Dealing with the Great Firewall if you’re just trying to read your mail and do other mundane things

I visited China for about two weeks as a “vacation” before starting law school. The term is in quotes because visiting China is by NO MEANS relaxing. We averaged very little (<6 hours) of sleep each night, and I spent quite a bit of time zoning out on trains and in hotels.

Anyway– since many of you know, a few websites are “blocked” in China. Although this is widespread knowledge, the Great Firewall conducts itself quite covertly; sites will attempt to load for a period of time before providing a type of server error. If you didn’t know any of the surrounding context, you might think that there is simply a problem with the website you’re attempting to visit.

I’ve since found this website (greatfire.org), which catalogues search terms and websites that are not searchable nor useable in China. However, as part of the vast majority of people who only visit a handful of websites and/or do really mundane things on the internet, I’ve listed some information about general accessibility below (as of early August 2015):

  1. Leave your Android phone at phone, but bring your iPhone: iPhones or iPads work great, mostly because they, by default, have Safari as a browser. But expect to lose a LOT of features on your Android phone. You can’t do the “okay google” trick to impress your relatives, you can’t use the awesome Google translate app you downloaded, and you can’t use Chrome. Jeff’s phone acted as nothing more than a camera while we were there– so I definitely do not suggest bringing this, as the resulting frustration will make you a worse person and everyone will hate you for trying to show them cool tricks on your phone and then immediately letting them down; do you want that? no.
  2. Bring a music player that is not your phone: Chinese aviation guidelines do not find Airplane mode sufficient, so your phones must be shut down during the entire flight. Save songs on your iPad or laptop instead. For some reason, you can have those on during the flight. You’re instructed to have everything turned off during take-off and landing though– even your Kindle.
  3. Gmail works in the Mail App of your iPhone, but nowhere else: Although I’d occasionally get some mysterious “authentication errors” in the Mail App of my iPhone, my Gmail account often refreshed successfully on mobile. Note that you can’t add new Gmail accounts to your phone when you arrive, so make sure all the accounts you want are already added.
  4. Use Yahoo when you’re searching in English: As Google doesn’t work, I had to train myself not to automatically type search terms in my Safari address bar. Baidu is hardly EVER relevant if you’re searching in English, so I used Yahoo instead, as that loads relatively quickly. Side effects include being weirdly captivated by their news.
  5. Amazon and Ikea work, but not Target: I know this proves just how much I love shopping, but just in case any of you need to order an emergency 3-pack of Lysol wipes or a 5’x7′ fur rug, Amazon still works. Phew. However, Target appeared to be blocked while I was ther. This may have been a recent change as it didn’t have a history of of being blocked according to this (data as of July 2015, a month before my visit).
  6. Give up on Facebook: To my surprise, Reddit, Pinterest, Slack and Quora still work. I read an infinite amount of Quora posts while I was in China. But Jesus. People on Quora really have this whole writing-suggestions-as-imperatives thing down pat. It’s part of why I’m writing this list in a Quora-esque way, as I did read a few scary posts about how I would lose all my writing abilities if I didn’t start writing clearly now. NOW.

The censorship appears to be much better than it was when I was in China a few years ago. By now, alternatives to a lot of the websites we use (Google, Facebook, or Amazon) are well developed in China (Baidu, QQ/WeChat, and Alibaba/Taobao), and have already achieved the network effects they need in order to be successful– which probably makes the Chinese market look a lot less enticing to US companies relative to the censorship costs these companies would have to pay.

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