Instagram vanished from mainland China in 2014 after pro-democracy protests swept across Hong Kong. This guide will show you how to unblock Instagram when traveling or working in China.
In this guide, you’ll learn about VPNs – the software that will enable you to bypass government censorship in China with the click of a button. We’ll walk you through the basics of VPN usage, tell you about the VPN we recommend, and answer common questions about The Great Firewall.
Afterwards we’ll take a look at why China denies its citizens access to so much information and talk about other blocked websites.
StrongVPN Tunnels Through the Wall
You will want to stay in touch with friends and family when you travel or work in China. But the Great Firewall makes that extremely difficult by blocking most of the online services we take for granted at home. We recommend using StrongVPN to restore access to all the important people in your life.
Related: How to Unblock Facebook in China – A Complete Guide
What is a VPN?
StrongVPN is a Virtual Private Network service. VPNs were first developed to help large corporations connect satellite offices and traveling employees with the company network. Independent service providers emerged over time and began offering their services to smaller businesses and eventually to individuals.
Why Private Citizens Need VPNs
Security is the biggest reason many people turn to VPN services. The hotspots in coffee shops, gas stations, and youth hostels are ripe targets for hackers. Connected to a hotspot, you are sharing that router with everyone else. With the right tools someone could see everything you do and every password you enter.
That privacy extends to the rest of the internet. A VPN ensures that your web browsing stays as anonymous as you want it to, safe from the prying eyes of China’s censors.
Convenience when traveling is another reason people choose to use a VPN. Banks often deny access to people trying to log in from outside the country. Convincing your bank to grant access while in China can be difficult and time-consuming. A VPN will make it look like you are traveling back in the States when you are actually a world away.
Tunneling and Encryption
VPN services combine two basic methods to deliver their service. The first creates a virtual tunnel between the client software running on your device and the VPN provider’s servers. When you click on a link, your browser sends a request to your internet service provider’s server which passes it on to the next server and the next until it arrives at Instagram or wherever else you want to go on the internet.
As we’ll see, China’s censors are watching and will block your browser’s request. The VPN uses special protocols to replace the normal system of internet addresses. These protocols guide your data from your device to the VPN provider’s servers without the censors any the wiser.
The second method is encryption. The VPN client scrambles the data your computer would normally send and does it so thoroughly that it would take powerful computers years to put the data back together again. Hardly worth the trouble unless China’s sensors had a special reason to know you liked that dog and chimp video.
The virtual tunnels created by the VPN’s protocols and the privacy created by its encryption keep your use of the internet invisible to anyone in China who might be snooping.
How StrongVPN Counters the GFC
New VPN services seem to spring up all the time, but StrongVPN has been providing its services for a dozen years. Its global footprint and responsive technology keeps it one step ahead of the censors running the Great Firewall of China.
StrongVPN has five hundred servers running in twenty-two countries which means, even if China’s censors block one server, you still have many other options.
Speed is another benefit. The extra work required to keep the virtual tunnel connected can slow your online experience. That gets even worse if a VPN service’s customers are all competing to use the same server. StrongVPN’s global footprint delivers a much more consistent, high-speed connection to its users.
The techniques used by the GFC rely on knowing where data packets are coming from and where they are going. Take Internet Protocol (IP) blocking, for example. IP addresses are the numerical references the internet uses to know what goes where. The GFC knows the IP addresses of each server Instagram uses to communicate with the public and blocks any request within China to connect with those addresses.
The GFC can do the same thing for individual pages on the world wide web. It reads the page-level addresses web browsers send, called URLs. URL filters recognize words like “OccupyCentral” that China does not want its people to see (more on that later).
A third technique the GFC uses, called packet inspection, goes beyond the internet and web addresses to look at the data being transmitted by apps and browsers. If a Chinese internet service provider sees anything that crosses lines drawn by the GFC, it will refuse to transfer the data any further.
StrongVPN’s ability to render your data anonymous through tunneling means the Great Firewall cannot see the addresses of the internet services or webpages you want to use.
Additionally, their encryption prevents the Great Firewall from inspecting the data it transmits. Its systems don’t stop at the 256-bit level used by the US government. You can go all the way to 2048-bit encryption – a crazy level that would take supercomputers centuries to crack.
The Domain Name System (DNS) is the internet’s phonebook which matches the words we use to name things on the internet, like www.instagram.com, to the IP addresses the internet itself uses. The Great Firewall has corrupted the DNS by erasing domain names from its registry – entire websites no longer exist in China StrongVPN provides a service called StrongDNS that bypasses corrupt DNS servers and delivers full access to the internet.
Your use of the internet is invisible between the client app on your device and the StrongVPN server. Anyone looking from the outside will only see communications between StrongVPN and Instagram. But everyone has heard about China’s hackers and their ability to penetrate internet security systems. What happens if China hacks StrongVPN?
Nothing. StrongVPN has a policy called “zero logging” which means it does not keep any records of your activity. It forgets every step you take on the internet as you make them.
What do People Think?
You will find more than nine hundred customer reviews on StrongVPN’s website. Speed, access, and responsive customer service are common threads throughout. Here are just a couple of examples:
“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.” – 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.
Reviews on independent app stores are also positive. StrongVPN’s Android app on the Google Play store has earned a 4.0-star rating from 2,411 customers.
Getting Started with StrongVPN
StrongVPN provides client applications for all Apple computers, tablets, and smartphones as well as Windows-based PCs and Android devices. Just make sure you get them while you are still outside China. Apple just yanked VPNs off of its app store in China to keep on the right side of the government’s regulations.
StrongVPN offers plans that can meet any need. Taking a vacation in China? Month-to-month plans cost $10. Working in China for longer periods? You can get substantial discounts with quarterly and annual plans. No matter which one you choose, all plans offer the same level of service as well as a five-day, money-back guarantee.
Traveling or working in China does not mean having to go without the online services we take for granted at home. StrongVPN keeps you connected even though the Chinese government blocks Instagram, which raises a good question….
What Does China Have Against Instagram?
The ability to use Wikipedia, academic search tools, and the full range of social media tools is an essential part of modern business life – much less our personal lives. Depriving its citizens access puts the country at a disadvantage. So why place itself at a disadvantage?
China’s “Internet Sovereignty”
The Chinese government, and the Communist Party that runs it, values stability and unity above all else. In that context, freedom of speech is perfectly acceptable as long as it does not criticize or otherwise undermine the State or the Party that runs it. China’s media and publishers have always been censored and as the free-wheeling internet entered the country, China’s leaders determined that it must be controlled.
They promoted a concept called Internet Sovereignty which calls for the domestic internet to be treated like any other aspect of Chinese society. A wide-ranging body of laws and regulations determines what is, and what is not, allowed on the internet in China. They start with acts that any other country would recognize as criminal and go down to anything that presents China’s leaders in a bad light.
Social media accounts of business tycoons have been shut down after they criticized the government. Even pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh are blocked because people compared the Disney character to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Those laws and regulations apply to foreigners and foreign companies as much as they do to China’s own citizens. If a foreign company crosses China for whatever reason, it can find itself blocked from its Chinese customers.
Where Instagram Went Wrong
By late 2014, Instagram’s popularity was growing so fast that it gave TechCrunch enough courage to declare “It’s no fad.” Although its entry into the mainland China had not advanced too far, it was hugely popular among the young student population of Hong Kong.
The Umbrella Revolution broke out in late September of 2014 after the Chinese government proposed restrictive changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. Students took to the streets in protest and were soon joined by older generations.
People in their tens of thousands, armed with smartphones, shared their actions with the world on social media – and on Instagram in particular. The hashtag #OccupyCentral soon swept around the world – and into the Chinese mainland.
Only days after the protests began, The New York Times’ journalist-on-the-spot, Alan Wong, was among the first to report that China had blocked Instagram. The Chinese censors’ rapid reaction ensured that few of its citizens on the mainland learned of the protest movement or its size. Even after the Umbrella Revolution fizzled out, the Instagram block remained.
The Internet You Can’t Get
Instagram is far from the only internet company blocked by the Great Firewall. Just about every social media company from Facebook to Twitter is off-limits to the Chinese. No sooner does a social media service become popular than the Great Firewall’s censors shut it down. That’s how photo-sharing site Pinterest got blocked by Chinese authorities.
All of Google is invisible in China. YouTube disappeared in 2009 after videos of Tibetan protests went viral. Google withdrew its dedicated search service a year later after catching Chinese spies hacking its servers. Nobody in China can check Gmail or buy apps from the Play store. Scientists can’t even search Google Scholar for the academic papers they need to do their work.
See What’s Up, What’s Down
Although the Great Firewall sounds like this huge monolithic barrier, it is less consistent than you would think. While blocks on big-name services like Instagram and Facebook are, for all intents and purposes, permanent, access to less well-known services is much more inconsistent.
As a result, you never know what you can access and what you can’t. Websites like GreatFire track China’s censorship of the internet and let the world know when sites suddenly become the target of the Great Firewall or just as suddenly become accessible again.
Whether you are visiting China for a few weeks or working in China for a few years, the Great Firewall makes it nearly impossible to keep in touch with friends and family the way you can back home. Services like StrongVPN make it possible to keep that vital link alive while you are so far away.
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.