In the Garage

Life Behind the Great Firewall

August 01, 2015 | 5 Minute Read

Before coming to China, I knew about the Great Firewall, which is the Chinese government's attempt at regulating the internet. In case you've never heard of it, it's basically a form of censorship where certain websites are inaccessible within China, including most of popular western social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, Blogger, etc.), anything from Google (including Gmail), western news outlets (like the New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, etc.).

I've come to realize that basically all of the media I consume is blocked in China. The only way I can access it is using a VPN, and even then, it still lags. The Great Firewall brings everything down to a crawl, and if I want to upload one picture to Instagram, it could take me a good 10 minutes to do so with the VPN. Sometimes going on the NY Times is impossible. Quite often, the slow internet is so frustrating that I just don't go online and will just watch whatever's on TV instead (I've become a fan of Masterchef).

Basically, whenever you want to access a site that's blocked without a VPN, you get this:

Webpage unavailable

Even sites that I regularly read that aren't blocked (AV Club, Consequence of Sound, Pledgemusic), are so slow without the VPN that sometimes I wonder if they've been added to the blacklist. And then a few months ago, there was a case that any website that seemed to have any Facebook code (whether it was just a like button or the option to sign in with Facebook) was redirecting to There was a discussion about whether this was part of the Great Cannon, another tool from Chinese censors that basically takes traffic and redirects it to a specific website, bombarding it with a ton of traffic to eventually make the site crash. (I'm not getting into the specifics, but CNN describes it a little better than I do here.)

Working at a startup, it's been interesting learning to deal with poor Chinese internet. For starters, our email is actually on Gmail, which means that if we want to read any email, we have to turn on a VPN. Part of the company is also actually in Malaysia and India, so when we develop sites for these markets, we still need to have these sites available with Facebook login. It can be challenging doing any sort of testing and quite often, I'll actually message the Malaysian team members to check something and ask, "Is the page actually slow/broken/whatever, or is it because of my crappy Chinese internet?" Trying to do any sort of video/phone-conferencing with Skype or GoToMeeting (forget about Google Hangouts) is also nearly impossible because the connection is so terrible you can't hear what the other side is saying. Most of the time, it's easier just to have a regular phone call. Even if I use Skype to call in to a conference on a landline, it's still difficult to discern what's being said.

As much as it is incredibly frustrating that internet here is different than the rest of the world, it has also created its own unique environment that people can get around if they're determined. One example is "collateral freedom," the idea that information should be hosted on encrypted services deemed too critical to block (like Amazon Web Services), so that people can get information they need. For Chinese censors to block an entire domain from AWS would be a bit much, which is why collateral freedom works. On the other hand, the question is if the average Chinese user even cares, since there are many services/websites that do what all these blocked services do but cater to the Chinese market.

I've always been a proponent of net neutrality and living in China has made me even more so. Anything hosted within China is significantly faster than anything hosted outside of China (reason being: easier to censor/control), and it's frustrating that I can't even access my email without turning on a VPN. Sure, it's made me realize that I'm very dependent on Google's services and one could argue that I could find a Chinese substitute. However, the choice should be my own and not one that's been forced on me. Not only that, but the Chinese substitute isn't even a substitute because the products' quality is so bad. On Baidu, Chinese's biggest search engine, I tried searching for "translator" in English hoping that it would give me the Baidu English/Chinese translator. These were the top five results I got:

Baidu search results

If you look, you'll see that Google Translate is the first hit, followed by Bing, some random website, and then finally, the Baidu translator. And the Baidu translator search result isn't actually even for an on-site translator, it's for an Android app. It makes absolutely no sense to me that the first hit is Google Translate when all Google services are blocked to begin with! So this is the reason why I don't use Baidu or other Chinese services -- they're not substitutes because their quality is far inferior to Google and even Bing (which thankfully isn't blocked).

I guess the basic conclusion about life behind the Great Firewall is this -- if you're a westerner that needs a digital detox, come to China without a VPN. And for me, the lack of freedom online even with using a VPN is one major reason why I'm not sure I would want to stay in China long-term.