The Chinese government won’t let anyone in mainland China use Google Search, Gmail, or even Picasa. By reading this guide, you will learn how to unblock Google in China.
We’ll start by looking at virtual private network (VPN) technology and the censorship barriers in China. Then we’ll take a look at one VPN provider, StrongVPN, and its solutions to internet censorship. Finally, we’ll review Google’s history in China and see why it gets blocked.
VPNs And The Great Firewall Of China
Virtual private network services let you get onto the internet in ways that bypass national censors. That makes them essential tools for people visiting and living in mainland China.
The Great Firewall Of China
Although not the official name, most people call the Chinese online censorship system the Great Firewall of China, or the GFC. It’s made up of a system of policies and technologies that limit what people in China can see, or say, on the internet. We’ll talk about some of the policy issues later on. For now, let’s look at the technologies China uses to block the internet.
Related: How to Unblock Censored Websites in China – Full Guide
We use words like www.google.com or www.youtube.com to name the websites we visit. That makes them easy to remember, but these domain names are not what internet technology uses to connect us to the web. In order to figure out where to send your data, your browser will check with the Domain Name System (DNS) to find out what Google’s address on the internet actually is. Think of it as the internet’s version of the phone book. Your browser looks up a name and gets back a number.
China’s censors have a black list of domains that they do not want anyone to visit. They use DNS Filtering to block those visits by making sure the DNS servers in China ignore anyone looking up a banned domain name.
DNS Filtering won’t work if the browser already has the location of a website, called its Internet Protocol (IP) address. These numerical codes are what the servers and routers that move data around the internet actually use to do their jobs. The GFC uses IP Filtering technology to block attempts to access banned sites directly. China’s internet routers refuse to pass data to the IP addresses on the banned list.
A third way China’s censors block the full internet is by looking inside the data packets flowing through the system. Packet Inspection technology can find forbidden words like “Tiananmen Square” or the digital fingerprints of a Netflix video, flag the forbidden content, and block it from going through.
VPN Tunneling And Encryption
Virtual private networks rely on two fundamental technologies to bypass censorship systems like the GFC: tunneling and encryption.
The VPN software on your computer or smartphone will connect to a server run by the VPN service provider in a way that masks where you go on the internet. Let’s say you check your Gmail account. China’s DNS and IP Filtering technology will not see that you’re using Google’s mail service because of the way the VPN hides what you’re doing.
A virtual private network also bypasses China’s Packet Inspection technology by using powerful encryption approaches to scramble the data so much that even supercomputers can’t put them back together again.
Other Reasons For Using A VPN
People in China depend on VPN software to access the free and open internet, but VPNs are also important for people who do not live under such strict censorship.
VPN technology started as a way for companies to let its traveling employees connect to their internal networks without sacrificing security. Individuals now use it to create more secure connections to the internet. Open Wi-Fi hotspots at airports, hotels, and cafes are shared connections which anyone with the right tools can hack. A VPN lets you connect to the internet securely.
This technology, first developed for the corporate world and then adopted by individuals, is now a lifeline for people who live in countries where individual freedoms are not protected.
Unblock Google In China With StrongVPN
You will find a lot of VPN companies out there, but not all of them have the combination of resources and features to unblock Google in China. Flixed recommends StrongVPN for its combination of technology, privacy-first philosophy, and global footprint.
StrongDNS And DNS Filtering
StrongVPN has its own DNS servers which are not affected by the GFC’s DNS Filtering technology. Your wireless router has a setting that lets you change the addresses it uses to make its DNS lookups. Replacing your Chinese internet service provider’s DNS address with the StrongDNS address will ensure that nothing on your network gets blocked by DNS Filtering.
Tunneling And IP Filtering
StrongVPN lets you create private connections to their servers outside of China. Once connected, the data flowing back and forth between your device and that server will not trigger the Great Firewall’s IP Filtering technology. To the outside world, it will look like you are surfing the web from wherever that server is located rather than your hotel room, office, or apartment in China.
Advanced users can choose between five different masking techniques, called tunneling protocols. They are a bit of an alphabet soup (PPTP/L2TP/SSTP/OpenVPN/IPSec) unless you’re used to VPNs.
Encryption And Packet Inspection
Many VPNs use the same kind of 256-bit encryption techniques used by the US government. StrongVPN’s software, on the other hand, lets you dial up the security all the way to 2048-bit encryption. There isn’t a supercomputer on the planet that can unscramble that kind of encryption.
One worry people have with VPN services – and any online company for that matter – is the risk of hacking. If China’s censors hack into StrongVPN, however, they will be very disappointed. StrongVPN does not keep records or logs of where its customers go on the web. This zero-logging policy ensures that nobody will find out you visited a banned site like Google or Facebook.
The final reason Flixed recommends StrongVPN is its global presence. The company has been offering personal VPN services for more than a decade. Over that time, it built out an infrastructure that spans twenty-two countries. Your VPN software can choose from more than eighty thousand IP addresses to connect to one of StrongVPN’s more than five hundred servers around the world.
The large, global infrastructure makes it harder for China’s censors to block StrongVPN’s service. Its customers also get a better experience since there is less competition for bandwidth on each server.
StrongVPN has apps you can download to the major smartphone and personal computer platforms. It even has ways to protect devices on your home network that can’t run the StrongVPN apps. All you need is to pick one of its subscription plans.
You get three choices when signing up with StrongVPN: a monthly, quarterly, or an annual subscription. All three plans provide the same level of service. Which one you pick is simply a question of how long of a commitment you want to make – and how much money you want to save.
No matter which way you go, StrongVPN promises a five-day money back guarantee. Cancel at any time within those five days and you get a refund. They may offer you a deal to stay – and they will ask if you really, really mean it – but the cancellation process is not a burden.
After that five-day period, however, your cancellation takes effect after your current subscription period expires. On a monthly plan, that means you’re out a single monthly payment. On an annual plan, a full year.
The best strategy may be to sign up for the monthly plan and use the five days to try out StrongVPN’s software. If you are happy with things, you can always upgrade to a quarterly or annual plan later.
Mobile And Desktop Platforms
StrongVPN apps support Windows, Mac OS, iOS, and Android. You can get the personal computer apps directly from StrongVPN’s website and the mobile apps from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store. The StrongVPN website has detailed instructions for setting things up.
The StrongVPN app has a four-star rating from more than 2,400 users on the Google Play Store. More than 1,400 of those reviews are five-star reviews. The App Store is a smaller, tougher crowd with 260 people giving StrongVPN’s app 3.5 stars. Users generally praise StrongVPN’s reliability and performance, but some say its setup process is too difficult.
You can also read customer testimonials on the StrongVPN website. Nearly six thousand people have left their own reviews and described their experiences use the VPN service. More than nine hundred of those reviews are from people who use StrongVPN from China:
“To read news, receive Gmail, and download software. Strongvpn is very stable, I have been using it for 2 years. It always connects me to the world from China.” Richard X.
“I use Strongvpn for everything that is blocked in China from watching Youtube videos to getting access to New York Times. But it is a must to gain access to my Gmail or keep in touch with friends on Facebook.” Timothy C.
“Basically for surfing the internet and to check my gmail accounts. Having used many VPN services, i have found strongvp to have the best customer service as well as stability of VPN service. However, you may need to change servers often as China quickly blocks certain VPN servers once you log onto it too often.” Ernest N.
Why China Blocks Google
Ever since the internet first reached China, its government has tried to control what its people can do or say on the web. The Great Firewall prevents Chinese citizens from learning about things that reflect badly on China’s leadership or the Communist Party. That means blocking searches for sensitive topics and keeping the Chinese people from using social media outside of China’s control.
What makes the GFC so effective is that it does not depend on government officials to work. Laws require internet service providers to install the GFC’s technology in their own systems. Internet cafe owners have to log the name and address of anyone who uses their computers. Even Western companies have to comply with China’s regulations. Apple removed VPN apps as well as the New York Times app from its China app store. Yahoo has provided information about a journalist’s email activity that authorities used to send him to prison. And business networking service LinkedIn’s Chinese operation actively blocks access to banned topics.
Censorship And Not Being Evil
Google helped China censor the internet, too. That was the price of admission when it entered the Chinese market in 2006. Over the next four years it complied with China’s requirements to block searches for banned topics.
Google’s relationship with China’s government began to sour in 2009 after the violent suppression of Tibetan protests. People posted YouTube videos of security forces beating protesters which Chinese authorities quickly blocked. Soon afterward, China blocked all of YouTube.
Related: How To Unblock YouTube in China – What You Need to Know
The next year Google explained why it was leaving China. “We detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” It didn’t stop with economic espionage, however. “We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.”
Google shut down its mainland-based search operations in response and moved it to Hong Kong. Soon afterward, the Great Firewall blocked access to every service Google offers.
What Else Gets Blocked?
Google is far from being the only company targeted by China’s censors. You can’t get Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, or even the Internet Archive. The GFC has targeted specific pages on Wikipedia as well as the New York Times and other media.
Related: How to Unblock Instagram in China – Everything You Need to Know
If you plan on visiting or working in China, but depend on having access to certain online services, you will want to see what works before you go. Websites like GreatFire.org will check sites and let you know how often they get blocked by the Great Firewall.
Restore Google in China
Visiting for a few weeks, studying for a semester, or living in China does not mean having to give up access to the social media and other resources modern life makes essential. You don’t have to give up on Gmail, YouTube, search, and Google’s other services since a global, full-featured VPN service like StrongVPN lets you unblock Google in China.
Chris Casper is a former tech industry product manager who escaped from California for New Mexico. Now he writes about science and tech while searching for the perfect green chile sauce.