A Traveler’s Guide to Internet Censorship: Comparing Internet Regulations in the U.S. and China

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pixabay


By Maura Perri, Staff Writer

In 2011, nearly 2.12 million Americans made the journey to China, and that number has continued to increase rapidly since then.[1] With each year, more and more United States citizens are traveling and emigrating to China for study, work, and leisure as a result of the continuous intensification of Sino-American relations. The increased inclination to go to mainland China, combined with our dependency upon modern technology, makes it critical for travelers to be aware of the nation’s internet and censorship laws, as well as the repercussions of violating them.

In the U.S., the average person’s daily internet activities are generally unregulated, allowing a web user to access worldwide sites and to post, comment, or blog at liberty. U.S. web users’ ability to discuss topics of interest is afforded by the First Amendment’s protection of the right to freedom of speech.[2] In contrast, China’s internet laws greatly deviate from this American standard of free speech and are extremely strict: They limit access to anything that the government deems to be unsuitable and deprive internet users of forums to discuss certain subjects.

The so-called “Great Firewall” is a censorship device established by China’s Ministry of Public Security to create a barrier between internet users in China and international websites that are considered unfit for public exposure.[3] Unfortunately for American travelers to China, many of the websites that are blocked by the “wall” are resources that Americans use and rely on each and every day, which include Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among hundreds of others.[4]

[pullquote]I only bought Astrill[, a commonly used overseas VPN,] a week ago, and now it’s broken.[/pullquote]

Usually, any blocked site is repudiated because it is seen as posing a potential threat to either the country’s political and governmental stability or its moral compass. For instance, the Chinese government has an interest in blocking social media sites like Twitter to prevent the Chinese population from discovering negative press that could cause them to form unfavorable opinions about the country’s leaders — information that is purposely absent from Chinese news sources.[5]

Likewise, comments, blog posts, and other types of user-created content are also subject to the incredible blockading abilities of the “Great Firewall.” They can be stricken down by the vigilant internet monitoring also instated by the Chinese government.[6]

For some American travelers, the existence of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provides internet users with a way to circumvent the power of the “wall.” These VPNs are available through many different VPN service providers and are downloadable on computers, phones, and other devices. They allow users to connect to private networks and, essentially, prevent their internet traffic from being tracked.[7]

Although VPNs that have been registered with the Chinese government have not been outlawed, there are consistent efforts on its part to discover foreign-run VPNs and impede on the ability to use them. A recent Wall Street Journal article quotes one Chinese internet user, who laments, “I only bought Astrill[, a commonly used overseas VPN,] a week ago, and now it’s broken.”[8]

When going to China, Americans should be aware of VPNs. But if they download them, they should be cognizant that they may be downloading new VPN services frequently, as the government continues its mission to discover such services and render them unreliable.

Although Americans abroad in China may scale the “Great Firewall” to access certain sites by using VPNs, there is still no way to truly be able to speak freely on the internet in China, especially when it comes to politics. Therefore, Americans should exercise caution when posting in China, especially about matters such as protests, police activities, or criticism of the Chinese government. Writing about these topics, although normal and invited in the U.S., could result in fines and even jail time.[9]



[1] Xu Lin, Top 10 Countries with most visitors to China in 2011 (Feb. 28, 2012), http://www.china.org.cn/top10/2012-02/28/content_24712751_5.htm.

[2] U.S. Const. Amend. 1

[3] How Censorship Works in China: A Brief Overview, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2006/china0806/3.htm.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Eva Dou, China Cracks Down on VPNs During Political Meetings, The Wall Street Journal (Mar. 10, 2016), http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2016/03/10/china-cracks-down-on-vpns-during-political-meetings/.

[8] Id.

[9] Dan Harris. Avoiding Chinese Jails. I’m Talkin’ to You, Harris Moure (April 28, 2009), http://www.chinalawblog.com/2009/04/tips_for_avoiding_a_china_jail.html.

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