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The relationship between the Chinese government and the internet is deeply dysfunctional. On the one hand, they need the internet to allow dynamic Chinese businesses to compete on the global stage. On the other, the free flow of information on the web is dangerous for a one-party state, where dissent needs to be kept under wraps.
These problems have extended to almost all of the famous western social media sites, YouTube included. The video streaming site has long been in the crosshairs of the officials in Beijing, who fear the potential for unrest and destabilization. But have they managed to suppress the site entirely, and is YouTube blocked in China? As we’ll see, that’s far from the case. So read on if you need to know how to use YouTube in China.
What is the situation – is YouTube banned in China?
Why is YouTube banned in China? It’s all about power. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government has fought a constant battle to erect its Great Firewall of China – a system of censorship and surveillance, which aims to regulate what sites Chinese people can use. In theory, the Great Firewall allows dissent to be managed, and opposition to be suppressed.
In 2007, the Great Wall started to tackle video streaming when YouTube was targeted by Beijing’s censors and was taken offline for six months. A year later, it was buried again, this time seemingly for good. Since 2009, people in mainland China have theoretically been denied access to the world’s biggest video streaming site.
How does the Chinese government manage the YouTube ban in China?
The YouTube ban in China isn’t total by any means
Residents in Hong Kong and Macau have been able to use the site without restrictions, as have those in the extensive Shanghai Free Trade Zone (or people with access to the Zone). Those might be pockets, but they potentially provide YouTube access for tens of millions of people. So answering the question is YouTube blocked in China isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
Moreover, there are signs that the Chinese state has mixed emotions about the site. CCTV, the major state broadcaster, has a popular YouTube channel, and YouTube constantly ranks highly in web traffic stats for mainland China. So the answer to the question is YouTube banned in China is – yes and no. Officially, it’s banned. In reality, there are ways to access the site. Let’s find out more.
A quick guide about how to watch YouTube in China
If you’re one of the many people who travel or live in the Peoples Republic and want to know how to use YouTube in China, don’t worry. There are ways to work around the ban, and they revolve around Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
VPNs work by scrambling the IP addresses of subscribers and encrypting the data they transmit across the web. With both of these tools working in tandem, they can effectively erase Chinese web users from the map.
Remember, censors are looking for IP addresses from Chinese locations. When they detect a connection between those addresses and YouTube, they sever the link. But if they can’t see you, how can they do anything about it?
Can VPNs still help you watch YouTube in China?
However, anyone who follows internet news in China will know about the catch. Naturally, the Chinese government knows about VPNs. So they have made efforts to prevent Chinese people from using these tools, often with a high degree of success. Countless VPNs have been made inoperable on the Chinese mainland, as the state has hit back.
But despite their efforts, the Chinese government haven’t come close to plugging the holes in the Great Firewall, and a number of dedicated VPN operators have continuously evaded their grasp. These VPNs remain the most effective answer to how to watch YouTube in China.
They aren’t the only way, though. More technical solutions include domain fronting using the Tor network (which uses legitimate domains as a “front” for Tor-based dark web connections). Proxy tools like XX-net have also been used. These are difficult for ordinary users to master, but they often get results.
How to upload videos to YouTube in China
So, let’s say you’re traveling in China and want to upload a vlog about a visit to a museum or a shopping mall. How would you go about doing so?
The principle is exactly the same as accessing YouTube via a VPN. Just download a client and log on using a scrambled IP address and a server outside China. Then log onto your YouTube account as normal.
The only problem – and it’s potentially a big one – is that uploading videos to YouTube is really, really slow in China
This means that when you choose a VPN, it’s definitely worth paying extra for premium services that seek to guarantee the fastest possible speeds.
If you can’t work around this, there may be a different method. In some cases, users will have access to file sharing sites like Dropbox or Megaupload.nz. If you know someone outside China with access to your YouTube account, you can upload your videos to those sites. Then, your contact can complete the upload. It’s cumbersome but actually works out quicker in many situations.
Is there a viable YouTube alternative in China?
Given that people seem to have a natural tendency to film their lives and share those films with others, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs have tried to set up a YouTube alternative in China.
At the moment, the two leading contenders are Youkou and Tudou
Both let users set up accounts and upload videos, but are heavily censored (and tend to feature videos made by PRC leaders prominently). Still, they are better than nothing. And they aren’t alone. Tencent is another option, although its user base has been battered by a recent government crackdown on multiplayer gaming.
These sites are fine as far as they go, offering entertainment and comedy, cartoons and sports videos. But the answer to why is YouTube banned in China is evident from the content on their front pages. These sites aren’t likely to offer videos of protests or government foul-ups.
Use technology to access the sites you love, wherever you are in China
The internet once promised to be a zone of freedom, liberating people across the world to interact and share information, and governments were supposed to have nothing to do with it. But the reality has been very different, and governments like China’s have developed sophisticated ways to use the internet as a tool to control the population.
It doesn’t have to be like that, though. If you use VPNs like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, VyprVPN or CyberGhost, it’s possible to breach the walls of censorship and control that governments are erecting. And when you do so, sites like YouTube are there to use.
There will almost certainly be new attempts to defeat VPNs, but the developers won’t sit back and surrender. For the near future, they are going to be our best weapon to attack the power of governments, and keep the spirit of internet freedom alive.
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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.