How VPNs are helping Chinese internet users to beat the censors

Chart of the day
4 min. read

Jason Mander / April 22, 2015

It’s well-known that Chinese censors are pretty trigger-happy when it comes to blocking access to some of the world’s biggest social networks and websites – with names like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube not available via standard internet connections.

As a result, some commentators still assume that these platforms have no audience within China. That’s a big mistake – and one that’s pretty clear when we look at the example of the New York Times. The newspaper hit the headlines earlier this month when it revealed it was close to regaining the same audience share as it had back in 2012 when Chinese censors blocked it for running a story about the Prime Minister’s family. How has it achieved this? Apps, social networks, syndication and website mirroring have all played their part, but it’s Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Proxy Servers which are one of the biggest access routes.

For anyone unfamiliar with VPNs, they allow digital consumers to connect to the internet via a remotely located server. Typically, this server is based in a different country – with heavy concentrations in the US as well as places like the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland. Effectively, that means an internet user can disguise their location by masquerading as a resident of a different country. In short, it’s like you’re entering the internet via a discrete side-door rather than the main entrance. Censors in China are all too aware of this practice and have in the past tried to prevent VPN usage. But by their very nature, VPNs are pretty hard to detect and, even if one is stopped, two more will spring up in its place.

Typically, using a VPN is still thought to be a pretty niche practice but it’s actually much more common than people think. According to GWI’s data, a quarter of online adults aged 16-64 have used a VPN to connect to the internet; in China, where there are particularly obvious benefits to be had, this figure rises to 1 in 3.

As in other countries, the most common motivation for using a VPN in China is to access better entertainment content – something that 20% of Chinese internet users are doing. It’s about accessing services like Netflix which are not yet available in your own country, or raiding global stores for shows/music/content which are licensed for use in particular territories only. Tellingly, though, the second most common reason for using VPNs in China is to access restricted networks and websites (which 17% are doing). And some 11% of Chinese internet users are deploying VPNs to access restricted news websites.

Although these percentages might sound relatively small, think about the size of the online population in China (which has long dwarfed that of the US) and the VPN audience is pretty substantial. In fact, GWI’s data shows that there are a mighty 140million+ VPN users in China; about 75 million of these individuals are connecting to blocked social networks and close to 50 million are accessing restricted news websites.

For many global brands, this means that China counts as one of their most important countries in terms of audience size. Not that some of them might know this – after all, we’ve already noted that, in passive analytics, VPN users will appear as if they’re American, Dutch, Swedish or Irish. And it can be a hard pill to swallow for some brands keen to think that American users should be the dominant force within their global audiences. But let’s return to the New York Times as an example: across all forms of avoidance/disguise, GWI’s data shows that 11% of Chinese internet users have visited the site – a figure which, by our estimates, equates to more than 50 million people. Look just at VPN users and this percentage jumps to 25%. That’s really quite striking: 1 in every 4 VPN users in the country has visited the New York Times.

Other sites have even bigger Chinese audiences: 25% of Chinese internet users (and 51% of Chinese VPN users) have accessed Facebook, for example (=nearly 115 million). Some 32% of online adults (and 58% of VPN users) have visited YouTube (=140+ million). These are substantial user bases which show just how willing and able the country’s internet users have become in terms of accessing the sites they want.

Of course, China’s internet users are not alone when it comes to using VPNs; globally, our data shows that there are as many as 380 million VPN users. Nor are they the only ones using them to overcome government restrictions; for evidence that this is an international phenomenon, we need look no further than a place like Turkey – where the percentage using VPNs to access restricted websites and social networks jumped by 10 points after the authorities tried to block Twitter for the first time back in 2014.

In short, VPNs are helping to globalize the internet – with attempts to place geo-restrictions on certain websites or pieces of content likely to become increasingly futile. Indeed, while censorship in China is unlikely to weaken any time soon, the avoidance tactics available the country’s internet users are only going to get more sophisticated and more effective.