If you’re on your way to China or are simply the curious kind, you may want to find out what lies beyond the Great Firewall. While a heavily censored internet looks a lot like our own, it manages to seem a little off in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
What Makes the Internet in China Different?
Unlike, for example, the United States or European countries, China has placed its internet behind a strict screen of censorship dubbed the Great Firewall. It’s a highly sophisticated system that can block connections from Chinese IP addresses to ones that are considered harmful to the Chinese public. This includes adult entertainment and gambling sites as well as those featuring particularly violent content.
Most striking of all, though, is that so few foreign media sites are accessible to people in the People’s Republic. The Chinese Communist Party tightly controls information flow and prefers that its people not read sources that haven’t been vetted by the regime. That being said, it’s not necessarily a rule set in stone: For example, How-To Geek isn’t blocked on the Chinese internet (at least, not yet).
Another bugbear of the Communist regime is non-Chinese social media sites with their supposedly lax moderation. As such, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a number of other similar sites are not accessible from China and are instead replaced with home-grown versions of those services.
Besides blocking sites directly, the Great Firewall also doesn’t allow most search engines to work on the Chinese internet: For example, DuckDuckGo is banned, as is the world’s biggest search engine, Google, which includes products like Drive and Docs.
Google suspended operations in the Middle Kingdom in 2010, citing an unwillingness to cooperate with the Chinese government’s censorship. In 2018, however, it was reported that Google was working on a censored search engine for China dubbed Dragonfly, although the project was quickly suspended once the news leaked. Microsoft seems to have even fewer scruples than Google, and its search engine, Bing, has been working for years under censorship rules, although it did get switched off for a day in 2019, presumably as a warning from the regime to Western corporations.
What Is the Chinese Internet Like?
The information above may have you thinking that the version of the internet that you get in China is some desolate wasteland full of boring speeches from Communist apparatchiks. However, while there’s definitely some of that, overall, it’s a lot like the internet in the rest of the world, albeit with some key differences. (Note that all the sites below can be accessed from anywhere in the world. The Great Firewall lets foreigners connect to Chinese services.)
We’ll start with the gateway to the internet: search engines. Rather than Google, most Chinese people use Baidu, which manages to be the world’s sixth-largest search engine (according to Search Engine Journal) despite only really being used in one country (albeit one with over a billion people). There are other options, like Sogou or even Bing, but Baidu has almost 80% of the market, so it’s practically the default.
That’s pretty understandable, actually. Baidu has clearly taken a leaf or two out of Google’s book when it comes to presentation and looks pretty similar to it. Also, while there’s no way to compare the algorithms that both use, the search results look familiar, too (We used a popular breakfast food for the example below.).
Note that Baidu is only in Chinese, and as such, inputting English terms will usually return learning resources. Also, putting in “good hotel Beijing” returned only hotels with the word “good” in their name. If you wanted to bring up a ranked list like in Google, you’d have to enter the Chinese search words in either pinyin (the way to write Chinese with Latin letters) or hanzi (characters).
Of course, there are limits to what you can find: We also tried googling (baidu-ing?) “Tiananmen Square massacre” (an event that took place in 1989 when the Chinese army slaughtered peaceful protesters in Beijing) and got nothing back except for some propaganda, both when attempting the search in English and in hanzi. Our IP address is most likely on a watchlist now, too.
This sanitized experience is much the same for video sites, too. YouTube is also banned in China, as it makes it very easy for people to post opinions, so it has been replaced by some home-grown (and also strictly moderated) variants. The biggest of these is Youku.
Youku is more or less like a cross between YouTube and the equally banned Netflix (or any other site like it, including Hulu, Disney+, etc.). While plenty of people upload their own videos to it, Youku has kind of been taken over for the last few years by studios and TV channels uploading movies, shows, and clips to it.
In fact, it’s probably the best place to watch Chinese-language entertainment from abroad as there are almost no blocks placed on it when accessing it from the outside, except for some copyright filters. Note, however, that there are no English subs available, although Chinese ones are usually hardcoded.
If, however, you’d like to watch the kind of content that the Chinese people themselves upload, you’re best off turning to social media. The best and biggest example is Sina Weibo, which is kind of like Twitter in that it allows for microblogging (That’s the “Weibo” part of the name. “Sina” is the company that owns it.), but it’s unlike Twitter in that any political opinions not in line with those of the Chinese Communist Party are immediately removed.
Allegedly, a person who posts any diverging opinions can expect a visit from the police for a friendly chat. None of the contacts we reached out to for this article had this happen to them, but they were still afraid of the possibility either way.
Of course, much like with our other examples, everything is in Chinese. Still, exploring Weibo is a cool way to get an idea of what daily life in China is like as well as getting a peek at some general weird goings-on, much like you can on YouTube.
Another big social media site is WeChat, which is more or less a cross between WhatsApp and Facebook. Besides being a way to keep in touch with your Chinese friends (Seriously, it’s pretty much the only way to get ahold of people.), it’s also a pretty handy tool for travelers in China to use, as it gives you access to WeChat Pay, which you’ll need to, well, pay for anything, as cash is becoming less and less accepted in China.
Tunneling under the Great Firewall
However, as cool as the Chinese internet can be when you’re messing around with it for the first few times, there are two issues: It’s pretty much Chinese-only, and it’s heavily censored. Many of the movies on Youku, for example, may seem a little repetitive thanks to the same themes taking center stage in all films, and the news and social media often seem like rehashes of whatever was on yesterday. Even if your Chinese is good enough to handle it all, you’re going to get bored.
Also, using Baidu all the time for your searches can get annoying thanks to the massive amount of political and social topics that can’t be discussed. Bing isn’t that much better, and you’ll start to miss Google search a lot quicker than you might think.
Thankfully, visitors to the country can use a VPN to bypass Chinese censorship, so you’re not stuck using it. A VPN is a privacy tool that lets you circumvent Chinese censorship by rerouting your connection to a server outside of the People’s Republic and thus access Netflix and Google like normal. Although officially, you can get in trouble for using a VPN when in China, in our experience, foreigners can get away with it without running into issues.
RELATED: How to Use the Internet from China
Generally speaking, we think that ExpressVPN and Windscribe are best for this job, although asking friends already in China for suggestions is always a good idea. Make sure that you get the right VPN so that you can enjoy the regular internet as well as the Chinese one whenever you want.
We’ve heard our top VPN pick is great for getting around Chinese internet censorship, too.