It has been over four decades since China opened up its economy. Over that period of time, the nation has spread its wings over everything from oil exploration to technology. At the same time, however, it maintains a very secretive hold over its own citizenry.
If there was ever a country where Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are needed, it is China. Sadly the country knows this and has moved both openly and silently to solidify its hold over the Internet.
The China Great Firewall
The China Great Firewall works on three main concepts – active filtering, active probing, and proxy redistribution. Combined, they have formed an effective barrier to free Internet access in China. There are plenty of websites you can't access in China including the Washington Post, The Epoch Times, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram. These restrictions not only apply to access to those websites but even apps won’t work.
Legal Status of VPNs in China
Although there is no specific law against VPNs, China’s policies on the Internet are couched in terms that give it a wide scope of powers. As an example of it, we first examined a small segment of a white paper released by the Chinese government in 2010.
Since then the country has solidified regulations into what it calls the Cyber Security Law (CSL), effective June 2017. Both documents are extremely long and particularly vague (in the context of Internet terminology).
However, we can relate some of the content with incidents that have happened in the country for VPN service providers. For example, the case of the Guangdong man who was fined $164 for using a non-approved VPN service.
In the case of VPN service providers, the fines get heftier and another man who sold VPN services in China was fined $72,790 and sentenced to a five-and-a-half-year jail term. It is interesting that the fine is equivalent to almost an exactly RMB 500,000, the maximum allowable fine (when paired with jail time) as stipulated under Article 63 of the CSL.
Increased Crackdown on Non-approved VPN Providers
Since then the country has stepped up efforts to wipe out VPN use in the country. To date, we have noted that a number of service providers including IPVanish openly state that their services no longer work in the country.
In more recent times, the country has leveraged the Coronavirus pandemic to crack down on VPNs even more. Users in the country have been noting that even top VPN brands have stopped working during this period.
The Result: Crowding Towards Chinese-Owned VPNs
The main issue with VPNs from my standpoint is that while users understand basically what they do, a failure to understand the finer implications of each service can result in consequences. For example, failing to learn the roots of a service provider.
Avoid China-owned VPNs
Reports have emerged that roughly 30% of the top VPN brands in the world are owned or associated with the Chinese government. If this were the case, the central government could simply order them to hand over user logs whenever necessary.
As an example of China-influenced VPN services, the mainland registered company “Innovative Connecting” alone owns subsidiaries that develop and market VPN apps. These include Autumn Breeze 2018, Lemon Cove, and All Connected.
It should be noted however that this situation is not unique to China and happens around the world. This brings me to the next point;
VPN Jurisdiction Matters
Aside from the obvious question of ownership, where a VPN is registered matters. Each country has its own laws and regulations. An ideal location for a VPN service provider would be a place that has a combination of tight privacy regulations and lax data retention laws.
Examples of these would be SurfShark's British Virgin Island registration or NordVPN in Panama. The reason why is that should any country decide to try and prosecute a VPN user, those based in free jurisdiction zones can simply snub the ‘requests for information’.
In contrast with this, I bring to mind the case of IPVanish which shot to notoriety a few years back when it tamely handed over user logs on request of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Safe VPNs That Still Work in China
With the harsh crackdown on VPN service providers in China, there are few options for users to turn to. Tentatively, I have begun covert investigations into several VPNs that can still operate despite China’s restrictive Great Firewall.
At the moment, I’ve only found two which can work (more or less) reliably within the country – SurfShark.
Based on our test data indicates that NordVPN connections from China fail to reach servers about 66% of the time. Even if you do manage to connect, download and upload speeds are low, making this literally useless there. The same goes for ExpressVPN – we failed to connect and penetrate through China Firewall using 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 higher chance of line stability and reliability.
The company is not afraid of innovating and has in fact hopped on the WireGuard protocol already. The new protocol is said to show lots of promise and we've run a few tests that reflect this. Keep in mind though that latency still remains the same (see our test results below).
SurfShark Speed Tests
|Location||Download (Mbps)||Upload (Mbps)||Ping (ms)|
|Benchmark (without VPN)||305.78||119.06||6|
|United States (WireGuard)||174.71||115.65||176|
|United States (No WireGuard)||91.31||27.23||190|
|United Kingdom (WireGuard)||178.55||131.56||194|
|Holland (No WireGuard)||170.59||2.71||258|
|South Africa (WireGuard)||168.38||86.09||258|
|South Africa (No WireGuard)||47.61||4.28||349|
Last Man Standing in China
More importantly, regular tests with SurfShark from within the Country suggest that SurfShark is one of the remaining key players which allow unrestricted Internet access to China-based users.
For those who subscribe to their two years plan, prices drop to $2.49/mo thanks to a special deal we got from the company. While not the cheapest around, we have monitored this service provider for some time now and find it to be the most reliable option.
Beware of Free VPNs
As the hedging implies, free in the context of a VPN service is usually dangerous. Keep in mind though, that there are 100% free VPN services, and those which offer a freemium model.
The first option is where the danger really lies. VPN services require a massive investment in hardware, software, and expertise. Companies that are giving it away have to earn money somehow and the only thing that it has is access to your data.
Even if these free VPNs are not selling your data, at the very least they are earning from advertisements – which kind of defeats the purpose of a VPN since those ads will likely be tracking you as you use the service.
While the case of China and its crackdowns on VPN service providers may be the most impactful we’ve seen, they are not alone in trying to prevent free access to the Internet. VPNs survive because more countries around the world are trying to censor what should be free.
Can you imagine, living 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 seize any information it likes from any company operating there?
The right to digital freedom and our personal privacy on the Internet should be inviolate. This is why choosing the right VPN service to partner with is such an important choice. It goes far beyond the desire to access multi-region content on Netflix.