For foreigners, life goes on as normal until a national holiday or politically sensitive anniversary rolls around. That’s when the VPNs stop working.
I never could get used to how eerie that felt – you think the VPN is the workaround, the sneaky backdoor around the Great Firewall, but then you find out they can close it whenever they want.
The Great Firewall is the nickname for China’s internet censorship of any data that it does not want its roughly 1.4 billion people to know. VPNs are technically illegal but are common practice among foreigners living in China who still wish to access websites like Facebook, Instagram, Google, gmail, and even Netflix and Pinterest, not to mention independent news outlets.
How does a VPN work? It routes – forwards, so to speak – your phone or computer’s internet connection through a private server, so that you can securely, remotely connect to a different network through a third party. Cheaper ones aren’t as secure, but many foreigners use them as a temporary backup for when the government targets the other ones.
You download the app, pay for a good one before coming to China, and enjoy the glitchy, slow-working, but mostly dependable way to have the same internet you’ve always had. Youtube will give you ads tailored to the location where you connect – I heard a lot of Japanese and Cantonese in between my rock and roll playlists. Google suggested auto-complete search results that were hilariously different in Tokyo versus Los Angeles. I was disappointed to realize I could only access the first 5 seasons of Supernatural instead of the full show. (Netflix doesn’t like U.S.A.-based VPN locations – it gives you a message like “oops, you’re watching through a proxy, please turn it off and try again” – so, ahem, a pirating website was visited. Fair is fair; I pay for these shows already!)
When one location stops working, you choose another – Tokyo 1 was the default fastest location for many months, maybe a year. After each government-led, targeted shut-down of the most common VPNs, the app bounces back and recommends a new location – I remember Hong Kong, Los Angeles 2, then Los Angeles 5, and finally Santa Monica, etc. UK Wembley worked seamlessly for many months – I watched every episode of the old BBC show “Porridge” on Netflix.
If VPNs are illegal, how do so many foreigners have them? Shedding black and white thinking is necessary here in order to understand the situation. It’s not acting in extra-legal ways that’s seen as a problem most of the time; it’s all about context. Many, if not most, major companies use VPNs and sometimes even require their employees to use them on their personal devices in order to do business and communicate on foreign websites.
The government cares about the things it chooses to care about, which do not always correspond to every little thing it tells you to do or not do. Sure, it tracks everything and everyone, but out of that massive mound of data, only certain things actually matter enough to do something about. A fellow foreigner explained this to me early on, when we were walking down the street and discussing jaywalking. Expats have been deported for traffic violations (footage easily obtained, without a warrant, from any camera in the country), but only because their real offense was getting too political on social media or pissing off the wrong person.
Self-censorship matters a great deal in China. Discussing sensitive, China-related topics such as Tibet, Hong Kong, or the Uighurs is an absolute no-go online (and often in person). Your VPN will not protect you.
“Just don’t flash it around” was the advice I received about VPNs from more seasoned expats. As long as you’re not spreading information that would be damaging to China, and you are foreign, you’re probably in the clear. China knows that foreigners have always had access to global media and websites. It chooses to look the other way when they maintain that web presence in China as long as they aren’t critical of China on social media.
At the times that matter most to the Communist Party – National Week, the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a week of particularly intense Hong Kong protests – the VPNs go down. All of them, pretty much. You think yours is just being slow, so you message your friends, ask if theirs are working. The answer is no.
It’s unnerving for an entire nation to suddenly shut off accessibility to so much of the internet. Teams of computer whizzes leap into action, working round the clock somewhere in an office, all to restore your ability to access the news. And Netflix. And Youtube. Whatever the world is saying about China, whatever is going on in China, you won’t hear about it until the week is over.
Those strong servers, that withstand every attempt to assail them the rest of the year, are shot down so quickly (and seemingly easily?) that you realize they always had the power to do it. Even your secret little freedom existed purely at their pleasure. You thought they didn’t know, but they did.
They can take it away whenever they choose.
Nothing is guaranteed.