An Update on Internet in China (And It Ain’t Pretty)

Many BoardingArea readers are heading to China in the coming weeks due to an American Airlines mistake fare. China is a wonderful country to visit, I lived there from 2002-2010 and am back this week for business with stops in Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai. The internet situation is the worst I have experienced.

In prior times certain foreign sites, mainly news sites like BBC and NYT would get blocked due to reporting on issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. This is part of the ‘Great Firewall’ filtering internet coming in to China. For the most part you could work around things, and critically, VPNs were given a pass because corporations depend on them.

In the past year-plus the situation has steadily deteriorated, such access to virtually all overseas websites is at substantially reduced speed, many more sites are blocked, and most VPNs are as well. This particularly hurts with the blanket blockage of Google services. Facebook, twitter, many other services as well.

I had dinner with a longtime expat who recently returned to China. A friend tipped him off on ‘foreigner internet packages’ for homes that get you foreign sites faster, but only those not blocked.

Some things you can do:

  • Dust off your hotmail account and get used to Bing. Microsoft seems to be in the good graces of the authorities.
  • Plan on no access to google services and social media accounts. If you must have access, consider bringing an overseas mobile phone/tablet with data plan. Currently devices on mobile networks are allowed to access the internet more or less as needed. I have T-Mobile which allows unlimited data and text in China.
  • If you use a VPN service, contact your VPN provider for custom gateway IP addresses that may stand a chance of working, at least a little. I have several that work intermittently, though frequently cut off. When cut off, you will probably then get page cannot load errors for everything until you close browsers, reconnect to the network, sometimes even to restart the computer to start over.
  • Because of the amount of hacking originating from China, logging in to websites like financial institutions from Chinese IP addresses may trigger security alerts that may be a hassle to unfreeze your accounts. Avoid if possible.

It is sad to see what this has done to Chinese connections to the world and for visitors to China. Forewarned or forearmed.

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  • Karung99

    Currently in PEK, thanks to AA, can’t access to Google,twitter, Gmail and flyertalk.com is very slow but not block. Boardingarea is very fast, it is sad thi is kind of things is getting worst now.

  • Ty

    Oh no! I seriously don’t think I can travel without Google and am a big relier on Wifi. Guess I will need to pay up for international roaming?

  • Neal

    As an American expat in Shanghai, China I can confirm, for me, all Google products are not working (Gmal, Google Maps, etc.) and many foreign websites take a very long time to load. Most people will find that if they stay in a hotel or use their non-Chinese phone/data they will not see as much intervention in their internet access. But I agree with the author that Microsoft products are a good bet (especially Bing vs Goole and Safari for apple products vs Chrome). I find trying to find a website with maps/directions to be one of the hardest parts.

    My only suggestion for those visiting China, don’t worry about getting online, just focus on exploring the country.

  • Wolfgang

    Just came back today from 10 days in China.

    Wasn’t able to connect to company network via VPN for the entire time, big problem for me, as I have to answer emails with attachments from my company laptop.
    Only workaround was forwarding those emails from my private email account, which worked fine, still far from an ideal solution.
    I hope the VPN situation changes for the better soon!

    Switched to using Bing for maps, as Google cannot be accessed at all.

  • Jon

    I am currently in China traveling on business and am experiencing the issues described. American staple websites such as google and social media are all blocked. Using Bing and Yahoo for search engines but find Bing to be slightly better. Really difficult to stream NBC sports or TBS for American sports so I had to go with a Chinese site. Amazing how fast the stream was considering how long it took to load flyer talk.

    Company VPN not working of course. Really confused about which map to use while in China since I am spoiled by Google. Any suggestions?

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Jon – I am not aware of a good all purpose map with extensive English, Chinese one like sogou and baidu may be workable with some English. There are city specific apps like City Weekend’s City Fu for Shanghai. Google Maps has ways to save maps offline, each version seems to make it harder to do and I have all but given up.

  • Gene

    @rapid travel chai
    this is cray cray.

    what about of-the-shelf VPNs? (ex: teamviewer, logmein)

  • Aaron

    I live in Shanghai. Astrill VPN works wonders, both on my laptop and iPhone. I haven’t found any sites that are blocked when I use Astrill. The trick for iPhone is to use PPTP instead of L2TP.

  • Shannon

    this country is horrible!

  • Chip W

    A good option is to setup your desktop at home with a VPN connection…In China, connect to your home VPN, which is unlikely to be blocked.

  • Gene

    @Chip W
    what kind of VPN please?

  • Marty

    I’ve been in china for about a week. Staying in hotels,I’ve been using their wifi and using “vyprvpn” vpn. this has worked beautifully-access to all google sites, facebook, ny times etc. pretty sure it slowed down my connection a bit, but no big deal for email etc.very impressive software!

  • Bill

    And we continue to reward this regime with business.

  • JB

    I used to use Witopia as a VPN but I heard that it doesn’t work as well in China now. I suggest you figure out how to configure your VPN with PTP and L2TP so you can try each option. Also as Stefan mentioned, T-mobile has free global roaming.

  • Gene

    whats PTP and L2TP please?

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    #Gene – different VPN protocols, I don’t know the ins and outs of each but the more options the better, I try one, then the next, etc.

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