I’ve had some problems updating my blog this past week due to faulty VPN connections.
When my VPN – a Virtual Private Network, for those of you who may not know – doesn’t work, it feels as though I’ve been cut off from the outside world. While I obviously have internet access here in China, it is heavily censored and monitored. China’s Great Firewall keeps people inside of the mainland from accessing some of the world’s most popular websites, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times, most foreign online banking websites and blogging platforms. Controversial phrases (think: Tiananmen Square 1989) are also censored, blocking websites that may include those phrases in articles or headlines.
Yes, I can still use the internet here without a VPN. But it’s such a poor example of the internet, compared to what can be accessed in countries that do not impose heavy censorship. And while the Chinese internet itself is massive, it’s mostly inaccessible for people who cannot read and comprehend Chinese characters.
A VPN allows users to connect to a different country’s internet server. So, if I connect to the United States, then I’m on the same internet (and limited by the same restrictions) that I would be if I were physically in the United States. No Great Firewall.
(Side note: I have unabashedly used my VPN to take advantage of the plethora of content available internationally on Netflix. In the mood for a Jane Austen miniseries? Better connect to the United Kingdom! How about racy-but-intellectual foreign films and historical docudramas? The France server is where it’s at. Unfortunately, Netflix has caught on to server-bouncers like me and has announced it will soon block VPN’s from accessing the website. Nooooooooooooooooooo.)
Most Chinese people do not have a VPN, although many people do know they exist. Part of that could be because of the price: Although $14 a month for a premium account seems like peanuts to foreigners, the average urban worker in China earns around 4,500 RMB ($684) a month. The average salary is even less in the countryside. Paying for wider internet access – especially when so much of it is not in Chinese – may not seem like a worthwhile financial decision to many people.
In an August 2015 op-ed in the New York Times, the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun wrote that most Chinese people know more about the country’s ancient, rather than modern, history. Before installing his own VPN, he said he was “one of the ignorant masses.”
“If the firewall exists indefinitely, China will eventually revert to what it once was: a sealed off, narrow-minded, belligerent, rogue state,” the author argues.
The government definitely doesn’t seem to be loosening its iron grip on the Chinese web. During China’s “World Internet Conference” last December, Chinese President Xi Jinping argued that sovereign countries have the right to set their own rules and regulations regarding cyberspace – regulations that he said should be respected by the international community.
China was the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2015, according to a report from the watchdog organization Freedom House.