China is something of an oddity amongst first world nations today. They’re one of the most industrialised and advanced nations on Earth in many respects, but there are all sorts of issues with the sustainability, political climate, population, and policies of the country.
Ignoring the environment, ignoring overpopulation, ignoring politics, there’s one issue that stands out above all the rest when it comes to global commerce; the Internet.
The Great Firewall of China
China is notorious for their Great Firewall, known internally as the Golden Shield Project. This firewall is a country-wide surveillance and censorship program that keeps the average Chinese internet user from seeing anything that could be construed as detrimental to China in some way shape or form.
This is widely cited as a bad idea by many other nations, and there are a lot of motions and movements to help breach the firewall. Of course, this can be quite dangerous to the people within China. Chinese citizens have been punished in various ways for protests or for illegal breaches of the firewall.
Given that you’re reading this post on a site aimed at providing proxies, you might guess where I stand on the issue. However, I also have another perspective in mind.
There are two types of people that can benefit from breaching the Great Firewall; Chinese citizens who want more free and open information, and foreign business people who need unfettered access to keep up with domestic news and information.
Information is what keeps a business afloat and ahead of the game. Doing business in China can be very beneficial to a wide range of businesses, due to the proliferation of cheap lobar and the Chinese market being the source for a lot of technology.
However, if you’re trying to do business within China, it can be diﬃcult to deal with the restrictions placed on online communications.
Bypassing the Firewall
The Great Firewall is actually very sophisticated technology. It’s very impressive, given how long it has survived and how thoroughly it blocks some kinds of content. That said, it’s still possible to bypass.
There are a number of diﬀerent ways to bypass the Firewall. One of the most popular, but potentially expensive and fickle options, is a VPN. I’m not here to talk about VPNs, though. You can read about them, and the VPNs useful in China, here. Be aware, though, that China has been cracking down on VPNs in recent months, making it harder to use them safely.
Related: What’s The Diﬀerence Between a Proxy and a VPN?
A safer, cheaper, and more flexible method is to use simple web proxies. Proxies aren’t completely infallible – sometimes they will suﬀer from blocks as well – but you can rotate through proxies a lot faster than you can swap VPNs.
Before we begin, I do have to say one thing. I’m not and never will advocate using proxies to bypass legal firewalls, or to commit illegal acts. I know that there are a lot of people who want to use proxies to bypass the Great Firewall, but as long as doing so is illegal and can get you or someone else in trouble, I’m not going to recommend doing it. Consider this information for educational and informational purposes only. Always abide by local laws, so long as those laws are in eﬀect.
It should be noted that proxies aren’t a way of making your web traﬃc invisible or safe. Depending on how the Firewall tracks your activity – I’m not privy to Chinese state secrets – it’s likely that any traffic you send out to a proxy server will be logged and traced.
Therefore, a proxy is only useful for fetching information that would normally be blocked; it’s not going to protect you from the repercussions of doing so. In many ways, it’s very much like the American concept of legally protected free speech.
How Proxies Work
The concept behind a proxy server is quite simple. You pick a proxy server from a list, based on various bits of information about it.
The most important information, in this case, is location, followed by latency. Location means the physical location of the proxy server, which becomes the location your traffic comes from. For example, if you pick a proxy server in Ukraine, and choose to browse Facebook, Facebook will see your request as having come from Ukraine.
This is, in essence, no diﬀerent from how the normal Internet works. There’s no direct connection between you and a website unless you’re hosting that website on the same computer you’re using to browse.
Normally you have to go through your home network router, a street-level router, a router to an internet pipeline, which itself can lead to a backbone, and then from the backbone down through exchange servers and routers to the server on which the website is hosted.
If you run a traceroute through a command prompt, you can even see each jump along the way, and what the latency is for each jump.
The only difference with a proxy server is that you’re intentionally sending your traﬃc to a specific server that will then lend its IP to your commands.
It’s the equivalent of sending a letter through a specific postal service that erases your return address and writes their own on the envelope. When the website responds, it sends the letter back to the return address, which is the post office. The post oﬃce has a record of you and forwards the message on.
This is the problem with using a proxy to bypass the Chinese firewall. The proxy server is by definition outside of the borders of China. If it was in China, the connection it sent out would be filtered as well, giving you absolutely no benefit.
Proxies have their drawbacks. You’re adding an extra step to the process of sending and receiving data from a website, which means your response times will always be slower than if you had a direct connection. Of course, a lot of latency is better than not being able to access the destination site at all, which is what defeating a firewall is all about.
Proxy servers, at least public free proxy servers, also tend to have a lot of issues. They lace your content with ads or put it in an ad-laden iframe window, so they can make some money oﬀ your browsing. They’re often crowded with people using them for all sorts of purposes, meaning they’re slow due to their underpowered hardware. They’re also often located in unsavory parts of the world, so you might fall victim to websites filtering those IPs.
Speaking of proxy IPs, when you filter your traﬃc through a proxy, you’re taking the IP address of that proxy. That means that anyone else using that proxy also shares that IP address. If you wanted to access, for example, Facebook, that’s fine. However, if someone else who used that proxy server did something to get themselves IP banned, you would encounter that IP ban when you tried to access the site. Essentially, the server is banned, so anyone trying to access the site through the server won’t be able to do so.
All of this can be solved by using paid private proxies. Most people who want to use proxies don’t want to pay for the service, so they go for the free servers. This means that paid servers have a lot less traﬃc in general. More importantly, they’re also more likely to weed out the unsavory characters that get proxy servers banned in the first place.
Paid proxies also tend to have better hardware located in better locations. If you want to use a US-centric website, it’s better to go through a proxy located in that country than one located in Ukraine.
There’s also the security issue. Public proxies in large parts just aren’t safe when it comes to user data, privacy, and security. A study from earlier this year indicated that only 21% of public proxies were “safe” for a certain definition of safe, and that 79% of them didn’t even allow HTTPS traﬃc.
This isn’t a huge problem if all you’re trying to do is check the news, but if you’re trying to use any service that passes credentials or logs you in, well, now your login and password information is compromised. I hope you like changing it! Except you can’t even change it without going through a proxy, due to the firewall.
This issue isn’t unique to proxies. One of the most popular free VPN services globally was Hola, which essentially turned any user signed up for the service into a potential exit node for another user.
In particular, it sold premium users the ability to use free users as exit nodes while they were idle. This was hugely detrimental, and was often used for criminal activities, up to and include widespread DDoS attacks.
Private proxies don’t have these issues, generally. Sometimes you’ll find a server that doesn’t accept HTTPS, but it’s not an issue to just switch to the next server on the list. They’re also not often used for illegal activity, because the proxy owners don’t want to jeopardize their networks for a few bad apples.
Paying Attention to Details
When you’re in China and you’re trying to bypass the Firewall with a proxy server, you pretty much have to go with a paid proxy list of some sort. Paid VPNs are all well and good, but again, China has been cracking down on VPNs. Proxies are much more agile; if one gets banned, who cares? You have a list of 200 to choose from.
If you’re going to use a proxy list, you’re going to want something high-tier. This is because of the general locations of the proxies you’ll be using. When you’re browsing from China, you want to route your traﬃc through one of the most unfiltered and safe locations available. No Middle Eastern proxies, no Eastern European proxies, nothing of the sort. You’ll want proxies located in American or Britain, in general. Very, very little is filtered for these sorts of proxies.
The other primary feature you’re going to want to look for before you buy – because you’ll be paying, one way or another, no doubt about it – is how quick the servers are to respond. The United States may not have the fastest internet connection speeds in many places, but the proxy servers you get will be some of the best, simply because of their location and their hardware.
You’re not going to find top of the line server hardware in a lot of the locations where free proxies are based. You’re finding Ivan’s personal PC on his 3mbps connection.
You might additionally want to pick up a Smart DNS service. A Smart DNS service is a service that, while you route your traﬃc through proxies, will dynamically adjust your IP address for what you’re trying to reach. There’s no sense in using a US-based proxy when you’re looking up a Chinese website; it’s just as likely to be filtered from the outside as it is to be accessible from the inside. China is trying to be an enclosed ecosystem, not a one-way wall. Instead of having to manually turn your proxy on and oﬀ, you can use Smart DNS to strip location data from your connections so you appear as though you’re in China for Chinese sites, and outside of China for foreign sites.
If you’re trying to defeat the Firewall – which, again, I don’t necessarily advocate due to the legalities of doing so – you need to be adaptable to anything that changes. This applies regardless of whether you’re trying to use a VPN, a proxy server, a nested browser like TOR, or anything else. At any moment, the server, the service, or the node you’re using might be shut down or blocked. You need to adjust quickly if you want to keep up your browsing.
Month to month, year to year, China makes their Golden Shield that much more diﬃcult to breach. Any time a solution becomes widespread – VPNs, Astrill, ExpressVPN or anything else – China will put their engineers to work finding a way to block it on a widespread basis.
Long-time internet users in China will have likely gone through a dozen different means of bypassing the firewall, if they’re intent on doing so. Many simply get discouraged and give up.
Thankfully, adaptability is a prized trait amongst businessmen as much as it is amongst web users. Being able to adapt to the changes in the firewall and remain able to do business, gain information, monitor news, and research data from within China is a great ability.
This, again, is another one of the benefits of using a large private proxy list rather than a VPN or a specific service.
A specific service can be banned. A VPN can be detected and filtered. Proxy servers are the way to modular, way too variable, to be controlled so easily. Any time one server is used enough to be slapped with a filter, there are hundreds of others to pick through.
Good News on the Horizon
In the last few years, even though China’s firewall has grown more onerous in some scenarios, it has also let up in others.
It wasn’t long ago that Wikipedia, for instance, was blocked completely. A short time ago, the secure version accessed via HTTPS was unblocked. Some individual pages are blocked with the unsecured connection, but who in their right mind is using an unsecured connection in the first place?
Another recently unblocked site is the English language iteration of the BBC website. Social media sites come and go, with Facebook seeing blocks and unblocks it seems almost every few months.
For those trapped behind the firewall, struggling to keep abreast of world news, trends, and business information, there may be hope on the horizon. Each time a site is unblocked, Chinese citizens are given one more taste of what the rest of the world has, and it’s not unlikely that the taste of unfettered Internet will cause greed to outweigh the desire for censorship.
Of course, who knows how long it might take to break down the firewall in general. I’m not a political analyst. I can’t tell you how stable or unstable the Chinese government is.
I’m not about to advocate dangerous protests or demonstrations, nor do I intend to promote subversion of a foreign government.
All I’m saying is, well, what kind of growth and success could China see if the firewall came down? It might involve radical shifts in policy, but it might also result in China becoming the single most powerful country in the world.
Anyways, all of that is for another day. For now, just remember; if you want to keep up with world aﬀairs, business news, or scientific data, private proxy servers are undoubtedly the way to go. Just don’t use them to do anything illegal. No one needs to deal with that hassle.