FOMO alert! If you’re so used to posting updates on social media that it’s become as much a habit as brushing your teeth, you may have a minor panic attack after touching down in China.
Why? Because despite Mark Zuckerberg practically naming his first child after Xi Jinping, Facebook and Instagram are both blocked. Oh, and Google too; Google maps, Google calendar, Gmail, all of it. Along with a whole host of other international websites you’re used to interacting with on a daily basis.
“But why?!” we hear you cry. Well, the short answer is censorship. According to regulations issued by China’s Ministry of Public Security back in 1997, “No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit” all manner of perceived crimes – from “Injuring the reputation of state organizations” to “Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence or murder.”
And while there’s a case to be made for restricting sites promoting pornography or gun sales, say, the line begins to blur with clauses preventing users “harming national unification” or “Making falsehoods and spreading rumors” – meaning that over the years the censorship net has grown ever wider.
In order to achieve this rather impressive level of control, the state essentially employs two methods. The first is to remove or delete any comments, sites or posts that are seen as a threat to national security (it’s estimated that there are more than 200,000 people employed in policing China’s internet in this way); the second is to restrict access to non-Chinese websites (over which they have no control). This is achieved through blocking the IP addresses of foreign sites (more here for tech geeks) or by using keyword filters (on phrases like ‘Tiananmen Square’ for example) to return no results or redirect users to pages they do want them to see.
However don’t be fooled into thinking this means that China’s netizens are afraid to air their opinions online: quite the opposite. Raucous political debate on China’s homegrown social media sites is alive and well, as is criticism of the Party and its regional governors.
While this may surprise you, it in fact makes perfect sense. For one it’s the best way to take the pulse of the nation – an incredibly effective way of getting feedback on how you’re doing and where problems might be. Second, it gives people a platform to air their grievances rather than taking them to the streets. And that, right there, is the heart of the matter. If there’s one thing the Communist Party is hell bent on preventing, it’s collective mobilization.
According to the most in-depth research into The Great Firewall to date, while an online comment criticizing the Party’s approach to human rights or a corrupt local government official will often be left up (yes, really), a social media post or site advocating any sort of gathering en masse will be censored every time, and with incredible efficiency.
So there you have it, that’s why you’ll have difficulty accessing a number of sites in China. At least now you understand the bigger picture – but we still didn’t tell you how to post that to-die-for photo of you gurning away on the Great Wall to Instagram, did we? #gettothepoint
Here then, without further ado are our essential tips:
1) Don’t panic, not everything is blocked in China, so if you’re not sure, use this handy website to check before you arrive.
2) Download a VPN (virtual private network) app before you get to China (we can’t emphasize the before part enough by the way!) VPNs work by ‘re-routing’ your IP address (essentially your computer or phone’s ID number) through another country, tricking a website into thinking you are somewhere other than China. This truly is the only way to access sites such as YouTube, Twitter or Google. We strongly recommend paying for this service (a good VPN will cost just 13USD for a 1 month subscription) rather than using a free VPN. For the most up to date recommendations with regards to VPNs that work in China, we rate these guys.
3) Download a Beijing City Map and Beijing Subway Map app before you arrive so you can use it offline once you’re here. Got an iPhone? Apple Maps currently still works just fine.
4) Consider unplugging for a week – hey you’re on holiday after all!
Got more questions? Beijing’s Trip Customisation Service gives you direct access to our on-the-ground team for advice whenever you need it.