The prospect of having to deal with internet censorship can be a daunting one when preparing to move to China. This is particularly true for academics, who might worry about losing resources both for research and class preparation. Internet restrictions can indeed be frustrating at times, therefore it is necessary to prepare adequately, not get discouraged and look for alternative options whenever possible.
The most obvious solution to most (though not all) internet problems is a VPN, or “virtual private network.” This is a programme that can “disguise” your browser as if it were coming from a different country. It is important to get a VPN before you leave, as doing so once in China might be more difficult. Furthermore, while free VPNs are available, paying ones are more reliable. There are many different VPN programmes for China on the market: it is a good idea to consult expat blogs and forums, which generally provide recommendations, allowing you to compare options and make the most informed choice. If you’re not very computer-literate, try to find a programme that is easy to figure out and use and doesn’t require too much interface. Once you have bought and downloaded a VPN, “practice” using it before leaving to make sure everything is in order.
A VPN programme is essential if you want to guarantee your access not only to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, or blogging hosts such as Blogspot and Wordpress, but also to Google and to most major Western newspapers. However, keep in mind that the “great firewall of China” is constantly expanding and that there is also a chance that your VPN might be suddenly disabled. Moreover, even a functioning VPN may be at times become disconnected. It can also slow down your network, on some occasions, making the use of Youtube and other video hosting sites very difficult.
Browsing the internet in China, particularly for professional reasons, without a functioning VPN can be daunting, but it is not necessarily as restrictive as it sounds. First of all, restrictions of foreign websites tend to be arbitrary (or at least may appear to be so). Therefore, while the likes of Google, Youtube, the website of The New York Times and The Guardian will be out of bounds, chances are that numerous websites, including teaching resources, will still be available. If you rely heavily on Gmail, it might be wise to have your messages forwarded to another address and/or to give your password to a trusted person at home who can pass on important information. This will prevent you from being completely cut out if your VPN stops working or expires.
It is also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the search engines that are normally available in China. These are chiefly Baidu (the most popular search engine in China) and Bing (which might be more convenient if you’re illiterate in written Chinese). Results might be slightly different from those given by Google, but most important information is likely to come up anyway. Also consider that, while access to certain resources will be restricted, other will be available: for instance, websites like Youku and Sohu provide valid alternatives to Youtube, providing ESL teaching resources as well as sometimes films and entire television series. Moreover, many foreigners quickly adopt popular Chinese social networks such as QQ and WeChat. These can not only replace the likes of Facebook and Whatsapp for social interactions, but can also be used to communicate with students by passing on information and class documents.
As concerns specifically academic resources, your university probably provides access to digitalized databases such as JStor. If you’re having trouble locating them in your university’s website, ask a Chinese friend to direct you, and remember, if you have a functioning VPN, to disable it first (or your server will “think” that you are not in China and deny you access to free resources connected to your university’s website!). Books and other resources might be also sometimes available through Chinese sites.
Overall, the best way to deal with internet restrictions in China is to get hold of a reliable VPN programme. Obviously, this will still entail some limitations, not only because of the possibility of it being disabled, but also because it will limit what kind of internet resources you can share with your students. Do not encourage your students to acquire a VPN, as frustrating as it might be not to show them how to use Google Scholar, for instance. Make sure that, if you direct them towards a specific internet resource or online document, they can access it without a VPN. It is also not a good idea to complain about internet restrictions with Chinese colleagues and friends. In these circumstances, treat the presence of the firewall as a given fact without expressing judgements about it.
In conclusion, internet restrictions in China can indeed pose problems. Tempting as it is to go in denial about them beforehand, especially when being otherwise stressed out by the impending move, you must try to be as prepared as possible to ensure you maintain a wide access to internet resources. This means investing in a reliable, paying VPN programme before you leave for China. Nevertheless, censorship on the web is something you will need to learn to put up with, just like pollution, disorderly traffic and other less than ideal parts of the Chinese experience. So, use VPN, familiarize yourself with Chinese internet resources, and don’t get discouraged.