Badge of honor: Language Log is blocked in China

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Two days ago, I received this message from a colleague in China:

Not sure if this should be a badge of honor or a disappointment, but a few days ago Language Log got blocked in China.  (Source —  Language Log is 100% censored)

This caps off a miserable year where we also lost Wikipedia (all languages), The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Hackernews, Imgur….

[VHM:  Of course, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other invaluable websites were already off-limits to Chinese citizens for years  The internet in China is severely decimated by the CCP government.]

Wondering whether this meant that even privileged people with a VPN (Virtual Private Network) are completely cut off from Language Log, I asked many correspondents in China what the situation on the ground there is like.  Before I share several of their responses, I want to point out a few things about VPN usage in general in China.

First, it is illegal to use a VPN.  If you are caught using one, you are liable to a $145 fine.

Second, the government itself owns and sells a number of the most popular VPNs, an additional source of revenue for the Party, which is one reason why they normally look the other way.  Another reason the government normally tolerates VPNs, even though it is against the law to have one, is that they realize Chinese business, finance, science, etc. could not compete internationally without access to the global internet.  Indeed, as I have often pointed out, the Chinese government quite publicly has its own Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts that it uses quite publicly to purvey its propaganda throughout the world.

Third, at moments of peak paranoia, which have been happening with increasing regularity because of the protests in Hong Kong, the worldwide condemnation of the concentration camps in Xinjiang / Eastern Turkistan / Uyghurstan, the opposition to heavy repression in Tibet, uprisings against environmental degradation, the price of pork (a very serious issue in light of the Asian Swine Flu epidemic, etc.), the government is liable at any moment to severely choke or cut off completely any and all VPNs.  My correspondents refer to such restricting and blocking of VPNs as causing their service to become "dicey", "risky", "uncertain", and so forth.  At such moments, life becomes very tough for them, especially if their work, research, business, and so on depend upon ready access to the whole of the internet, or as much as possible in China with a functioning VPN.

Fourth, VPNs are referred to by people in China who use them as "ladders" to help them "hop over" the Great Firewall (GFW) which is:

…the combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People's Republic of China to regulate the Internet domestically. Its role in Internet censorship in China is to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border internet traffic.  (source)

Fifth, nearly all expats living in China, of whom there are about a million, use a VPN, because you can't really have anything even partially resembling a full, normal internet life without one.

Sixth, aside from expats, GlobalWebIndex's survey of Chinese internet users found that 14 percent use a VPN daily. For China's online population of 731 million, this means 100 million regular users.  (source)   This amounts to less than ten percent of the total population of China using a VPN, and all the rest are thus being cut off from the global internet.

Seventh, those who do make an effort to use a VPN tend to be expats or foreigners passing through and the elite, wealthy, privileged, Party members among Chinese.

Eighth, a survey of the costs of having a VPN yielded the following answers:

1. Astrill, considered one of the best, used to cost about $100 per year, though the prices seem to have gone up recently.

2. an app that costs 30 yuan ($4.29) a month

3. 20 to 50 RMB (2.86-7.15 dollars) per month, or higher

4. The more expensive paid vpns are generally more reliable.

5. VPNs are not that expensive.  The best one for China is Astrill, and I think a cheap plan is like 90 dollars a year, the plan I use is about 120 dollars, or 10 dollars a month.  I have a couple of others installed on my home computer and iPad, just in case Astrill gets blocked (yes, they do block VPNs from time to time).  So I'm able to jump over the Great Firewall on my phone and home computer pretty easily, though there are always glitches to deal with.  And during important events and anniversaries, they get slow and unreliable.

Here are specific remarks from long term or permanent residents and Chinese citizens in response to the blocking of Language Log:

1. A Chinese citizen whose family members belong to the CCP

Oh no…It's really bad. It means they have raised a multi-lingual army (real human and robots) to censor websites around the world. My VPN allows me to access all the websites freely, but it is not always stable. I guess the server is constantly fighting scrutiny.

2. A teacher at an elite high school

I actually have had trouble visiting language log without a VPN for some time.

3. Holder of a doctorate in Chinese humanities

With VPN I could access google, wikipedia and LL, though it was not steady sometimes, before my family set out for Christmas vacation some days ago. I hope my VPN still works when I get back to Beijing this coming weekend. It will for sure become more and more difficult to access the outside world for those who dwell within the GFW. When things begin getting worse, it will end for the worst.

4. A distinguished scholar of Tibetan Studies who has spent many years teaching and researching in China

Yes, it has been a miserable year for anyone living/working in China who would like free access to information. I have not been back since October when I attended a conference but I did notice that my Express VPN was only sporadically incapacitated. Very strange! But I am happy that Skype is still working (and I do not wechat!!), so that I can stay in contact with my friends and colleagues. Lucky we are not destined to live in China, but I do feel terribly sorry for those who live there and are prevented from doing really good scholarly work due to a lack of access to an open internet!! There is something profoundly pathetic about a 'people's government' that is afraid of its people!

5. From David Moser, Sinologist and author of A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language

Well, this sucks. I just tried to access the LL site VPN-less, and it didn't work. So it seems blocked. I tried it with a VPN, and no problem. (For a bit of irony, attached is a screen shot of the LL page I went to, a post about the LL fan club in China. [VHM: For people outside of the GFW, see "Language Log fan club in China" (6/2/18) and "Language Log logo and t-shirts" (6/2/18).] Another thing of the past, alas, victim of the GFW.) I would consider this a badge of honor, I guess, but I'd give a nickel to know exactly why it was blocked. My guess is too many posts about HK protest argot.

Forge ahead, Victor.  From now on "VPN" stands for "Victor Posting Nonstop"?  or "Victor Posts Neverendingly".

[VHM:  I think David is right that our reporting on the language of the Hong Kong protests is one of the main reasons why we have gotten totally blocked at this time.  In recent months, for example, this has been one of the most popular Language Log posts:  "'Popo' in Hong Kong" (9/28/19), but there have been dozens of others that deal with various aspects of language usage during the era of protest in Hong Kong].

VPNs or no VPNs, with millions of Chinese studying and travelling abroad, there's no way that the CCP government of China can keep its citizens insulated and isolated from the subversive (to their mind) information provided by Language Log and the other websites that it strives to block out.  One way or another, our messages of hope and truth will get through, around, under, and over the GFW.


"God use VPN" (12/28/15)

[Thanks to Tong Wang, Yixue Yang, Leonard van der Kuijp, and Francis Miller]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 9:00 am

    From a colleague:

    When I was in Beijing in June my commercial firewall (NordVPN) was almost 100% ineffective. OTOH, UVA's VPN worked 100% of the time.

  2. David Moser said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 9:41 am

    Last spring I was attending a lecture at Peking University. The speaker was using PowerPoint slides, projected on a large screen. At one point during the lecture the screen was suddenly partially obscured by pop-up window that read, in English, "Your Astrill account expires in 5 days. Renew now to ensure the privacy and protection of your data." There were a few chuckles from the audience, and I heard someone say "Aha, now we know what brand of VPN Peking University uses." Constant use of VPNs at Chinese universities is an open secret.

  3. Cyndy said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 5:06 pm

    I don't have a reliable VPN, and generally resign myself to no or spotty international access during my short trips to China.
    I spent five nights at the Crowne Plaza in Kunshan (near Shanghai) a couple weeks ago, and was amazed to find that access to Gmail, YouTube, Netflix, Wikipedia etc. was open, instantaneous and stable, faster than at home, for my entire stay. I mentioned this to a Chinese colleague, and he said, "Well, the internet is stronger in China, you know."
    Students at the Duke-Kunshan University (a joint venture university) assured me there was no firewall around their campus. Duke-Kunshan administrators said that free access had been part of the contract they had negotiated.

  4. Ronan Maye said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 7:13 pm

    When I was an intern in China, there were many foreign websites I had to access with a VPN to do my work, but VPNs considerably slowed down the already slow internet. This growing restriction of information seems to be considerably at odds with the Made in China 2025 policy. Slow and splotchy internet wastes so much potentially productive time and the restriction of information will kneecap China's most creative people and companies.

  5. David Douglas Robertson said,

    December 26, 2019 @ 8:32 pm


  6. Alex said,

    December 27, 2019 @ 10:14 am

    Where do you get the information about the fine for using a VPN and the government owning the most popular ones?

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