Internet censorship in China is extreme and about to get worse.
Chinese citizens don’t have access to popular apps and services like Gmail and Facebook because they are blocked by the government; the same government that has enforced strict compliance rules for apps and services to be allowed to work in their country. Any apps that function outside those rules could end up being blocked — most of the time, without notice — which is exactly what users reported to have happened to WhatsApp in the last 24 hours.
Casualty of censorship
Beijing disrupted Facebook’s internationally popular chat and messaging app in various parts of the country. The block started early Tuesday morning leaving users unable to send and/or receive messages.
“According to the analysis that we ran today on WhatsApp’s infrastructure, it seems that the Great Firewall is imposing censorship that selectively targets WhatsApp functionalities,” said Nadim Kobeissi, an applied cryptographer at Symbolic Software, a cryptography research start-up.
The outage appears to be concentrated in certain cities and provinces, and not nation-wide. We tested it ourselves and can confirm that WhatsApp is working in neighboring Hong Kong, but within China it’s been blocked or has slowed down to a crawl — the most affected being the Jilin province, the Hubei province, and the Jiangsu province.
Users who report they were unable to send and receive WhatsApp messages earlier that day, were able to send them hours later but only for a brief period; because the block seems to turn On/Off at random.
In some areas the WhatsApp ban is partial. Users are able to send and receive text messages but they are unable to send documents, images, or update their story/status.
New user registrations, banned
It’s not just the service that is being blocked. Users are also unable to download or install WhatsApp. Banned apps have been a long standing problem with app stores in China. Even the smartphones available in the country come with built-in blockades to aid censorship and control. To get around them, users often have to sideload apps or install repackaged versions of blocked apps.
There is no official statement from the Chinese government as to why WhatsApp was banned but people in China were anticipating that it would eventually end up behind the Great Firewall. This is because WhatsApp introduced end to end message encryption last year.
There’s also the fact that Whatsapp is owned by Facebook; another service on China’s blocked list. Facebook was blocked back in 2009 after it was deemed to be the cause of unrest in the country. It has been unable to regain entry to the Chinese market since. It’s likely Chinese officials don’t look too nice on app titles owned by the social media giant. A similar fate followed Telegram in 2015 after it was used by human rights lawyers and activists to organize and push for democratic reforms.
The Great Firewall at work
The Chinese government, through various internet filters, keeps a tight watch over the kind of information being broadcast within the country. The messaging apps popular in China don’t encrypt messages. They allow the government to monitor and intercept any and all messages, text or otherwise. WhatsApp isn’t nearly as popular as messaging app WeChat, but it provides end to end encryption which means the government can’t see what’s being said or shared. And encryption is the main reason users are switching to WhatsApp to begin with.
Right now, China is preparing for the 19th National Party congress. It also fears push-back over the recent death of a Nobel Laureate while in custody. The government appears to be proactively tackling any unrest that might take place and could be that they consider WhatsApp a threat to stability — hence the ban.
People who have seen Google’s email service Gmail get banned say the circumstances are similar. The ban appears to be limited to certain areas and is selective (i.e. only text messages are banned). But many think (make that “are certain”) that Whatsapp will end up entirely on the other side of the Great Firewall.
The Solution: Use a VPN that works in China
As bad as it may sound, there is one work around and that’s using a VPN service that fakes your location to somewhere else. Short for virtual private network, a VPN is what you should use to encrypt your online activity and route it through an intermediary server, in a location of your choosing.
The WhatsApp ban comes alongside a fresh set of banned VPN services, spelling more problems for Chinese citizens. That said, not all VPN services are blocked, and we know the ones that still work.
We used a VPN to set our location to Hong Kong and were able to access WhatsApp without problems. It took a little while to connect but other than that, the service was working flawlessly.
According to users in Hong Kong, they can still access the app and use it without needing a VPN, but they are unable to get in touch with family and friends outside Hong Kong.
So what’s the best VPN to use in China?
Our tests indicate that only two of the providers we have tested are able to bypass the Great Firewall, consistently. They are:
We’re pretty serious when saying ExpressVPN is the most reliable VPN for the Chinese market. The big selling point is not the fact that they keep standing while competitors were thwarted by the Communist authorities – it’s the fact that they have optimised Chinese servers that will get you past the Great Firewall. Fast ones.
Their entire network is SSL secured with 256-bit encryption, they promise zero-logs (even for troubleshooting purposes) and are based in the British Virgin Islands. And did we mention they have their own DNS servers, too?
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NordVPN proud themselves to being “relentless in finding a solution to bing internet freedom to people anywhere they are” – and we may add, finding a solution for those fighting censorship in China. Their newly designed app promises obfuscated servers which is an an alternative server list created specifically for using VPN under heavy restrictions.
They have high capacity on 936 servers in 56 countries and are among the fastest solutions we have tested. Security wise there’s a strong zero-logging policy, uses DoubleVPN (a solution that hides a user’s online activity behind several servers via a VPN tunnel), offers dedicated IPs and a kill switch to stop software from connecting to the internet if your VPN service drops.
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Editor’s note: A VPN service may not fix your issues with signing up to the service as a new user, as this means confirming a Chinese phone number. Please let us know if you’re affected in the comments below.