Friday, October 10, 2014

11:00 AM - 1 comment

Crouching Blogger, Hidden Facebook: Using a VPN

Internet censorship is one of the first things foreigners going to China start worrying about. As most people know, a lot of our most commonly used websites are blocked, including Facebook, YouTube, and various Google platforms. The way to get around this is called VPN (Virtual Private Network).

I am (regrettably) not a tech-head, so I'm not going to explain the hows and whats of VPN, simply because I don't know. But as of recently, I have experience as a user, which I will share here. So, if you've been wondering how to internet from China, I tell everything I know in true-to-goodness clueless layman's terms under the cut. Don't Trust Anything I Say.

What a VPN basically does is channel your internet traffic through a server located in another country, thus tricking the net into believing that your meat-body is also there. This lets you buy American Netflix from Europe, watch regionally restricted content, or - you guessed it - access blocked sites from the PRC.

I asked around about various VPN services that other people have used, but ultimately I settled on an alternative none of the others mentioned: VPNinja. Besides having a ninja as an icon and favorable reviews claiming good service from China, VPNinja does its job with a refreshing dose of humor. (This was honestly the final selling point for me. I mean, come on: "Founded in 2009 to fight The Man's increasing control of the internet, VPNinja may or may not be run by REAL NINJAS.") So before I left for China, I paid the annual fee of $58 and registered a username and password.


There are three ways to use a VPN with this client (and I'm guessing others are probably similar). I have used two of them, and they have proven to be more than enough.

First, there's OpenVPN. This lets me choose a server of my choice, in a country of my choice, by right-clicking on an icon in the lower-right corner. After logging in with my username and password, the client connects to the server, and blocked sites open like the petals of a glorious multimedia flower.

The second way is setting up a PPTP connection (I have no idea what that stands for, ["Pulchritudinous Pirates Take Power"?] but whatever it is, it works). This seems to be what you have to use on your smartphone. My annual subscription allows me to use VPNinja servers on two devices, so I have portable internet access from my phone as well. Now, about making that connection: it is really easy. On an Android phone: Wireless and Networks > More... > VPN. Under "Add VPN profile" give your connection a name and enter the address of the server you want (there should be a list of these on your provider's website). Log in to prove you've paid to access it, and presto: connect whenever you need. It works similarly on Windows, but has a few more steps to go, and is accessed from the Control Panel. OpenVPN is considerably easier to use from a desktop computer, though.

The only problem with this is that occasionally, the Great Firewall seems to sense the little tunnels the VPN digs and closes them up. This means that if I use the same server for too long, I won't be able to reconnect to it within a few days. Solution: change it up, go back and forth between a few different servers, and the ensuing confusion will let you surf like a kahuna.

Now, the VPN in itself is not an internet connection. You're going to need WiFi or another connection, and then the VPN sort of superimposes itself onto it and helps it evolve into the connection you always wanted in your life.

Watermarked White Women of the Web®

Even though the internet seems like a magical miasma of wireless freedom, it is nevertheless built on physical infrastructure. This means that you will get the fastest connection if you jack into a server in an Uncensored Country Near You. For a China-based user, this would be Hong Kong, South Korea, or Japan. VPNinja only has servers in 7 countries, as opposed to the more than 15 or 20 you might find from a different provider, but since it has servers in both Hong Kong and Japan, and I don't intend to access Zimbabwe-only content, this wasn't important to me. And besides - extra bonus - VPNinja is run from Shanghai!

One of the first things I did when I came to the hotel was to try out my connection, and I've been chilling on blocked sites ever since (as evidenced by the blogging-in-progress). I'm connected to Japan, and I know that it works: Google wants to redirect me to, and my friend who has now moved to Japan got excited about getting a Japanese hit on his blog, but then we jointly realized that that was just me stealthing. So I can warmly recommend VPNinja, and fear not, internet crusaders: climbing the Great Firewall is easy as pie. Most of the time.

But is it legal? Well, as far as I know, it isn't strictly illegal (although I admit I feel slightly jittery typing this post). And unless you're doing some really heavy anti-establishment shit, crackdowns don't seem to happen. Tons of people in China use VPN, including the 13-year-old kid whose family we visited during one of the Chinese Bridge competition's Culturally Enriching Activity Days. He added me on Facebook recently. So there you have it. Hope this helped!

hopefully i'll never know if hands really do come out of monitors.


PPTP: Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol. These days it's considered cryptographically broken (layman's terms: not secure anymore), so it shouldn't be your first choice.

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