VPNs Under Attack


Attack! by FlyinPhotography

How do we foreigners live in China when YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all blocked here? We use VPNs to get around the blocks. Five years ago, it seemed like only a few foreigners I knew in Shanghai found it really necessary to pay money to circumvent the blocks. Now, almost all foreigners I know find it necessary. Tools like Facebook have become too important of a means of communication to just give up.

For a while, it felt like there was a truce. Lots of sites will get blocked, but the blocks are easily worked around through VPNs. Those who “need” VPNs just had to pay for them. Now the situation is different. Recently many VPNs have stopped working, and even those of us that prefer to stay apolitical need to use the internet (unfettered).

Some recent articles about the status of VPNs in China:

China tightens grip on VPN access amid pro-democracy protests, Gmail users also affected

China Strengthens Great Firewall, While, Chinese Bypass it.

The VPN-debate: why China’s internet censorship needs to fail

Are all VPNs now disabled in China?

China Tightens Censorship of Electronic Communications [Updated March 23rd]

Fact-checking the New York Times’ China Coverage [Updated March 25th]

Are all VPNs now disabled in China? Fortunately, no. I am lucky enough to be using one of the ones that has not been affected by the recent changes to the GFW. Who knows how long that will last.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. […] but also apparently ever-growing.  I read a few blogs out of China, and this morning’s Sinosplice about the crackdown on VPNs only increased my confidence that Taiwan was the right choice.  Taiwan […]

  2. SSH tunnels are a little more expensive (cost of a web hosting or VPS account) but still work. Knocking on wood…

  3. I think Micah’s got it right, and virtual unblockable (though it wasn’t long ago everyone was saying the same thing with VPNs).

    Unless the VPN is rolling an endless stream of changing IPs to circumvent blocks, it can only be a matter of time before the GFW has the tech in place to see where you’re going and to kill it.

    A private (truly private) VPN via a Web hosting account would require that specific hosting account to be blocked (or a general block of that hosting service’s range of IPs) which is unlikely considering there’d be no specific need from the POV of the GFW and they would be blocking entire chunks of the Internet that don’t specifically need blocking.

    The endgame for the GFW will basically be to have a Chinese Intranet that only allows in white listed sites. When that happens, it’s all done and we should all move home.

  4. Good, maybe it will stop China-based bloggers from uploading videos to youtube instead of youku and then wondering why nobody can see it. Or my favorite, linking to blocked sites without a second thought.

  5. Maybe it’s that I’m an incurable miser but I will NEVER pay money to access particular sites, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. In fact I’m glad that the Chinese Government blocks off these windows to the west and forces me into using Chinese sites, from a language perspective and a cultural perspective.

  6. @Micah S or Ryan

    Would you be able to point me to a guide for setting up a SSH tunnels? I have UK-based web hosting.

    • It doesn’t work with every host; only ones that allow SSH connections and tunneling. But it’s worth a try! Here is a decent tutorial on setting up an SSH tunnel using puTTY and Firefox:


      Two more tips: ① In Firefox’s about:config, set the network.proxy.socks_remote_dns setting to “true” so that DNS requests also go through the tunnel. ② Install a Firefox extension like Multiproxy Switch, or Proxy Switchy in Chrome, so that you can quickly switch in and out of the tunnel to access foreign and domestic sites at optimal speeds.

  7. I heard Witopia doesn’t work anymore. It’s too bad! This sort of thing frustrates me so much. This works for us: https://neomailbox.net/news.html…however, their customer support is pretty slow.

    • I have Witopia and still working perfectly. They change some configurations, so you need to contact them to get the instructions!
      This battle will never end. The government block, the VPN open. It will be the same as jailbreak ipod or cracking software!

  8. oops, that link posted funny. It’s this: https://neomailbox.net/news.html

  9. I’m having trouble understanding the comments by Harland and ChrisPug. How could anyone (other than government censors) believe that less access to information is a good thing?

    “I’m glad that the Chinese Government blocks off these windows to the west and forces me into using Chinese sites, from a language perspective and a cultural perspective.”

    This, in particular, strikes me as incredibly short-sighted and selfish. Perhaps it was meant sarcastically?

    • Same here, Brad.

      Back in the good old days, when information was more accessible, we had to rely on old fashioned self-discipline to learn culture and language, in lieu of restrictions which limit our options to do anything else… but hey, whatever works for you, I guess.

      What really irritates me, however, is my current limited access with GoogleTalk. That was how I communicated with my brothers who don’t have phones. I can now only communicate in brief spurts before I lose contact–if I can connect at all. 🙁

      Sure there is Skype, but they’re not on that often. Besides, how long before that’s canned too?

    • light487 Says: March 25, 2011 at 6:31 am

      I can understand where ChrisPug is coming from as I have often wrestled with this issue myself. On one hand you have the civil liberties that allow you to “choose” to not look at things that you “choose” to believe are bad and so on. Yet at the same time, if those things that you believe are bad were never accessible in the first place, then you wouldn’t even need to worry about them.

      I’d definitely rather have the “choice”, no question about that at all! However, there is something to be said about censorship of things that isn’t always a bad thing. Just because something is available, does this mean that to protect the freedom of choice we should allow our moral standards as a global nation to suffer as a result?.. just for the sake of choice?

      It’s certainly not as black and white as “choice” or “no choice”.. nor even as simple as “choice” or “limited choice”. I can understand the reason they do it (censorship) in principle… but again, as an educated and intelligent adult it should be up to be to “choose”.

  10. Luckily, my VPN has not been affected at all. In fact, after it expired I managed to renew it, through a chinese reseller, no problem!

    Actually, I was looking at a number of VPN’s and I had no problem going to their website or signing up with them (I tried 2 before renewing my old one). And this was only a week and a half ago. So maybe the reaction is a little overblown? I mean, I had no VPN and yet had access to many VPN websites and was able to freely search ‘vpn.’ (Although the freegate page on cnet was blocked from me!)

  11. I somehow suspect the VPNs that survived this time around will get more popular and get blocked the next time around.

    I’m a fan of Micah’s solution. I’ve also heard about people getting a Virtual Assistant on Odesk or Elance to setup software to run a VPN that can be used on iPhone/iPad.

  12. […] not. A few days after Gmail started acting really weird, first bloggers started to complain (see John Pasden’s helpful post and his links for more), then headlines started popping up about Gmail not working for other users, […]

  13. @Micah,
    how do you setup SSH proxies in IE? does it require SSH shell? does it allow SFTP?

    Do you know where I can find a list of VPNs to sign up?
    Thank you in advance

    I am wondering given the current situation why someone/some company setup a satellite and provide small upload dishes to provide satellite based internet…the satellite would relay the information to a non-chinese based satellite AND we can skip this VPN thing; even if given satellite internet is more expensive but excels in DL despite sucking at the UL speeds.

  14. “even those of us that prefer to stay apolitical need to use the internet”

    There’s something interesting in that statement, something that I didn’t realize even after living in China for a long time, but have slowly come to realize over the past few years — the more the state involves itself in regulating your daily life, the more impossible it is to be “apolitical.” I used to subscribe to the “keep your head down and the state won’t bother you” approach, but at some point (and I think China is well past that point now) even mundane things (like talking to your friends on Facebook, or watching a video on Youtube) are implicitly challenges to state power, and are thereby political in nature. They’re tiny and largely inconsequential challenges to state power, sure, but consequential and inconsequential are fluid things when a political system with very little oversight wants to justify something.

    I know what you mean when you say that you prefer to stay apolitical, but just because you don’t care about politics doesn’t mean politics doesn’t care about you. 🙂

    • I agree completely. I feel myself being sucked in more and more. I’ve never been able to stay 100% apolitical on this blog, but I’m certainly going to find ways around the GFW, so with recent events, the urge to rant keeps growing.

      I think the people that really want to stay 100% apolitical just leave.

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