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Struggling With Virtual Private Network (VPN) in China

Bad VPN days in China derail all digital nomad operations.

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If you plan to access the “international” internet in China you’re going to need to use a virtual private network (VPN) program which allows you to browse from servers in other countries, thus enabling you to bypass China’s firewall. The problem is that these VPNs don’t always work. In the words of one VPN provider that I’ve previously interviewed, “It really is a game of cat and mouse.” The Chinese tech censors try to close the holes in the firewall and the VPN companies scramble to find other ways through. Sometimes, like during major political meetings in Beijing, they close them up completely.

This creates a climate where it is impossible to know if you are ever really going to be able to access the banned sites that you depend on (like your email provider, foreign social media, news sites). You wake up one morning and bam, your VPN isn’t working. Or you’re working away at something and you’re suddenly kicked off your server over and over again. They are called bad VPN days, and they can strike wide swaths of the country without notice.

Did you have an important email to reply to in your Gmail account? Too bad. Did you want to wish your mom happy birthday via Facebook? It’s not going to happen. Did you have an important work assignment saved in Dropbox? It’s going to be late. On and on.

While it’s always smart to China-proof your internet endeavors and not rely on blocked foreign sites as much as possible if you plan on being in the country long term, doing so is a real challenge — especially if you’re regularly interacting or doing business with those on the other side of the firewall who just expect you to have the same technological capabilities as they do.

Yesterday was a bad VPN day in Xiamen. I wasted two hours of my morning work shift trying to connect to a server. It is getting hard to keep back to China from other countries who don’t have such internet restrictions. You don’t realize how much of an inconvenience and time-sink VPNs are until you step outside the firewall for a while.

I remember a scene from a documentary about Sidney Rittenberg, an American who was a member of the Chinese Communist Party from its rise to power through the Cultural Revolution era. He mentioned that the top leaders of China were obsessed with America. They couldn’t understand how a country could be so stable for so long while letting everybody express themselves as they wished. This is an enigma that China has yet to figure out.


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Filed under: China, Internet

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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