Welcome to China! Have you tried the duck yet? The xiaolongbao? Hot pot? And what about all the noodles?
Okay, we know the food is great, but let’s address the 大象 in the room. What’s the deal with the internet?
Yes, of course, you’ve got a VPN. And sure, it helps. But why are things still so… bad?
Why does Netflix up and die a death of endless buffering? Why is it so f*cking hard to check Gmail or Facebook or Instagram or basically any foreign website?
Things load as slow as a pitch drop or they don’t load at all. Frustration turns to anger, desperation, and depression. The classic “but this is China” doesn’t cut it. You want answers. And none of the info out there tells you much beyond “the best VPN for China”.
We created this guide to give you the straight facts on how the Chinese internet actually works, why your VPN doesn’t always work, and what you can expect from your Chinese internet experience. Our hope is that with this knowledge you can go forth and survive the Internet in China.
Before we dive into the reasons why your internet is so slow in China, let’s talk about how the internet actually works.
Unless you’re a network engineer, chances are your knowledge of internet infrastructure is pretty hazy. A shrug and an incantation of the words “science” works most of the time, but that won’t cut it here. We’ll have to go a bit deeper.
Let’s start with this:
What we call the internet is actually just a giant collection of wires and servers relaying light and electrical signals all over the place.
The internet isn’t the collective delusion of humanity or mystical brain waves emanating from a hivemind of tech billionaires. It’s basically the same thing as calling somebody long distance over phone lines, but just a million times better and faster.
These wires and servers are owned and maintained by different companies all over the place. And if you want to exchange information over their network, then you have to pay. In the same way that you pay an internet provider for internet service, internet providers pay each other to connect their services.
It’s a concept called network peering, and it’s the key to understanding why your internet in China is slower than 狗屎.
A quick lesson in peering
When you send a request to see a foreign website from inside China, it travels across the network of your local ISP (e.g. China Telecom), and then has to travel across a series of undersea cables to a network on the other side (e.g. NTTDoCoMo, Verizon, Google).
It’s a fairly tangled web of connections between internet providers and networks. Have a look at the map below to see what we mean:
What’s most important is that moment when your Chinese ISP hands off your request. That moment when information starts going through undersea cables and traveling on connections outside of China is when a deal is made based on price and service quality. And of course, the higher price you pay, the better your speed and service.
So what kind of network peering options are out there? And how do you choose?
Peering options in China
While your specific peering options in China depend on where you are and which ISP you use, there are only three main ones to choose from.
The first and most widely used peering option is ChinaNet Assess (AS4134), often called 163 Net. This peering network offers the most connections within China and the greatest bandwidth of all the options.
This makes 163 Net sound awesome, but being big and widely available means that everyone is on it. And in a country with over 800 million internet users, that’s a lot of people. So much so that connecting to any foreign website via 163 Net tends to creep along no matter what you do, regardless of how shithot your VPN’s encryption is or what foreign server you are using.
Your other two available peering options are part of the China Telecom Next Generation Carrier Network (AS4809), also known as CN2. This separate peering option was created with greater efficiency and exclusivity in mind.
The basic CN2 option is called CN2-Global Transit (CN2-GT). This option costs more to use than 163 Net, but provides significantly better service and speed by ensuring less congestion across the network with a transmission utilization ratio under 50%. In plain English, that means that the network is only used to transmit information half of the time . The rest of the time, it’s ready and waiting.
And while CN2-GT is already a significant step up from 163 Net, there’s an even faster option called CN2-Global Internet Access (CN2-GIA). Here you get even more dedicated service and better speed than CN2-GT, but it costs 3x the price. If you have the network geek chops (or get really excited about networks), you can delve deeper into each of these peering options with our friends over at Data Plugs.
The question remains: how are all these peering options shared? Is it all based on the free market? (Ha.) Or is there something else driving this?
How China handles peering
You’re probably tired of hearing it, but we’re going to have to say it again. China is a developing country. And as such the entire country has been playing catch-up in terms of everything from train stations to toilets. (And toilets in train stations, too!)
The internet is no exception. In this case, the central planners in China focused on building internet access that was cheap and plentiful, not necessarily fast and reliable.
For peering, that means that 163 Net ends up being the default for everyone. All 800 million plus internet users in China basically go through the same route when they want to access any foreign website.
So even if you want to load a plain vanilla, non-sensitive foreign website like tesla.com or nyse.com, you’ll be trying to connect with everyone else in China to access information. At peak times, things will get sludge-yyy.
To top that off, one company dominants all of these network connectivity arrangements—China Telecom. Call it a leftover of China’s state-run economy or a way to keep central control of the internet for political reasons. Either way, that means that China’s two other major internet carriers, China Unicom and China Mobile, have fended for themselves by setting up small (and slower!) peering arrangements directly with external ISP providers. So choosing a different ISP in China really won’t help very much, regardless of how fast they say download speeds on their network are.
A bit of good news came in 2020 though, as regulators forced China Telecom to open up their network to China Mobile and China Unicom. But don’t expect these changes to make a huge difference any time soon.
So what can you do? Is it possible for a laowai like you to get on a faster peering plan like CN2-GT or CN2-GIA?
Can you get better peering China?
Here’s the deal.
It is possible to get better peering, but not directly. China Telecom only offers “VIP” CN2-GT and CN2-GIA peering to companies, government institutions, or those with the right connections (pardon the pun). In previous years, China Telecom also offered “VIP” or "国际精品网" subscriptions to regular consumers as well for only 50RMB! As you can imagine, it was quickly oversubscribed, and the price raised to the staggering price of...150RMB! Finally, it was discontinued to consumers altogether in 2016.
And because these prices are focused on institutions and companies, the prices are too. Hooray for capitalism! Or is it communism with Chinese characteristics? Regardless, you have to pay.
There is one solution though. You could start your own company, buy bandwidth on these peering networks and share/resell it to your friends. You’ll get real speeds internationally up 500Mbps and you won’t have to compete with all of China to access foreign networks.
That’s exactly what we did at Chinanetspeed. Or you can just start your own company. It’s up to you. Good luck with the fapiao. :p
Sometimes internet issues in China aren’t a question of congestion or speed. Sometimes it’s just not possible to access the internet at all. Period. No matter of peering or VPNing will get you any closer to checking Facebook.
There’s one obvious culprit behind much of this, but we won’t say their name out loud, lest they keep us from chatting with you. 你懂得。
But you might be surprised to learn that there are a number of reasons why connections in China just grind to a halt.
Let’s have a look, shall we?
Choke points by design
Besides affordability and accessibility, national security is also a major consideration in the design of the Chinese internet. All foriegn traffic is routed through three choke points in Shanghai, Guangdong, and Qingdao.
These bottlenecks make it easy to shut off connections between Mainland China and the rest of the world, in case of a massive cyberattack or political threats or, well, just because. And even if the authorities aren’t shutting things down, these limited exchange points between China and the rest of the world make access to foreign websites slow or just flat out fail.
To use an analogy that you’re probably all too familiar with, imagine touching down at a busy international airport and going through immigration with just three officers on duty. If there’s a surge in passengers, things can easily grind to a halt.
And if one of the officers decides to take a bathroom break?
Old Network Infrastructure
While direct fiber optic connections are everywhere in more developed “Tier 1” cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, rural areas in China may rely on telephone lines to provide internet access through DSL technology. China does have an urban/rural divide in terms of internet infrastructure similar to the type you’d find in the US.
That said, even in more developed areas of China, connections in older buildings and residential compounds can have substandard connections set up by telephone company repair workers decades ago, long before the internet became what it is today. These folks weren’t trained as network engineers, so their solutions to connectivity problems tended to be “creative”.
The reason your internet might stop working all of sudden could be that ungodly mass of telephone cables in the dingy closet in your lobby. It’s not censorship. Just bad wiring.
People, Lots of People
Ah, yes. “Too many people.” It’s a classic explanation for a lot of issues in China. And it’s especially true for the internet.
During the evening rush, when everyone’s hanging out at home watching shows or scrolling away on their phones, networks can easily get overwhelmed and connections drop. Luckily, there are major plans in the works to make Chinese network infrastructure people-proof.
In 2020, the Chinese government had this to say in its 14th Five-Year Plan:
Coordinating promotion of infrastructure construction. We will: Build modern infrastructure systems that are complete, efficient, practical, smart, green, safe and reliable; systematically lay out new infrastructure, and accelerate construction of 5G communications, the industrial internet, big data centers, and other facilities
Five year plans are a big deal in China. They read a bit like a list of promises to the Chinese people and fulfilling them is a top priority for the people in charge. So there’s good reason to believe that things will get better soon on this front.
Your Equipment Sucks
When you set up your internet did you just use whatever equipment that your internet service provider gave you? If so, you might have trouble connecting because of crappy equipment.
Typically, when you sign up for internet service in China a technician (“your internet shifu”) comes and installs an internet gateway in your home which combines the functions of both a modem and a wifi router.
A quick refresher: a modem is the device that communicates with the server of your internet service provider, while the wifi router is the thing that relays information from your modem to your computer, tablet, smartphone or whathaveyou. A gateway is a combination of both.
The gateways provided by Chinese internet service providers work, but they aren’t great, especially the wifi router component. That bit is pretty sucky. And if pushed, even your internet shifu will admit as much.
Why the cheap equipment? Again, it’s all part of China’s mission to make the internet affordable for everybody.
So if you have trouble getting a strong wifi signal in your house, you’ll probably need to upgrade your wifi router. We’ve put together an article on the best wifi routers in China, but the most important feature to pay attention to is whether your router is 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz.
While 2.4Ghz routers have a longer range, they carry less information. Plus, the 2.4Ghz band is a crowded frequency used by lots of wireless devices, so your internet signal is going to be battling noise.
A 5Ghz carries a lot more information over a less-used frequency. The only downside is that it doesn’t travel through walls very well. If you are living in an apartment with concrete walls (and the chances are good that you are), you might need to purchase range extenders to boost the signal in certain parts of your home.
Undersea Cables Break
And finally, let’s not forget that when you connect to foreign websites, your information is traveling around the world over thousands of miles on undersea cables. Sometimes these cables get damaged or break.
This really does happen more frequently than you think. Here’s a snippet reporting an outage on March 5, 2021:
Elsewhere, a cable fault has been reported on the Trans-Pacific Express (TPE) cable system, with the damage affecting Segment 4, which connects Chongming Island (China) and Tamsui (Taiwan). The 17,968km TPE fibre-optic system links Japan with mainland China, South Korea, Taiwan and the US. The system is operated by a consortium comprising NTT Communications, AT&T, China Telecom, China Unicom, Chungwha Telecom, KT Corp and Verizon.
If that happens, you’re kinda screwed until things get patched up. No amount of VPN wrangling will save you.
In fact, as we’ll soon see, there are real limits to what your VPN can and can’t do for your internet in China.
So what about your VPN? Sometimes it actually does work. Why can’t the tech geniuses figure out how to make your VPN work all the time?
The truth is that VPNs were never designed to help you access the foreign internet from China. They are a 30-year-old technology created to help mainframes encrypt and share information across corporate networks. In other words, they’re built for security, not for speed. Is it any wonder that they suck at streaming Netflix?
To be fair, the VPN that you use to access Google from China today is a more recent (and improved) version of the technology. And there are some promising changes coming. A new VPN protocol called Wireguard promises to revolutionize things, but it’s not proven yet.
And even if there were some amazing protocol or VPN encryption scheme that would be perfect for China, the VPN companies out there might not go for it.
Why you ask?
VPN companies aren’t China focused
Modern VPNs are used as privacy tools everywhere. This doesn’t mean that VPNs don’t have a lot of subscribers in China, but it’s just one (very tricky) market of many. Increased privacy concerns in Europe and the US have been a boon to VPN providers. Meeting that demand is a significant distraction.
There’s also the fact that the Chinese government employs a cadre of meganerds to break the encryptions that VPNs use, which makes maintaining a VPN service in China a royal pain in the 屁股. Meanwhile, in New York or Helsinki, there are no state-backed hackers gunning for your services.
Does that mean there are no working VPNs in China? Of course not. There are a bunch. But for around $15 a month, don’t expect “China Optimized” servers to be bulletproof portals to the outside internet.
We don’t want to poison the well, but it’s important to remember that VPNs are limited. The hope is knowing these limitations will help you accept the things you can’t change. Call it a little bit of VPN grace.
How a VPN doesn’t help in China
As we detailed in Chapters 1 and 2, speed and connection issues are rife in China, especially when connecting to foreign websites. On both of these counts, VPNs won’t help. In fact, in the case of speed, your VPN might be making things worse.
Remember how VPNs are security protocols? That means lots of encryption, more data, more processing, and slower speeds. You might be able to offset some of the speed issues by changing up protocols (TCP for UDP for example), but there are trade-offs. Less data-intensive protocols tend to be the ones that China’s cadre of meganerds crack the easiest.
Still, learning the ins and outs of your VPN protocols is a good idea. We’ve put together a VPN guide to take you through everything you need to know.
How a VPN helps in China
Despite the downsides, a VPN is still a useful tool for accessing the internet from China.
For accessing blocked websites like Google and Facebook from your phone when out and about, there really isn’t any other method. Just don’t expect to enjoy the speed of your 4G or 5G connectivity. Cell carriers in China use 163 Net for peering, so you’ll get the cheapest and slowest connection possible for any site overseas.
Over your wifi at home, a VPN is great for less data-intensive applications like checking Gmail or scrolling through Instagram posts. But you’ll start to see issues when it comes to streaming videos on Netflix or Youtube.
Again, these issues with speed are due to larger issues like peering and connectivity. As we talked about in Chapter 1, you can use a service like Chinanetspeed to address the peering issue and speed up your connection significantly.
In the end, your VPN can be a lifeline, but you shouldn’t expect that it will solve all your internet woes in China. Nothing will. Sometimes you just won’t be able to access the internet that you know and love back home.
So where does that leave you? How can you cope? That’s what we’ll discuss in our final chapter on surviving the internet in China.
Take a deep breath. Now repeat the following phrase slowly in your mind, out loud if you need for emphasis:
Mei. Ban. Fa. There’s no way. Mei. Ban. Fa.
When it comes to the internet in China, there are some things you have to accept. From the infrastructure to the services allowed to proliferate, the internet in China is built for China. The internet you know doesn’t exist here.
Further, while you are living in China, there will be times when you’re unable to connect to the outside internet. The more you are prepared for this, the better off you’ll be.
Don’t have a bad China day. Just breathe.
Prepare to feel isolated, overwhelmed and angry
I mean, how can you live without the f*cking internet?
Let’s take a step back.
Think how vital the internet was to your life before you came to China.
Chances are that going without it has taught you how important it was. That sudden urge to check Facebook or look something up on Google can only go unfulfilled for so long before you’re ready to lose it. You’ve been cut off from something fundamental, like electricity or indoor plumbing. An arm maybe?
When something so closely aligned to your identity and your way of life is suddenly taken away, it’s easy to feel isolated, overwhelmed, and angry. You might even feel detached or like you’re walking through a dream, something that psychologists call dissociation.
It’s easy to shrug all of this off. The internet is something trivial, right? After all, it's just the place where we get all our information and connect with friends and figure out how to live our lives. Now it’s suddenly inaccessible. Whatever. How bad can these feelings be?
They can be bad.
Take them seriously.
The internet situation in China will fill you with deep frustration and that’s okay. Accept that it’s part of the adventure of living here.
Confide in other foreigners going through the same thing. Beijing and Shanghai are full of massive expat communities. And even if you’re in the sticks, there’s probably a bar where all the foreigners in town congregate. Trust us. They’ll understand.
But the locals? Well, not so much.
Locals won’t understand what you’re angry about
Here’s why: The domestic internet in China is pretty awesome.
The speeds internal to China are as fast as you’ll find anywhere. China hosts one of the most advanced fiber-optic networks in the world, and any domestic websites (e.g. Baidu, Taobao, etc.) will load in milliseconds in cities across China.
On top of that, there’s a vibrant and innovative internet culture. Tiktok began in China (everyone here calls it Douyin). E-commerce is integrated in everything. Heck, you can use your phone to pay for everything, including jianbing from a random cart on a street corner.
If you say that the internet in China sucks, local people will just look at you like another crazy laowai who just doesn't get it.
And if you can’t beat the Chinese internet?
Engage the Chinese internet as much as you can
The biggest hurdle to engaging with the Chinese internet is the language itself. But don’t let that put you off. You don’t need to master all the characters. Most of your needs can be met in plain English. Here’s a list of the most important ones:
WeChat - We’re going to assume you have this app on your phone already. But if you don’t, get it now. Like right now. You’ll need to do everything from talk to your landlord, buy a cup of coffee, and meet your friends for drinks.It’s available in dozens of languages, so no Chinese is required. Plus, it even has a translation function, so if you have to communicate with someone in Chinese, WeChat can help you through it.
Baopals - You’ve probably heard of Taobao as the Amazon of China. In a way, it’s even better than Amazon because it gives you access to all of the amazing and weird sh*t made in the “factory of the world”. Mona Lisa flyswatters? They’re on Taobao.Problem is that there is no English version of Taobao. And even if you use Google Translate to wing it, you’ll still have to figure out the Taobao rating system (very important!) and communicate with sellers if you’ve got questions. Not impossible, but a bit daunting and can easily take waaaay longer than you want to spend buying, say, water-proof Spiderman pajamas for your kid. Along comes Baopals to the rescue. For a fee, they’ll help you buy just about anything you want from Taobao. All in English.
Sherpas- Food delivery is big in Chinese cities. Unfortunately the biggest players with the largest selection are Chinese only. Sherpas makes it easy to order delivery in English from a selection of foreign-friendly restaurants. They also provide English-speaking support to help you communicate directly with your delivery man if he has trouble finding you. Note: Sherpas only serves Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou.
BonApp!You won’t find Yelp in China, but you will find Bon App! This app focuses on helping English speakers in Asia share reviews of restaurants, shops and more. Its listings are especially good for major Chinese cities, but you’ll be able to find good recommendations in many other places as well.
Didi- No Uber. No Lyft. For getting around, you’ll use Didi (App Store, Google Play). Didi offers a dedicated English app with limited English-language support. And the company actually merged with Uber China, so you’ll find that the mechanics are similar to what you’re used to. Some users have complained that the Chinese back-end spills over into the English language app and it doesn’t come with all of the features of the Chinese version (like an option to share a cab with others). But when it comes to English-friendly transport in China, it’s really the only game in town.
As you live your life in China, you’ll find that your relationship to the internet will continue to change. Things may get more restrictive at times. Or they might open up in strange and inexplicable ways.
You might also find yourself at ground zero for the launch of the next big digital platform. Just ask anyone who remembers what life in China was like before WeChat.
The government has committed to rolling out 5G networks and building up internet infrastructure so that China is the best in the world. Getting the best internet for accessing the outside world requires working with companies that are focused on China and all of its idiosyncrasies.
Chinanetspeed specializes in a hardware-based solution for getting fast, unrestricted internet access in China. If your VPN just isn’t cutting it and you want a better way to survive the internet in China, have a look.
Regardless, best of luck in your China journey. And be sure to eat your fill of hotpot and duck and xiaolongbao while you’re here. It’s hard to find good Chinese food when you leave.