let you delve a little deeper of your own accord.
For people like me, just your average expat in China, things I’ve previously taken for granted like using search engine Google (almost every waking moment) is blocked; although China has its own local search engine, Baidu, it’s in Chinese and when translated into English is not exactly ‘easy reading,’ and search results aren’t always fruitful.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are also blocked. In their place is social media platform ‘We Chat’ which is, for all intents and purposes, a great combination of Facebook, Twitter and What’s App combined.
While it’s good for keeping in touch with new friends I meet in China and for keeping me up to date on the latest events in this sprawling nation; if I want to connect to the majority of my friends and family on Facebook or access my blog that helps me make a living…..along with Twitter and Instagram for that matter — I need to call in the assistance of my good friend, the VPN. (Who I am VERY grateful for!)
So what’s a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.
Essentially, it’s a way to take your public network, private. What you view online is private to you, even when you are using a public network like your internet provider or a Wi-Fi connection.
In layman’s terms, every device on the internet has an IP address, which is a unique address, kind of like your home address. Just as your address gives away the country you’re in, so does your IP address.
A VPN in effect allows the user to ‘trick’ websites on your whereabouts – connecting you through a server the VPN provider has set up in a specific area. From there, the IP address is made private and the person can view the internet with no restrictions or filtering in place.
For example, if my VPN is switched on (which is just a click of the icon on my computer or phone) it will list a number of countries I can choose from, with a top few that give the best results for my area.
Whether it be Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Australia, my address is re-routed to these countries allowing me to access whatever I normally could if I were in these places.
However, it’s worth noting, as the Great Firewall of China becomes increasingly sophisticated, many VPN’s are being blocked or becoming harder to use.
A couple of months ago one of the most popular paid for VPN’s – Astrill – was blocked on all Apple iPhones for at least a month in China, just like that!
VPN’s aren’t just used by expats in remote locations though.
Thousands of global companies use them for security – to protect valuable information on their site.
It’s also a great way to bolster your own security in this high-tech era, to ensure no one is snooping on your activity, especially if you’re online in a café or somewhere like an airport.
Many people use them for shopping online, on sites normally restricted to particular countries or watching programs/movies that can’t be accessed in their part of the world, like Netflix’s broad host of programs in America that may not be available in the UK or Australia. And let’s be honest, what expat can live without Netflix!! (Mind you, Netflix is cracking down on people using other means to access country’s programs they’re not in, so it’s harder to watch with a VPN. I currently need two connected at once!)
Maybe you just want to watch something live as it happens like the Olympics instead of waiting for the network in your country to broadcast it?
Are VPNs legal?
To the best of my knowledge, using a VPN is perfectly legal so long as you’re not using to for illegal activity that causes harm to others.
So, how exactly do you choose a VPN?
There are now over 100 VPN services available, so it’s quite difficult to find the one that suits you. And let me just say, not all VPNs are created equal.
For me it was largely a case of word of mouth and reaching out to foreigners living in China and those friends who’re technical experts!
I also looked at the online site, BestVPNServicemag.com – they’ve done a lot of the leg work and even have a Top Ten VPN comparison list which was extremely useful for a non tech-head like myself. And another list from PCMag.Com
Here are my top tips when choosing a VPN.
#Price varies, so be sure to do your homework. Some are free but not as reliable. Work out how much you’re going to rely on a VPN. Is it negotiable or a necessity? Signing up for a year is usually cheaper than month by month.
#Check the compatibility with your computer and mobile system; i.e some work better with iOS, others with Android.
#Check how many operating systems you can use the VPN on. Some only allow you to use it on your laptop while others allow you five different networks: say on your house computer, two lap tops and two mobile phones.
#If you’re an expat try to sign up before you arrive at your destination, just in case you can’t access their website. (This is particularly relevant to China.)
#Check the powers that be aren’t cracking down on specific VPN’s before you sign up and realise they’re blocked in your country.
#Make sure the servers have a variety of locations to choose from, especially if you’re planning to shop on specific sites or want to watch something from a certain country.
#Just because you have a VPN there’s no guarantee your access will suddenly be super fast and reliable. It’s a remarkable tool but it’s not foolproof. If internet is patchy, chances are your VPN will be too.
So, there you have it….. my new best friend in China…. The VPN.
I prefer to call it a VPS – Virtual Protector of (my) Sanity.
Psst, For the record, I’m currently using three VPNs – depending on who gives me the goods when I need them! Astrill, Express VPN and Hide My Ass.
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