Life Behind the Wall: the Great Firewall of China

Katie McGee
April 24, 2016
The Great Wall of China

Hey everyone!

Let’s talk about the Internet. If you know anything about China, you’ve probably heard of what is often fondly referred to as the Great Firewall of China. If you haven’t heard about it, you’re about to. Basically, the Great Firewall (let’s call it the GFC for short) is a censorship program run by the Chinese government that blocks access to specific sites. Generally, the sites that are blocked are ones that have been used by netizens to post unfavorable things about the government, or sites where information spreads too quickly for the government’s liking. For example:

Facebook - If you’ve been on Facebook recently, you’ve probably noticed that most posts nowadays are articles or pictures that have been shared by friends, rather than original posts. The ability to “share” things on Facebook is one of the main reasons why it is blocked in China. Activist groups have also used it in the past, which is another reason why the government chose to block it. I believe I once read that China tried to make a deal with the company in which they would take away the “share” option for a Chinese, but the company decided not to comply and so Facebook remains blocked. Also, since Instagram is owned by Facebook, it is also unavailable in China

Twitter - For obvious reasons, Twitter is very blocked in China. Even China’s version of Twitter, Weibo, is shut down frequently.

Google (YouTube/Gmail) - When China first began censoring sites, Google was accessible; the government would just censor certain results that would come up. However, in recent years, Google has been out altogether. I believe Google was in a position much like Facebook, where the government was willing to make a deal, but the company decided not to restrict its users. By default, YouTube, Gmail, and any webpage powered by Google is also out.

Snapchat - Censorship is not just limited to websites. Certain apps (such as Snapchat) are also inaccessible here.

WordPress - This might seem somewhat random, but as someone who is blogging her travels, I am glad that I did my research ahead of time. As far as I know, WordPress is one of the biggest blogging websites, but since activists have used it to spread anti-government messages, it has been blocked. (I currently use a site called to post blogs for my friends and family. Shameless plug - you can find my blog here:

BBC (and other news sites) - At first glance, BBC seemed as if it is unblocked. However, when I went down to the bottom of the page and tried to change the language to any of the non-English options (including Chinese), I found that they were blocked. 

Spotify/Pandora - This is mostly a licensing thing, although I am not optimistic about them becoming available in China anytime soon. Copyright in China is much like the traffic laws: less of a rule and more a gentle suggestion (this is especially true with foreign products. The government is very protective when it comes to Chinese products). 

On the other hand, I have been somewhat surprised at certain sites that I was sure would be blocked but are not:

Wikipedia - I was pleasantly surprised to find that this works. Wikipedia is so useful for quick fact-checking. I’ll bet that if you were to try to look up certain topics (such as Tiananmen or democracy) you would find that those pages don’t exist, but for the things I have looked up while I’ve been here, so far so good!

BuzzFeed - This also surprised me, since BuzzFeed is definitely gaining popularity as a news source, and because they sometimes post about controversial topics. It might be because t’s a fairly new website, and it may only be a matter of time before they are blocked.

So what does all this mean, exactly? Well, I suppose that would depend mostly on how long you are planning on being here and how addicted you are to social media. When my sister visited last December and found that she couldn’t use Facebook or Snapchat she definitely went through the stages of grief. Just kidding - kind of. But on a serious note, if you are planning on being here for a chunk of time, are not addicted to social media, and don’t want to get a VPN (see below), there are alternatives!

WeChat - The major communication app, this is what you would get if Facebook and What’sApp had a baby (I’ve never actually used What’sApp, but I use Line, which as far as I can tell is basically the same thing, just the Japanese version). WeChat is primarily used as a texting/voice-messaging app—text messages aren’t really a thing here—although it has so many wonderful functions. One of the most useful functions is “Translate” which uses Microsoft to translate messages from the original language to whichever language you are using—very handy for a language student. Moments is basically the Chinese version of Facebook’s News Feed, where you can see what your friends have posted and whatnot. On Chinese phones (unfortunately still unavailable on international phones) WeChat also has a wallet function, which Chinese people can use to scan a QR code at certain stores/restaurants to pay. 

Baidu - Baidu is the Google of China. With basically the same functions, it is actually very useful. Baidu maps is especially useful if you are able to read/type in Chinese, but not so much if you can’t. However, even though the website is in Chinese, it is very possible to search for things in English so don’t let that intimidate you!

Okay, but what if you DO enjoy social media, or your school runs its email system through Gmail, or being stuck behind the GFC isn’t an option for you? Well, you’ll be glad to know that there are ways around the GFC, and they aren’t illegal. Most people (myself included) use a VPN, which as I understand it reroutes your connection to a different city, making it seem like you are accessing the Internet from that city. Most of the people I know use ExpressVPN, which works well in China specifically, although there are tons of options. The downside to a VPN is that it can be kind of pricy, but I guess that’s just the cost of freedom, right?

Well, that’s all I have for now, so happy computing! Until next time!

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Katie McGee

<p>Hello! My name is Katie McGee, and I am a junior at the University of Puget Sound, located in Tacoma, WA. I am a Chinese major with a Japanese minor and a Global Development Studies emphasis. I am a Chinese adoptee, and although my parents did their best to expose me to Chinese culture as a child, I grew up in a community with very little diversity. I have devoted this year to traveling East Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Mainland China, and Japan) and improving my Chinese along the way. I have already learned so much during my travels, but continue to look forward to what adventures lay ahead.</p>

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