Worried that its people would learn inconvenient truths about their own country or be influenced by outsiders’ ideas, China created a system that blocks access to internet services like Facebook. But the Great Firewall of China blocks access for everyone – even expat workers and vacationers. This guide will show you how to unblock Facebook when you are in China.
We will start with a look at the Great Firewall of China (GFC): what is it and how does it work? Next, we’ll talk about how using a piece of software called a VPN (virtual private network) will enable you to bypass any government censorship in China. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll be able to unblock Facebook in China without any problems.
If you want to skip straight to information on unblocking Facebook, skip straight to the “Tunnels in the Great Wall”.
The Great Firewall of China
You won’t find a government office in Beijing called the Great Firewall of China. That is a clever term coined in a 1997 Wired magazine article,which people now use to describe China’s growing system for internet surveillance and censorship.
What is the GFC?
The GFC is an interlocking system of laws, regulations, and technologies that tries to control what Chinese citizens can see and say on the internet. Contrary to popular belief, China’s censorship is not a top-down decree enforced by national morality police.
Rather, it is a set of high-level principles implemented in laws and regulations by national, regional, and local governments. Secret and not-so-secret police have their role to play, but the censorship process extends beyond the government into the businesses that make China’s internet work.
Laws and Regulations
Chinese law prohibits anyone from using the internet to do or say anything that undermines The State’s leadership. We aren’t talking about overthrowing the state. Social media posts complaining of Beijing’s poor air quality get taken down. Even images of Winnie the Pooh are banned because people compare the portly bear to China’s President Xi Jinping.
Although China employs thousands of people to manage its censorship program, the cooperation of internet companies in China is what makes it effective. Internet cafés are required to log anyone using their computers, while internet service providers implement China’s censorship technologies. Even foreign internet companies like Yahoo! must provide authorities with their customers’ identities.
China’s authorities also blocked the distribution of Virtual Private Networks, the tools we are discussing in this guide. For example, Apple pulled 60+ of the most popular VPN apps from its China app store at the order of the Chinese government.
The Technology of Censorship
Besides putting the squeeze on companies doing business in China, the government uses a range of technological approaches to block access to Facebook and the broader internet.
The crudest approach is a technique called IP blocking. Everything on the internet has what’s called an internet protocol (IP) address. These are not the words you type in your browser, but a series of hexadecimal digits that computers use to define a site’s place on the ‘Net.
The GFC has lists of IP addresses for sites on the web or internet-based services that it does not want its citizens to access. When a browser in China tries to access one of those IP addresses, China’s internet routers refuse the requests.
We rarely see those IP addresses. Instead we use words like www.AddonHQ.com to get where we need to go on the World Wide Web. The Domain Name System (DNS) is like a telephone book for the web that matches the words we use to name a website to the numerical IP addresses computers use.
China’s DNS Filtering system blocks access to websites based on their domain names. It’s easy for a site to change its IP address: people only care about the site’s name and the DNS updates its references quickly. But changing a site’s name is much harder. People will not learn about the change, cutting off the site’s audience.
The full set of words that describe a particular page on a website is called a Universal Records Locator or URL. The GFC uses URL filtering to check a page’s URL as well as the URLs of any images or videos a page loads for banned terms. It then blocks access to that page.
The previous techniques are brute force approaches to online censorship that are not always effective. Getting around them is easy for an internet company willing to put in the effort.
The Great Firewall uses a more sophisticated technique called packet filtering that inspects the actual data passing through its servers and routers. You may have heard about cable or wireless companies deliberately slowing Netflix streams. They can do this because the packets of data Netflix sends has recognizable patterns. The GFC uses similar techniques to examine packets and block any associated with banned sites.
The GFC can take things a step farther and inspect packets for signs that they were generated by Virtual Private Networks and then block those packets from getting through. This creates a coding arms race between China’s censors and the VPN providers.
From the technologies of internet filtering to the coopting of communications companies, the Chinese state controls what its people can see on the internet… and that’s a lot.
China’s Missing Internet
Facebook is not the only service that China denies its citizens. Other major social media companies including Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are barred from mainland China.
Western news sites are constant targets for China’s censors. Access to American and European news sites will get cut off in retaliation for coverage China deems unfairly critical. There is no relief at all for Chinese-language news sites outside mainland China – most of them are blocked permanently.
Check out Craig Smith’s insider view of The New York Times in China. He describes how China shut down the newspaper’s operations – and how it regained its foothold by finding ways around the censors.
Google complied with the country’s censorship regulations when it first entered the Chinese market. Anyone submitting banned terms to the Google China search page, was told the word was a no-no. That never sat well with Google executives and, when China got caught hacking Google in 2010, they pulled out of mainland China.
That came a year after China blocked access to YouTube when videos of Chinese forces beating Tibetan protesters went viral. Since then, Google’s main search page and other services from Gmail to Google Scholar have been blocked.
Tunnels in the Great Firewall
If you work or travel in China, the Great Firewall can be more than an inconvenience. It can keep you from getting your job done or make communication with friends and family impossible. Fortunately, VPNs create a tunnel through the GFC to the full internet beyond.
What is a VPN?
VPNs got their start in the corporate world when companies needed a way to connect satellite offices to headquarters and to let traveling employees connect to the company network. Businesses use VPNs to extend their private networks virtually across the internet in a way that keeps their confidential data secure.
Today, VPNs are more widely used for maintaining personal privacy, bypassing geo-restrictions, and of course, accessing blocked websites. A VPN essentially allows you to connect to remote servers almost anywhere in the world, allowing you to “virtually” access websites from anywhere you want.
So essentially, by using a VPN, you can tunnel all of your internet traffic through a non-Chinese server before connecting to Facebook, or whatever website it is that you’re attempting to access. In doing so, you’ll be able to bypass the restrictions set in place by The Great Firewall.
At a high level there are two things that make this work: IP tunneling and encryption.
How the Internet Works
Data does not flow across the internet in streams like water through pipes. The Wi-Fi or Ethernet in your device chops the file into chunks of data called packets. The packets then get bounced from server to server across the internet to be reassembled at their destination.
What lets the Great Firewall work is that it can see the address on each packet as well as peer into the packet itself.
How a VPN Works
The VPN client running on your device creates a virtual tunnel to a VPN server. It uses encryption to scramble the packets of data so much that nothing will recognize it. The client then wraps each packet inside another packet before transmitting it to the server at the other end of the tunnel.
What Are VPN Service Providers?
At first, VPNs were run within a company’s IT department before third party companies emerged to offer VPN capabilities as an outsourced service. Over time, some VPN service providers began marketing their services to individuals who needed more secure connections to the internet.
Today, there are hundreds of VPN companies vying for consumer dollars. However, the one we recommend for users in China is StrongVPN.
You have a lot of VPN service providers to choose from – which one is the best choice to use in China? The Great Firewall is constantly changing and finding new ways to block people from the full internet. You need a service with the resources to keep ahead of the game.
We recommend StrongVPN. Unlike many of the company’s competitors which seem to pop up every day, StrongVPN has been around since 1994 and offering VPN services since 2005. Over the past twelve years, they have built a global footprint with five hundred servers in twenty-two countries.
You don’t have to take it from us. StrongVPN’s customers are happy with the service they receive. The Google Play store gives the StrongVPN app 4.0 stars based on 2,411 reviews. The Apple App Store is a little lower with 3.5 stars on 252 reviews – but half of those are 5-stars.
Please note that on July 31, China pulled virtually all VPN apps from the iOS app store after being pressured by the Chinese government. We’re currently looking for a workaround to help users get VPN access on their iDevices.
StrongVPN bases its reputation on a fast, effective VPN service as well as responsive customer support. The features built into their service drives StrongVPN’s mission to provide people “with a private and safe internet experience with no strings attached.”
StrongVPN, as with all VPN providers, uses encryption to protect the data as it travels from your device to its servers. Many VPN providers rely on 256-bit encryption, but StrongVPN lets you use up to 2048-bit encryption for the ultimate protection.
StrongVPN also protects you from marketers, hackers, or other snoops trying to follow you home. Their servers replace your IP address with their own. That anyone tracking you will arrive at StrongVPN’s firewall and get no further. StrongVPN’s apps let advanced users select from a wide range of security protocols including: PPTP, L2TP, SSTP, OpenVPN, and IPSec.
StrongVPN’s encryption and firewall are all well and good, but what happens if there is a breach? It’s true, plenty of companies and governments have had their systems hacked and the same thing could happen to StrongVPN. The thing is, there is nothing on StrongVPN’s servers to steal. The company has a zero logging policy. It forgets every step you make as you make them.
StrongDNS is a new feature included with all of StrongVPN’s plans. When surfing the web in countries that corrupt the DNS system, you can count on StrongVPN’s in-house DNS to get you where you need to go.
These features shield you from the techniques employed by China’s censors. Their filtering systems cannot see the IP, URL, or DNS requests that your browser makes. StrongVPN’s software masks the signatures that VPN blockers rely on. Finally, with servers in so many places around the world, StrongVPN can make the rapid adjustments it needs to keep their service running while delivering fast internet connections.
Who Uses StrongVPN?
StrongVPN has nearly 5,600 testimonials from customers around the world – and more than nine hundred from people who use its service in China. Here are a few in their own words:
“I am an academic working for Tsinghua University. My personal computer is used for everything from personal and professional correspondence to assisting in my research…. I would be unable to do my research work in China without the ability to access resources through the use of the Strong VPN [sic].” – Wendell M.
“As an English teacher living in China… it’s very difficult to find lesson plans or other teaching materials necessary to fulfill my duties in the schoolhouse… once i subscribed to StongVPN’s [sic] service, surfing the net became much less frustrating” – Christopher S.
“StrongVPN has been the most reliable way for me to stay in contact with both family and my work back in the states.” – Courtney J.
StrongVPN’s base plan starts at $10 per month with a a 41% discount on the annual plan. The five-day money-back guarantee provides a painless way to try StrongVPN.
We live in a world where social platforms like Facebook keep us in constant contact with co-workers, friends, and family. Losing those connections because you work or travel in China is more than a minor inconvenience. Thanks to services like StrongVPN, however, you can stay in touch with those important people in your life.