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Developer vs The Great Firewall of China

samwsoftware profile image Sam Williams ・5 min read

Working remotely can be beautiful. Working as a developer whilst travelling is amazing, whether working remotely or on personal projects. Unfortunately the Great Firewall of China can make things a bit more tricky.

The Great Firewall of China

The Great Firewall of China is a nickname for the internet censorship system that the Chinese government have put in place. It limits access to websites, apps, social media and email providers that the government deem inappropriate or offensive. China first got the internet in 1994 and by 1997 they had issued regulations giving them power to censor almost anything on the internet.
The whole premise of the internet censorship is based around a quote by Deng Xiaopeng:

“If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to fly in” — Deng Xiaopeng

This can be seen with the blocking of a lot of websites from western countries; Facebook, Google, Twitter and even Medium are all blocked. The Chinese communist party leader, Xi Jinping, wants to keep Chinese culture pure from western influence. Whist this is true, there are a lot of western websites that go through the firewall without trouble. The Chinese government also block websites that store user information. One way to get around this block is to give the government access to that data. WhatsApp has recently been added to the block list. It is thought to be because WhatsApp wouldn’t provide a backdoor or the encryption keys. This was enough for it to infringe on the regulations.

Why its a Pain in the Arse

There is NO GOOGLE! I never realised how dependent I had become on Google until I came to China. Wanting to quickly Google the use of a function in a library, search for the fix for an error message or getting to the right page on MDN? Not without a VPN you won’t (talk about this soon).
Other frustrating limitations for developers that I’ve already encountered include inability to use any of the usual oAuth methods (Google, Facebook or Twitter), no access to Firebase, the Heroku website (although the CLI seems to work), Dropbox and Slack.
Currently Bing.com does work in China, and I’ve come to realise why Google has dominated the rest of the world. Bing is pretty crap. I expect that this is exacerbated by the limitations that the Chinese government will be placing on Bing to allow it into the country. I tried switching to Bing as my default search engine but after a week or two, had to go back to Google and a VPN.
What Does Work?
Even with the tight restrictions on a lot of western websites, there are a few very useful ones. The most useful sites that still work are: Github, Udemy and Mozilla Developer Network. I’m sure there are loads more but these are the ones I use most.

VPNs — the Savior of My Sanity

VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are the best way to access the sites that you know and love, circumventing the Great Firewall. There are loads of options out there, from free apps and software to $12/month subscriptions to setting up your own. I’m going to talk about the first two.
The two most popular VPN services in China are ExpressVPN and NordVPN. They both have pretty Windows apps and both run from the terminal in Linux (although ExpressVPN is far easier on Linux). I’ve used both on this trip so far and they’ve both had their pros and cons. If you want to save yourself a few bucks a month and are planning a long stay in China, they both offer contracts for 6 or 12 months giving you a hefty discount on the monthly subscription. I’m not going to analyse the performance of them here, there are loads of sites dedicated to comparing different VPN providers.
Both of these providers also have android and iOS apps and allow either 3 or 6 concurrent connections. Having tried both of the apps on android, I have ended up using a free app called TurboVPN. It says on the site that ‘ this service can not be used in China’ although it is still working for me. The apps for the paid services seem to take longer to connect and drop out more frequently than TurboVPN and I have tried to ask the paid providers why but have never had a decent response.
Whist using all of the apps, I have noticed a significant difference between my connection when on a wireless network, compared with 4G. I bought a local sim card in China and find the 4G to be able to connect to my VPNs much better than when on WIFI.

China’s Attempts to Regain Control

In the middle of October was a Communist Party conference and in preparation for that, the firewall had a few major upgrades. To make sure there were no protests or riots, the government added WhatsApp to the blocked list. This is because its encrypted service has been used to organise protests in the past. As well as blocking an increased number of messaging services, the control over VPN use was significantly increased. For about 2 weeks I couldn’t use any of my paid VPN services. Fortunately my TurboVPN app somehow still worked but this put a massive roadblock in a lot of my work. The VPN services have updated their software since and seem to working more effectively, but it’s just a cat and mouse chase between the firewall and the VPN providers.
I believe that the government are targeting the larger, paid services and the traditional internet networks at this time. This would explain why TurboVPN still worked whist all of the others didn’t, and why 4G is better than WIFI. There have been rumours that legislation is being prepared stating that internet service providers will need to block any VPN traffic, which would change the internet access issues in China massively.

Conclusion

Travelling and working is an amazing combination, whether working remotely, working on personal projects or saving up and and then learning new skills whist travelling the world, I would fully recommend it. Although if you are planning to visit China, get a VPN (or a few) sorted before you come. Setting up a VPN in China is very difficult and life without a VPN here is tricky, work without a VPN is near impossible.
The Chinese government are tightening their grip on the internet and closing the loophole that have been traditionally exploited. It might not be long before they have full control, unless you are a top hacker.
If you are considering relocating for more than about a month, maybe consider somewhere other than China. Hong Kong is a good choice as it has no firewall and you can still travel to the best places in China easily.

If you liked this article please like it to spread the word and follow me for more posts about working and travelling.

Originally posted on Medium.com

Posted on by:

samwsoftware profile

Sam Williams

@samwsoftware

I've always loved problem solving and found that software development scratches my problem solving itch.

Discussion

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Is dev.to accessible from China? 😀

 

I can get to it on my local mobile data which suggests it is. I'm currently in a hotel where there is a VPN on the WIFI which is amazing. I've not been anywhere else where I've had that.

 

Thanks!

BTW as an aside note: have you thought about the fact that VPNs that work up there might be permitted to work because they gave the government access to their traffic?

Maybe it's not true but it's worth considering :D

I hadn't thought of that, good point. I know that both ExpressVPN and NordVPN use encryption and no logging but I don't know about the security of TurboVPN. I've looked on their website and found their privacy policy which states that they don't log any of the users information. This doesn't mean they don't give the government access to see your traffic at the time of access which the government then log.
This is all just guesses, if anyone knows more then let me know.

 
 

I guess OpenVPN is easily detected by their spoofers and blocked? Would be cheaper to install your own VPN in theory, because you been the only user of your server, maybe isn't attracting attention and get blocked.

Anyway, I hope it worth the trouble by going there.

 

I think that all of the information needed to be a tech hub is available, but you have to use a Chinese search engine like Baidu.com. I tried using it once or twice but all of the top ranking sites are in Chinese. That was even less useful for me than Bing.

 

Unfortunately, turbovpn only available in the US market.

 

Are you sure? I got it and I'm from UK and I know friends from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Austria who have all got it.
Where are you from?

 

I just figured out the reason: I searched “turbovpn” rather than “turbo vpn”. I’m from HK and thank god, 1 country 2 systems still honored by Apple.

 

This is the pain I have had to undergo as an international student studying computer science in China. Dev.to is not blocked

 

Living here for 3 months I've found the firewall really annoying, studying CS here must be even worse.

 

Can you be arrested if the government discover that you use VPN to access blocked websites?

 

I don't know but I very much doubt it. Some of the restaurants and bars have a vpn on their WiFi. I think they are working at stopping the root of the problem, not targeting individual users.