Working as a developer while traveling is amazing. Unfortunately, the Great Firewall of China can make things tricky.
The Great Firewall of China
The Great Firewall of China is a nickname for China’s internet censorship system.
China received permanent access to the internet in 1994. By 1997, the Chinese government issued regulations to control its use.
The premise of internet censorship is based on a quote by Deng Xiaopeng:
“If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” — Deng Xiaopeng
Many foreign websites, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and even Medium, are blocked. WhatsApp, which provides end-to-end encryption, has recently been added to the block list.
The Chinese government also blocks websites that store user information. One way to get around this is to give the government access to that data.
Why its a Pain in the Arse
First of all, there is NO GOOGLE! I never realized how dependent I had become on Google until I came to China. Want to look up the use of a function in a library or search for a fix for an error message? Not without a VPN you won’t (talk about this soon).
There are other frustrating limitations for developers. You can’t use standard oAuth methods, Firebase, the Heroku website (although the CLI works), Dropbox, or Slack.
Bing.com does currently work in China, but I’ve come to realize why Google has dominated the rest of the world. Bing is pretty bad. (I expect this is exacerbated by the limitations that the government places on it.) I tried switching to Bing as my default search engine but after a week or two, had to go back to Google and a VPN.
What is accessible?
The most useful sites that still work are Github, Udemy, and Mozilla Developer Network. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones I use most.
VPNs — the savior of my sanity
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are the best way to access the sites that you know and love. There are loads of options out there, from free apps to $12/month subscriptions to setting up your own. I’m going to talk about the first two.
The two most popular VPN services in China are ExpressVPN and NordVPN. I’ve used both on this trip, and they’ve both had their pros and cons.
Both have pretty Windows apps, as well as android and iOS apps. Both run from the terminal in Linux (although ExpressVPN is far easier on Linux). Both allow either 3 or 6 concurrent connections. Both offer 6 and 12 month contracts that provide a discount on the monthly subscription.
After trying both apps on android, I have ended up using a free app called TurboVPN. According to its Google Play listing, it can not be used in China, but it’s still working for me.
Paid apps seem to take longer to connect and drop out more than TurboVPN. I asked the paid providers why but have never received a decent response.
I bought a local sim card and connect to my VPNs much better with 4G than with wifi.
China’s attempts to regain control
In October, the Communist Party held a conference and upgraded the Firewall. To make sure there were no protests or riots, the government added WhatsApp to the block list. This is because protestors have used its encrypted service to organize in the past.
Control over VPNs also increased. For about 2 weeks, I couldn’t use any of my paid VPN services. TurboVPN somehow still worked, but this put a massive roadblock in my work. The VPN services have updated their software since and seem to work better, but it’s a cat and mouse chase between the firewall and the VPN providers.
I believe that the government is targeting the larger, paid services and traditional internet networks now. This would explain why TurboVPN still worked while the others didn’t, and why 4G is better than wifi.
There are also rumors about upcoming legislation that will block VPN traffic.
Traveling and working is an amazing combination. I fully recommend it. But the Chinese government is tightening its grip on the internet. It might not be long before they have full control, unless you are a top hacker.
If you are planning to visit China, get a VPN (or a few) sorted before you come. Setting up a VPN in China is very difficult, and life without a VPN here is tricky. Work without a VPN is near impossible.
If you are relocating for more than about a month, consider somewhere other than China. Hong Kong is a good choice as it has no firewall, and you can still travel to China easily.