China’s rich history, cultural amenities, and a plethora of economic opportunities make it an increasingly attractive destination for digital nomads. But if you’re planning to live the remote work lifestyle in China, you’ll have to deal with a most unwelcome tourist trap indeed: the internet censorship and surveillance mechanism known as the Great Firewall. Here’s what you need to know if your roaming takes you to Beijing, Shanghai, and beyond.
Climb the Wall
The Chinese government established the Great Firewall to block “unfavorable” incoming data from foreign countries, especially content of a political nature. On a practical level, this means you’ll likely find that many of the sites and online resources you depend on are inaccessible.
Start by testing whether the website you need to access is actually off limits by using a service such as GreatFireWallofChina.org. If the site is one of the 3000+ blocked by the Great Firewall, try one of the following strategies.
Use Alternative Websites and Apps
If the site or resource you need access to is blocked, you can try the path of least resistance: use a competing Chinese service. For example, if you rely on Google for information such as maps, you may find that Bing or Baidu is an acceptable (and faster) alternative. Amazon, despite the recent unveiling of its Prime membership program in China, is a poor and more expensive substitute for Alibaba if your selfie stick needs an upgrade before you visit the Forbidden City.
This approach only goes so far, of course—there is simply no substitute for unfettered access to your social media profiles or Gmail account.
Use a Free VPN
If you only require occasional access to blocked websites and services, trying a free VPN may be worth a shot. Just be aware they won’t offer much in terms of security, reliability, or speed. And the Chinese government is constantly looking for ways to interfere with these networks—if you find one that appears to be usable, “here today, gone tomorrow” will likely be an appropriate idiom.
Use a Paid VPN
The best way to easily access blocked websites is to use a paid VPN service. These services tend to be faster and more reliable than their free counterparts. Many offer some sort of money-back guarantee. While the best of these paid services may be quite expensive, they can be well worth the price if you require frequent access to blocked sites.
It is important to note that the Chinese government is able to block even some paid VPNs. It’s important to conduct some thorough research before subscribing to one of these services. There are some VPN testing websites such as VPNDada.com that you can use to find out whether a particular VPN is working in China.
Set Up a Shadowsocks Server
Even though some VPN services are quite effective at bypassing the Great Firewall, they are subject to constant blocking and interruption by the Chinese government. Many people believe the best alternative to VPN is to use a Shadowsocks server.
Shadowsocks is proxy software that some people believe is better than a VPN. However, finding a reputable Shadowsocks service provider is not easy, leading many people to set it up themselves. If you are tech-savvy and know how to set up a web server, you may be able to set up a Shadowsocks server on Amazon AWS or Digital Ocean and install the Shadowsocks client software on your laptop and mobile devices.
Don’t Get Walled In
Before going to China, digital nomads need to be prepared to work around the Chinese government’s internet censorship and surveillance. The use of competing Chinese services, free or paid VPNs, and Shadowsocks proxy software may enable you to climb the Great Firewall and get things done.