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The People's Republic of China blocks some very popular websites used throughout the rest of the world including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This is known colloquially as the "Great Firewall of China" (防火长城 fánghuǒ chángchéng).

I'm in China for the second time on this trip. During my previous stay a friend set up a VPN (virtual private network) for me so I could use Facebook, which is my main means of keeping in touch with friends and family. VPNs are the usual answer for bypassing the GFW.

Due to the holiday season I haven't been able to get VPN sort out yet on this visit, but I'm hoping to have it soon.

But I've started to wonder, since they block these sites, do they have laws stating that you cannot try to circumvent them? Or if there are no laws do we have any anecdotal reports from foreigners about getting into trouble with the authorities, either officially or unofficialyy, for getting around the state web censorship?

Where can I read about any such laws and punishments?

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Adding to uncovery's comments. A few randomish data points: Several friends of mine who are NZ nationals but of Chinese ethnicity (one born in Malaysia) recently spent several months in China on a Chinese language course. They used a VPN throughout to gain full internet access with no problems experienced. I have used a remote PC access system to achieve a similar result by accessing a LAN outside China over some weeks. No problems. A contact I know who visits China often uses the same method with no reported problems. YMMV and no guarantees but .... –  Russell McMahon Dec 30 '13 at 9:27
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Yes I've had no problems yet either, other than slow connections. But I've met people who've had no problems overstaying visas or working while on tourist visas, and those are things we know it's possible to get in trouble for - even if not everybody gets "caught". –  hippietrail Dec 30 '13 at 9:56
    
@hippietrail I just read your profile. Don't worry, I didn't mean to invade your privacy. I was simply looking to see what country you currently lived in. But it says China. Hmm.. Well, based on your profile, and the backpacking since Christmas day... not 5 days ago, but 14 years and 5 days ago... I think now is not the time to start worrying! You'll be fine! Just don't do anything like talk about politics. –  user9722 Dec 30 '13 at 14:58
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@codehorse: Well I live in Australia, but I haven't been there since July. So in the meantime I'm living on the road. And the bit of the road I've been in for the past six days is in China (-: –  hippietrail Dec 30 '13 at 15:06

2 Answers 2

Similar to one of your last questions regarding China, asking for concrete non-chinese documentation on Chinese regulations is in most cases not answerable. Why?

  • Chinese officials are not known for transparency, rather the opposite. A lot of things, while visible at the surface through actions like stickers, blocked websites etc are extremely hard to find details about.
  • Regional and National law often contradict each other. Each issue will have to be looked at for a specific place where you are at.
  • Actual effectiveness of a law is often not equivalent with the dates a law is supposed to become active. Chinese officials often pass laws that become active within 1-2 months, and only deal with the issues that arise from poor law design once it is supposed to be active by postponing it, changing it or canceling it right away.

Regarding the issue at hand, there is no documentation available from officials as far as I know, and to estimate what might happen, one has to look at what the firewall is trying to do in the first place:

The firewall is mainly directed against local Chinese people and people who want to distribute news to the masses that could instigate revolts or unrest in any larger size. English-language news in China are often more at ease to report on sensitive issues than the Chinese language edition of the same newspaper, just because the people who speak English well enough to read newspapers with ease are well enough informed already anyhow through other means. Social networks where people might be rallied to protest or such are the real target of the firewall and censorship after all.

Foreign companies are usually able to circumvent the firewall with their own installations of networks, including network companies. For example, corporate VPNs that routes all employee communication through internet connections abroad still work fine in China. On top of that, if you have a Hong Kong cellphone from "3 (Hutchinson)", you can browse Facebook and anything else on your phone in China - without any hacks, proxies or VPNs.

That is why, there is no risk at all for you as a foreigner to use a VPN, foreign roaming or company network to circumvent the firewall. The Government simply does not care about you. Would you as a security expert start using such technology to give access to a broader audience in any way and do so over a longer time, you will be in trouble if caught of course.

So to come back to your question "Where can you read about it"? You cannot, to my knowledge find a comprehensive source that will tell you the current issues foreigners have circumventing the firewall, other than advertisers for VPN services and scattered news reports about the cat & mouse hunt the government is doing to plug holes in their systems and prevent companies from offering such services.

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I'll settle for Chinese documentation! I'm sure somebody will help us translate it. But you make it sound like no Chinese laws or regulations are ever written down, and that of course cannot be true. –  hippietrail Dec 30 '13 at 9:57
    
I never said that laws are never written down. But neither the food safety sticker meaning not the firewall are laws. –  uncovery Dec 30 '13 at 10:11
    
Aha! Can you show us how you know that there are no laws involved? –  hippietrail Dec 30 '13 at 10:12
    
When did I say that there are no laws involved? I said a sticker is not a law. You make out of my "hard to find" a "never exists". –  uncovery Dec 30 '13 at 10:17
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... neither the food safety sticker meaning not the firewall are laws. –  hippietrail Dec 30 '13 at 10:20

Living in China 10+ years I can tell you with confidence that you will not get into trouble for using a VPN. Chinese people themselves also don't get into trouble for using one. (Promoting or sharing a VPN is a different matter obviously.)

I wouldn't waste my time finding actual laws, for two reasons:

  1. Laws in China are interpreted differently than in the west. "Common sense" has a very strong influence in Chinese courts whereas western courts tend to take the letter of the law more literally. Unless you're a Chinese lawyer you're likely to misinterpret things. For examples of this, please see this post on China Law Blog.

  2. We all break laws in our own country all the time. This is so common we don't even realise this anymore. Just because there's a law prohibiting something doesn't mean it's enforced under all circumstances. With the exception of speed traps to supplement the sheriff's income, most laws are enforced only when they make sense.

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Good post, sad, but too true. –  user9722 Dec 30 '13 at 15:00
    
Nice one. Tried to convince him yesterday in chat why looking for legal documents in china does not make too much sense. This is an excellent additional point. –  uncovery Dec 31 '13 at 1:07

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