The Chinese government imposes extensive censorship and surveillance on the internet accessed by citizens within China's borders. This system of censorship and technological controls is often referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” The Great Firewall blocks access to many foreign websites, monitors citizens' internet activity, and employs methods to disrupt tools used to circumvent the censorship.
The foundation of the Great Firewall is internet filtering to block access to certain websites and online services. Key targets for blocking include Western social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, global news outlets like the New York Times and BBC, and search engines like Google. Only government-approved Chinese social media and news services can be accessed in the country.
Authorities justify these blocks under vague notions of preserving social order and Chinese cultural values. However, critics condemn the Great Firewall as authoritarian information control aimed at limiting free expression and maintaining the ruling party’s power. From the government’s perspective, restricting outside information sources allows greater ability to shape narratives and public opinion within the country.
Technical censorship and surveillance of the internet in China is carried out by government bodies like the Cyberspace Administration of China. Tactics and technologies employed include DNS filtering and redirection, URL blocking, deep packet inspection to analyze network traffic, and machine learning systems to rapidly detect banned content. Government cybersecurity laws also require full compliance from Chinese tech companies.
In addition to filtering information sources, the Great Firewall has extensive capabilities to monitor citizens’ online activities within the country. Surveillance mechanisms allow authorities to track use of social media, communications, searches, and more. Chinese tech firms are required to share user data upon government request. While concrete details are scarce, China’s advanced surveillance networks enable disturbing levels of monitoring with minimal privacy.
The Chinese government supplements its technical censorship and surveillance with strict laws and enforcement around internet usage. New cybersecurity regulations imposed in 2017 further tightened control over online content and data flows both into and within China. Citizens and companies engaged in activism to expand internet freedom face repercussions like jail time. Expanding the Great Firewall is clearly a priority for Chinese authorities.
Faced with the repressive Great Firewall system, many Chinese citizens resort to using virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass restrictions and access the open global internet. VPNs encrypt traffic and route it through servers abroad, allowing users to circumvent censorship and gain privacy. However, authorities have responded with a sophisticated VPN detection and blocking system. An ongoing cat-and-mouse dynamic has ensued around VPN usage in China.
The government has compelled local VPN providers within the country to shut down or obtain strict licenses. Major international VPN companies also face sophisticated efforts to identify and block their servers. Chinese users constantly seek new VPN services as old ones get obstructed. The Great Firewall essentially forces citizens to work hard just to attain digital openness that people in free countries take for granted.
This article will examine the motivations citizens have for circumventing the Great Firewall's tight controls, the challenges they face in doing so, and the creative techniques they use to bypass blocks. A core theme is the human desire for open information and communication, as embodied by the perpetual battle to pierce the Great Firewall’s veil of censorship.
Why People Want to Bypass the Great Firewall
The Great Firewall's extensive censorship and surveillance compel many Chinese citizens to find ways around it. Despite government repression, people naturally seek open access to information and communications. The firewall stands in direct conflict with innate human drives for exploration and connection. This motivates perpetual efforts to bypass the censorship using virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools.
On a basic level, people want access to banned foreign internet services for entertainment, socializing, productivity and convenience. Major global websites and apps blocked in China include YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Google services, news outlets like Bloomberg, NY Times and BBC, and countless others. Many tools for communication, creativity, and knowledge are cut off.
Without VPN access, Chinese internet users are limited to government-approved domestic apps and sites like Weibo, Youku, and Baidu. People understandably want to rejoin the global community and tap into platforms that provide far more depth and breadth. Entertainment, hobbies, and social connections become far more constrained by the Great Firewall for those confined within it.
Another major motivation is being able to access news and information not distorted by Chinese censorship. Domestic media is tightly controlled by state regulators.Very limited reporting is allowed on topics deemed controversial by the government, such as human rights abuses. Chinese citizens turning to foreign media via VPN face risks, but are driven to pursue uncensored information.
Tools like Google and Twitter which are blocked in China provide windows to unfiltered global commentary and reporting on events inside the country. Media outlets like Radio Free Asia and Voice of America report critically on the ruling party and Chinese officials. Histories of events like the Tiananmen Square massacre are laid bare. People use VPNs to get around the Great Firewall's veil of misinformation.
Research has shown that periods where VPN usage became widespread correlated with peaks of dissent and protest. The government's distortion and suppression of information fuels desire for truth among the citizenry. As one expert put it, "VPN usage is almost like an act of dissent in itself."
In a similar vein, VPNs allow unfettered communication channels beyond the surveillance and censorship of domestic social media. Government sensors heavily monitor platforms like WeChat, removing content and accounts deemed subversive. People want privacy to discuss views and organize out of sight of authorities.
When major events occur with political implications, restrictions on social media and VPNs tighten. For instance, 2021 saw intensified VPN blocking around the trial of a prominent human rights activist. The urge to communicate freely leads people to overcome those barriers.
Some use VPNs in China specifically for accessing marginalized sites related to minorities, LGBTQ issues, religious groups and other topics suppressed in the mainstream discourse. VPNs provide windows to explore interests and identities that fall outside Chinese internet norms.
Finally, people deeply value privacy protections when venturing online beyond those afforded by domestic internet platforms. Browsing, communications and searches via local apps and sites are logged and analyzed. The Great Firewall represents a panopticon of internet monitoring. This invasive surveillance propels many citizens toward the anonymity of VPNs.
In short, inherent human inclinations toward free inquiry, truth, discourse and privacy compel efforts to overcome state censorship and control. The Great Firewall stands in direct tension with open communication. For Chinese citizens passionate about expanding free flows of information, piercing the Great Firewall becomes a moral imperative.
Challenges of Bypassing VPN Blocking
The Great Firewall of China presents significant challenges for Chinese citizens trying to bypass internet censorship and surveillance. The government continues to increase efforts to disrupt and block virtual private networks (VPNs), which are one of the main tools people use to get around the Great Firewall. Chinese authorities are playing an endless cat-and-mouse game to stay one step ahead of VPN services.
One major challenge is the government's relentless disruption of VPN connections and traffic. Chinese cyber authorities monitor network activity closely for any signs of VPN use and employ advanced technologies to intercept and terminate VPN connections. They use deep packet inspection, data analysis, and blacklisting of VPN servers to identify and block access. Whenever a new VPN service pops up, authorities quickly work to gather intelligence on it and add it to the blacklist. VPN providers then have to scramble to adjust their technology and stay accessible.
Authorities also order internet service providers within China to block access to VPN services. Major VPN providers and their servers are continually shut out of the network, forcing users to constantly shift to new services. In 2017, China ordered all ISPs to block individual access to VPNs by February 2018. This dealt a major blow to VPN usage, though some providers managed to still function by adjusting their technology.
The government has also cracked down directly on VPN services operated within mainland China, shutting many down entirely. In 2017, over 60 VPN services based in China were closed after the MIIT ordered them to obtain government approval to operate, which they could not obtain. Major international companies like Apple have also complied with government demands to remove certain VPN apps from their Chinese app stores.
The Chinese government has even restricted use of VPNs within major Chinese businesses, banks, and organizations. Employees often need VPNs to access tools and information blocked by the Great Firewall. But authorities have ordered many organizations to confine VPN use to only when necessary for business purposes.
With intensified efforts to disrupt and shut down VPN services, Chinese VPN users are confronted with the challenge of constantly changing services to maintain access. VPNs that may have worked flawlessly one day could be terminated the next. Users never know just how long a VPN service will evade blocking, so they end up hopping from one to the next, always seeking the next free and open connection.
Switching VPNs frequently can itself be challenging for Chinese citizens. It often requires downloading new apps, reconfiguring settings, and troubleshooting new connections. Authorities have made it difficult to even download VPN apps in the first place, removing them from app stores and disrupting browser-based downloads. Changing IP addresses is also key to avoiding detection, which means switching VPN servers often as each gets identified and blocked.
The uncompromising man-versus-machine conflict means Chinese VPN users must constantly stay on top of which options still work and which are now blocked. Websites like GreatFire regularly update information on working VPNs, but those soon become obsolete too. The Hours spent to maintain functional access takes a mental toll on users as well. The Chinese government has created a truly Sisyphean predicament where VPN users roll the boulder uphill every day, only to see it blocked once again. The VPN blocking forces Chinese citizens to work ever harder just to access information that people in democratic societies take for granted.
Strategies People Use to Bypass the Blocks
Faced with the Sisyphean boulder of VPN blocking, Chinese netizens have developed a variety of strategies and tools to continue bypassing internet censorship. The technical cat-and-mouse game has forced both authorities and VPN services to continually evolve more sophisticated methods. Here are some key strategies used creatively by Chinese citizens:
- Using VPNs registered outside China - The government has focused heavily on shutting down China-based VPN operations, so one common tactic is using foreign VPN providers instead. Services based in democratic countries like the U.S. and Japan are harder for Chinese authorities to completely eliminate. Many foreign providers also use obfuscation techniques to disguise traffic as other types of data. However, international VPNs end up playing the same game of getting blocked eventually.
- Smaller, unknown VPN services - Major VPN brands often get targeted first by the Great Firewall, so people turn to lesser known VPN providers and apps that may fly under the radar. Smaller VPNs gain some temporary anonymity, but authorities work swiftly to gather intelligence and add them to blacklists too. Whack-a-mole continues.
- Changing servers and apps frequently - To frustrate the Great Firewall's blocks, users repeatedly cycle through different VPN apps and change server locations. When one server gets blocked, they simply switch to another. This requires using VPN services that offer a wide range of server options in different countries. It also requires vigilantly monitoring connection speeds to detect throttling or blocking. As soon as a slowdown occurs, it's time to switch apps and cycle to a new server.
- Obfuscation - Some VPN services use "obfuscation" techniques to disguise VPN traffic as other innocuous data like HTTPS traffic. This makes it more difficult for deep packet inspection to detect VPN usage. However, authorities have caught on to many obfuscation methods and cracked down. In turn, VPN services have developed more advanced obfuscation to mimic different protocols. For now it remains an arms race of concealment and detection.
- Unconventional routing - Creative approaches to routing VPN connections can also avoid blocks. For example, some VPN users route traffic through unconventional ports like port 443 rather than standard ports. This resembles HTTPS traffic and avoids traditional VPN blocking. Chaining multiple VPN connections together across different countries is another way to mask VPN usage. However, routing creativity only works temporarily before authorities expand blocking.
- Protocols other than VPNs - When VPNs become too difficult to use, some people turn to other privacy protocols like Shadowsocks, which encrypts and proxies traffic through servers outside China. Authorities have attempted to block Shadowsocks too, but its decentralized structure has proven hard to entirely eliminate. Using HTTPS with browsers can also circumvent censorship, so authorities interfere with browser-based circumvention tools as well.
- VPNS on routers - Downloading VPN apps on phones and computers leads to easy blocking, so some users configure VPNs directly on their routers instead. This provides site-wide VPN protection for all devices connected to the router. However, routers sold within China often have firmware that disables this capability. Users have to buy foreign routers and install open-source firmware to enable VPN usage. Even then, connecting router-based VPNs back to servers abroad requires obfuscation.
The back-and-forth battle goes on continuously as netizens get more creative and authorities expand the Great Firewall's reach. Periods arise where anti-censorship tools work seamlessly, lulling citizens into complacency. Suddenly, the blocks catch up again and require changing to new approaches. While challenging, each innovation that punctures the Great Firewall provides a temporary breath of free information - so users press onward. Though the censorship feels unbreakable at times, the enduring human urge for open inquiry and communication compels Chinese citizens to keep devising novel ways over, under, around, and through the Great Firewall.
The Arms Race of VPN Blocking and Bypassing
The Chinese government's crusade to block VPNs and Chinese citizens' crusade to bypass the blocks has escalated into a perpetual arms race. Both sides are locked in conflict, constantly upping their technical game in response to the other's innovations. Authorities improve censorship and surveillance capabilities, citizens and VPN providers engineer new ways around them, back and forth endlessly. This accelerating race has transformed bypassing the Great Firewall into a tech-heavy game of cat and mouse.
On the cat side, the Chinese government has an insatiable appetite for stamping out workarounds. State agencies like the Cyberspace Administration of China spend immense resources on understanding and disrupting anti-censorship tools. When they recognize traffic patterns of a new circumvention method, they quickly develop filters to block it. Authorities have banned the sale of wireless routers without government-approved firmware, in order to curb router-based bypass techniques. They have even pressured foreign companies like Apple to remove unapproved VPN apps from App Stores, choking off download channels.
Government researchers also develop new VPN detection methods using machine learning, traffic analysis, and patterns of encrypted data. Advanced techniques like deep packet inspection enable very precise blocking of VPN traffic. There are reports that China is leveraging its emerging quantum computing capabilities to improve surveillance and censorship as well. This could enable breakthroughs in decrypting and analyzing data flows to rapidly identify VPN usage.
On the mouse side, VPN providers and anti-censorship developers respond with their own innovations. To counter packet inspection, many VPNs use obfuscation to disguise VPN traffic as other encrypted data. As censorship scales heights using AI, activists develop machine learning systems to generate random traffic that confuses the filters. Some creative approaches redirect traffic through unconventional ports like port 443, or chain together multiple VPN connections to hide originating sources.
VPNs also constantly tweak their encryption and tunneling protocols to avoid Chinese firewall rules. Signal obfuscation and morphing VPN traffic patterns are effective for a period until censors probe and reverse engineer them again. An ongoing theme is that smaller, independent VPN services tend to get disrupted less rapidly than large commercial providers - hence the perpetual call from activists to use non-mainstream tools. Even when one protocol gets blocked, new ones pop up using different encryption and tactics.
The anti-censorship domain acts like an open source project, with a community of developers rapidly building on each other's innovations. For example, when China heavily targeted the Shadowsocks protocol, developers created enhanced offspring like V2ray and Trojan. There is now even technology that examines network connections at the ethernet frame level, altering data link layer headers to evade deep packet inspection. Entire forums and GitHub repositories exist to share bleeding edge circumvention code and ideas.
The anti-censorship movement is also decentralized, so there is no one target for the government to aim at. Activists are motivated and able to churn out new code and proofs-of-concept faster than authorities can shut them down across the internet's sprawling ecosystem. This creates a sort of "whack-a-mole from hell” problem for the Great Firewall to contain.
For now, neither side's blockade nor circumvention capabilities are fully foolproof. Activists and VPN providers discuss tactics openly, trading tips on forums to stay one step ahead. Authorities surely monitor this discourse as well for intelligence. The dynamics resemble an arms race, with continuous innovations by both sides to either block or bypass the other's latest technology. VPN cat continues chasing mouse, while mouse continues evading cat.
This immense technical struggle is underpinned by a fundamental philosophical conflict. The free flow of information underpins human liberty and progress. In contrast, restricting information allows authoritarian control. So activists and authorities remain locked in the arms race, withValues and futures hanging in the balance. There is much more at stake than just technology.
The race seems perpetual, since neither repression nor liberty can fully dominate. Short bursts arise where one side gains temporary advantage, but then the conflict recurs. Periods emerge where anti-censorship works seamlessly, only to be disrupted again. This causes confidence cycles for Chinese citizens, who oscillate between hope and frustration. But despite the ups and downs, the liberating desire for open access motivates the mouse side to keep innovating. The future remains unpredictable, but the arms race seems destined to go on.
The Great Firewall stands as a towering sentinel restricting the flow of information in China and regulating online communications. The government has devoted immense resources to developing and reinforcing this system of censorship and surveillance in order to preserve authoritarian control.
Faced with this repressive digital barrier, Chinese citizens driven by aspirations for internet freedom use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass the firewall’s restrictions. However, authorities have made disrupting VPN usage a priority through sophisticated technical blocks and shutdowns.
An endless cat-and-mouse dynamic has ensued between Chinese officials and VPN providers constantly evolving new ways to outmaneuver the censorship. For average Chinese users, it feels like a Sisyphean ordeal where one day a VPN works but the next day it gets obstructed again. Still, brief moments of open connection compel people to persist in the struggle.
The core conflict reflects a deeper philosophical divide over information control in society. The human desire for unfettered access stems from an innate drive toward intellectual liberty. The Chinese government intends to maintain its tight grip over online spaces, but equally unrelenting are VPN users devising new ways to pierce the firewall.
It seems destined to endure as an open-ended cat-and-mouse struggle between state repression and the irresistible force of human openness. Despite disconnects and frustration, as long as the possibility of evading censorship glimmers, Chinese citizens will continue the endless chase for internet freedom.