“Just Google it” is a phrase you won’t hear in China. The same way, you won’t be able to use Google Maps to guide you through the busy streets of Beijing, nor check your Gmail account to see if there are any new emails in your inbox. All of this is a result of excessive Internet censorship and harsh governmental regulations.
There are thousands of URLs blocked in mainland China, and certain Google online services top a long list that includes a number of popular global sites. Website blocking is one way that the Chinese government regulates the Internet domestically. The whole set of laws and actions form The Great Firewall of China – one of the most excessive mechanisms ever created for censoring the World Wide Web.
The Great Firewall (GFW) is a part of the Golden Shield Project, which covers various areas of China’s national network security. The purpose of the GFW is to control the Internet within China, leaving access only to content that complies with strict governmental policies. This is achieved by blocking specific websites, keyword filtering and monitoring the activity of Internet users.
It is all made possible by a sophisticated surveillance system. The arsenal of technical methods used to control the Internet content includes IP blocking, URL filtering, Man-in-the-Middle attacks (MITM), DNS and packet filtering, and others.
The Chinese internet police consists of tens of thousands of people who constantly monitor what is being said and published online to neutralize opinions and delete entries unfavorable to the authorities. Those who dare to critique the regime, communicate with groups abroad, sign petitions or otherwise ways express opinions about topics deemed sensitive face prosecution and even imprisonment.
The Freedom House, which compiles annual “Freedom on the Net” reports and country rankings, has described China as “the worst abuser of the Internet Freedom”. In their 2021 report, they claimed that the Chinese government's control has tightened significantly over the course of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chinese government maintains tight control of which information sources are and aren't accessible in China, and this extends to apps as well. In many cases, apps and websites can only maintain access if they agree to cooperate with the Chinese government.
This list will help you get an idea of what you can access from within China. Keep in mind that this list only mentions some of the most popular sites and apps in each category. Furthermore, the list may change as apps and sites change their policies and as the Chinese government changes its policies. If there's a specific site or service you think you'll need in China, check with them whether they are accessible in china before you travel.
China’s Great Firewall blocks access to an ever growing number of social networking sites. Occasionally, some of the banned websites, like LinkedIn, can become available again.
In China, access to many Western news sources is prohibited. State-owned or state-approved news sources are the only way to easily access news from abroad. Here are the news sites you'll probably find blocked in China:
Even many Western entertainment and media sites are blocked in China. Here's what you might miss out on:
With a tight grip on information sources in China, it's no surprise that many search engines are censored. Some of these search engines will be accessible, but the results of your queries may be totally different when inside China. Others, like Google, have been banned entirely. Google is taking steps to reenter China, but this would require them to alter the results they provide.
Messaging apps are subject to similar restrictions. Those that don't grant access to the Chinese government are restricted, which means privacy- and security-oriented messaging apps are ruled out.
Chinese laws allow the government to limit or block apps and websites that don't cooperate with the government. In China, “cooperation” can mean blocking or removing content based on government guidelines. The content the Chinese government chooses to block may vary with time, but this amounts to total censorship power.
Again, the actual sites and services blocked in China may change with time. A website may choose to comply with Chinese law, or Chinese law may change and render certain sites incompliant. Google, for example, worked in China until 2010. Before then, Google had chosen to serve China’s market and provide its people with information access, even though it applied limitations to comply with Chinese censorship policy. However, the tech giant changed its mind after facing a cyber attack that was found to be originated from China. Google reacted by directing its Chinese traffic to the search engine version for Hong Kong, where censorship does not apply. To no one's surprise, Google's' services soon became inaccessible for users in China.
Using a VPN in China is a popular method to get through The Great Firewall. It reroutes Internet traffic through a remote server and changes the IP address. This way, user virtually appears to be in a different location and can bypass country-specific restrictions and censorship when going online. It is important to choose a reliable VPN service provider that has technical capabilities to operate in markets as tough as China, just like NordVPN has.
Because VPNs are sometimes used in this way, they are often difficult or impossible to download while in China itself. We would suggest acquiring one before ever traveling to China. With a wide array of security features and powerful encryption, NordVPN is an excellent VPN for expats, journalists, travelers, and anyone else who plans to spend time in China.
On a final note, the freedom of speech and the free flow of information being trampled by the Great Firewall remain a major concern from the human rights perspective. With the constantly growing list of restricted websites and tightened censorship practices, the possibility of the situation getting any better remains low.