By CCN: China's Great Firewall is one of the most prolific and successful internet censorship tools in history. It's only one part of a group of laws, technologies, and organizations dedicated to preventing people - even VPN users - from freely accessing the web.
Collectively, the policies are called the "Golden Shield Project."
Golden Shield Project Bans as Many VPNs as It Can
Due to the firewall, state-approved social media networks have near-exclusive access to more than 1 billion Chinese citizens, while many American platforms such as Facebook are banned.
Facebook still allows users from China and saw massive growth in that market over the last year. This isn't possible in a world where all VPNs are banned. Experts agree that there may be a day where it's virtually impossible to get unauthorized traffic in or out of the largest communist nation in history.
Google once operated in China but ended up quitting when the government put heavy demands on user data. Even something as non-threatening as Wikipedia is banned.
On the one hand, the discouragement of American tech companies has given rise to a vibrant, homegrown industry. On the other, it's created a virtually limitless market for another industry: the virtual private network provider.
Comparitech recently compiled a list of VPNs that weren't affected by the recent massive upgrade to the Great Firewall. Of dozens of VPNs, just a handful are still working. The VPN industry has long been friendly to cryptocurrency, both for privacy and to ensure that people who need them most can pay. Chinese payment processors could get in trouble if they were caught handling money for banned industries.
Bitcoin-Accepting VPNs Still Function in China
China's Great Firewall upgrade effectively wiped out numerous VPN providers. The government gets more advanced at detecting and banning VPN traffic as time goes on. Some of the better VPN providers have been able to thwart even their best efforts.
The lists of VPNs who accept Bitcoin and of VPNs still functional after the March 31 update are pretty similar. Here's a complete list as of the time of writing:
- Hotspot Shield
- Private Internet Access
Some others were reported to be working with limited efficiency. At a minimum, ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and TorGuard all accept Bitcoin. For a Chinese user, an even safer way to pay for these services is to use something like XMR.to, which allows you to send Monero and the user to receive Bitcoin. Instant exchanges like CoinSwitch.co might also be helpful in this regard.
Doing so assumes that you have access to the global web in the first place, which may not be the case. Presumably, many Chinese can borrow the account of a friend to get started. Like anything else, the black market of VPN services – something we take for granted in places like the US – thrives on word-of-mouth.
Many VPNs Need to Step Up Their Game
Comparitech points out that a single flaw in most VPN providers made them easier to shut down:
"The VPN providers who fared best all used additional encryption over and above what OpenVPN traditionally offers. More than one provider made use of the OpenVPN scramble extension that obfuscates packet headers in order to avoid detection by automated network defense systems."
The site is also apt to point out that its tests were limited to a single Windows server in Shenzen. This means that some of the other 43 VPNs they tested may still work in other parts of China.
One difficulty for VPN providers in China is the initial access to their software. Once on a VPN, a Chinese user can access anything in the world until it gets shut down, but they won't be able to go the traditional route and download a VPN client.
Thus, the people who most effectively bring VPN software in and use it are those coming from elsewhere. They may even be sharing it.