Beware: Not all VPNs that work in China are the same
It has been more than four decades since China opened its economy. During that time period, the nation has spread its wings above everything from oil exploration to technology. However, at the same time, it maintains a very secret hold over its citizens.
If there is any country that needs VPNs, it is China. Unfortunately, the state knows this and has moved openly and silently to consolidate its grip on the Internet.
Great Chinese Firewall
The Great Firewall of China operates on three main concepts – active filtering, active polling, and proxy redistribution. Together, they have formed an effective barrier to free internet access in China. There are a lot of websites that you can’t access in China including the Washington Post, The Epoch Times, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram. Not only do these restrictions apply to accessing those websites but even apps won’t work.
Wondering if your site is blocked or banned in China? Run a quick check with the China Firewall Test by Dotcom-Tools – it allows you to see what your site looks like from six different locations in mainland China.
Legal Status of VPNs in China
Although there is no specific law against VPNs, China’s online policies are curved in terms that give it a wide range of powers. As an example, we first examined a small portion of the White Paper issued by the Chinese government in 2010.
Since then, the state has strengthened regulations in what it calls the Cyber Security Act (CSL), as of June 2017. Both documents are very long and particularly vague (in the context of internet terminology).
However, we can associate some content with incidents that occurred in the country for VPN service providers. For example, the case of a Guangdong man who was fined $164 for using an unauthorized VPN service.
In the case of VPN service providers, the fines get heavier and another man who sold VPN services in China was fined $72,790 and sentenced to five and a half years in prison. Interestingly, the fine is equivalent to approximately CNY 500,000, which is the maximum allowed fine (when paired with imprisonment) as stipulated under Section 63 of the CSL Act.
Article 63 appears to be directly related to VPN services in China.
Increased crackdown on unauthorized VPN providers
Since then, the country has stepped up its efforts to crack down on VPN use in the country. So far, we have noticed that a number of service providers including IPVanish are openly declaring that their services are no longer operating in the country.
Recently, the country has taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on VPNs even further. Users in the country have noted that even the best VPN brands have stopped working during this period.
The result: congestion toward China-owned VPNs
The main problem with VPNs in my view is that while users basically understand what they’re doing, failing to understand the exact implications of each service can lead to consequences. For example, failure to know the roots of the service provider.
Avoid China-owned VPNs
Reports have emerged that nearly 30% of the world’s top VPN brands are owned or affiliated with the Chinese government. If so, the central government could simply order them to turn over user records whenever needed.
As an example of China-influenced VPN services, the mainland-registered company “Innovative Connecting” alone has subsidiaries that develop and market VPN applications. These games include Autumn Breeze 2018, Lemon Cove, and All Connected.
However, it should be noted that this situation is not limited to China and occurs all over the world. Which brings me to the next point;
VPN jurisdiction issues
Aside from the obvious ownership issue, where a VPN is registered is important. Each country has its own laws and regulations. The ideal location for a VPN service provider might be one with a combination of strict privacy regulations and lax data retention laws.
An example would be SurfShark’s British Virgin Island or NordVPN registration in Panama. The reason for this is that if any country decides to try to prosecute a VPN user, those in the free jurisdiction areas can simply ignore the “requests for information”.
By contrast, I am referring to the case of IPVanish that became famous a few years ago when it handed over user logs outright at the request of the US Department of Homeland Security.
And she is not alone. It joins others who have done so as well, including HideMyAss and PureVPN, among the notable names being noted.
Secure VPNs That Still Work in China
With the crackdown on VPN service providers in China, there are quite a few options that users can resort to. Initially, it launched clandestine investigations into several VPNs that can still operate despite the Great Firewall imposed by China.
At the moment, I’ve only found two that can work (more or less) reliably within the country – ExpressVPN and NordVPN SurfShark.
Based on our test data, it indicates that NordVPN connections from China fail to reach the servers about 66% of the time. Even if you can connect, the download and upload speeds are low, making that literally useless out there. Same goes for ExpressVPN – we failed to connect and hack through China firewall with ExpressVPN in recent tests (March 2021).
SurfShark as I mentioned earlier is based in the British Virgin Islands and has a global network of over 3,200 servers. These are spread across 65 countries, so there is a much greater chance of the line’s stability and reliability.
The company is not afraid to innovate and has already jumped on the WireGuard protocol. The new protocol is said to show a lot of hope and we’ve run some tests that reflect this. Keep in mind that the response time remains the same (see test results below).
SurfShark Speed Tests
The last man standing in China
More importantly, regular testing with SurfShark from within the country indicates that SurfShark is one of the remaining major players allowing unrestricted internet access to users residing in China.
For those who sign up for their 2-year plan, prices drop to $2.49 per month thanks to a special deal we got from the company. Although it is not the cheapest, we have been monitoring this service provider for some time now and have found it to be the most reliable option.
More details in our Surfshark review.
Beware of free VPNs
As the precaution suggests, free content in the context of a VPN service is usually dangerous. Keep in mind that there are 100% free VPN services and those that offer a free model.
The first option is where the danger really lies. VPN services require huge investments in hardware, software, and experience. The companies you donate to have to earn money somehow, and the only thing you have is access to your data.
Even if these free VPNs don’t sell your data, they at least earn from ads – kind of lacking the purpose of a VPN because these ads are likely to track you while you’re using the service.
While the case of China and its crackdown on VPN service providers may be the most impactful as we’ve seen, they aren’t alone in trying to block free internet access. VPNs continue because more countries around the world are trying to censor what should be free.
Can you imagine that you live in a country like China that blocks access to something as basic as Google? Or even in the US, where the government freely decides that it can confiscate any information it wants from any company operating there?
The right to digital freedom and our personal privacy must not be violated online. This is why choosing the right VPN service to partner with is a very important choice. It goes beyond the desire to access multi-region content on Netflix.