If you’re planning to travel to China with your smartphone, the question of whether WhatsApp works in China will probably be a key issue. End-to-end encryption makes using WhatsApp a great way to communicate with people back home or contacts in the People’s Republic while spending as little as possible and avoiding surveillance.
Needless to say, this is against the wishes of the Chinese government, which has invested a lot of effort into making each corner of their internet space observable. As of 2017, WhatsApp has been completely blocked in the country.
Is there a way to ignore this ban so can you use WhatsApp in China?
Yes, there are at least a few ways to unblock WhatsApp or any other blocked online service. We’ll discuss the best and most secure one:
VPN (Virtual Private Network) services.
Here’s how it works
How to use a Virtual Private Network to beat the WhatsApp ban
If you want to enjoy the text messaging and video features that WhatsApp delivers, one tool towers over all others: VPNs (Virtual Private Networks).
If you don’t know already, VPNs are apps which can be installed on desktops, laptops, and smartphones. They route traffic from (and to) your device through servers located across the world, using encryption to mask the content of your data, and IP anonymization to render users virtually invisible.
Because of this, VPNs make life very, very difficult for censors. Governments usually rely on IP address information to identify users, but with a VPN on your system, you can pass through their filters undisturbed.
If you find WhatsApp blocked in China and you’d like to take advantage of VPNs, doing so is easy. Here’s a simple outline of how to get started:
- Research available VPNs and pick one which works well in China – VPNs vary wildly in terms of quality and reliability. Many work well in countries like the USA, but poorly in China where conditions are more demanding. But some elite options like NordVPN or ExpressVPN work brilliantly almost worldwide. And, more importantly, they have a good track record at beating the WhatsApp ban.
- Find a package which suits your needs – It’s a good idea to pay for a VPN service, instead of relying on free services. Free VPNs tend to be lower in quality and more prone to security lapses. And pick a client which is optimized for your device (such as Android or iOS phones).
- Download the VPN client – After payment, this shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes, usually less.
- Load up the VPN app – VPN clients tend to be very easy to install, and easy to access. Generally, there will be a “connect” button and a list of servers. Pick one which delivers good speeds, and fire up your online protection.
With a VPN on your phone, you should find that WhatsApp is back to normal. There may be a few hiccups along the way (such as dropped connections). If this happens, switching servers normally does the trick.
Why Is WhatsApp blocked in China?
The history of WhatsApp in China hasn’t been a happy one. In the 2010s, as WhatsApp grew in popularity, Beijing regularly took action to assert its authority. Every now and then, the government would target WhatsApp, blocking its servers and knocking out both video and text messaging services.
However, these bans were temporary in nature. But things changed in 2017 when it was reported that a complete WhatsApp block had been put in place. According to TechCrunch, a complete ban on videos and text messages was enforced by the Chinese government.
Looking at the reasons why you might find WhatsApp blocked in China
As far as we can tell, it looks like the Communist Party finally decided that the existence of an encrypted, universally available messaging service could not be tolerated. So they cracked down on the WhatsApp China servers, making a clear statement to local users.
China remains a highly authoritarian state, where power is concentrated in the ruling party. But it is also subject to regular protests and social discontent relating to wages, the environment, and the lack of basic freedoms.
In 2017, the catalyst was fears of a spike in protests leading into the Communist Party Congress – a huge get together to celebrate the harmony and power of the ruling body. As the Congress neared, the Cyberspace Administration of China warned WhatsApp to “take proactive measures to intercept information to do with violence and terror.”
However, this might not result in a totally watertight ban. Beijing realizes that it needs to harness the power of technology to allow China to compete while reining in protest movements – a tricky juggling act. And blocking WhatsApp in China is one part of their strategy.
Another reason for the block could be WhatsApp’s affiliation with Facebook. The social network hasn’t really gelled well with Beijing, coming into conflict with the government over censorship. And all of its subsidiaries, including WhatsApp and Instagram, have been affected.
What happens if you try to access WhatsApp in China?
Let’s assume that you are visiting China for a vacation or a short working trip. WhatsApp would be a handy tool to have at your disposal, as it allows very cheap communication with smartphone and laptop users anywhere in the world.
When you fire up the app, what would happen? Would a team of government agents be knocking on your hotel door immediately, demanding that you surrender your phone? Would you be detained for breaking Chinese law?
Almost certainly not. That’s not how censorship works in modern China. If you test the issue of is WhatsApp blocked in China, you’ll be disappointed. All that will happen is that your phone will fail to connect.
WhatsApp will simply inform you that the app cannot connect to a local server, rendering its useful communication features totally inoperable. And that’s a real inconvenience for many travelers. But is there a solution?
Can you use WhatsApp in China? Ways to beat the ban
The Chinese government is probably the most active in the world when it comes to cracking down on digital dissent. But even the tech officials in Beijing cannot totally control the way ordinary people use the internet, and the WhatsApp China situation is a great example.
As we noted briefly earlier, China doesn’t necessarily want to choke off every western app. The government’s major aim is domestic: preventing dissent from Chinese workers. So it’s not a surprise to find that there are some major loopholes for people who want an answer to the question does WhatsApp work in China?
Use security solutions to beat censorship across the world
As we’ve seen, the answer to the query can you use WhatsApp in China is complex. Technically, no, you cannot. Regulations in China are very clear at the moment about WhatsApp access, and the service is well and truly blocked.
However, thanks to VPNs, the WhatsApp ban can be circumvented fairly easily and reliably. So if you are heading to Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Beijing, arm yourself with the tools you need to communicate cheaply and easily.
Mikaela is an investigative journalist that likes to cover the ever-changing world of technology. She tries to keep her finger on the pulse of digital trends and share her insights on the most relevant topics, including big tech, security, privacy, and data breaches.