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Behind the Great Firewall, or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Posted On September 10, 2019
Living in a foreign country is very different from being a tourist or a business traveler, as I discovered earlier this year when I spent several weeks living in Shenzhen, China, as a visiting legal research instructor at a Chinese law school. Shenzhen is in southern China, near Hong Kong, and is known as one of China’s technology and economic hubs. Tencent, Huawei, ZTE Corp., and numerous other companies make their home there, and Shenzhen’s role as one of the first “special economic zones” supporting China’s expansion into market capitalism has made it a leader in technology and finance development.

However, the words “China,” “technology,” and “finance” have a reputation for being uncertain partners in recent years. I attended a workshop just before leaving for China on the complicated processes that the Chinese government has put in place for the financing and ownership of large-scale joint ventures as it tries to balance its interest in globalization and economic expansion with its equal interest in maintaining a level of control over foreign investment and influence.

The Great Firewall of China

Similarly, the role of Chinese authorities in regulating technology, specifically access to internet information, has been the subject of substantial discussion and comment. Known colloquially in the West as the Great Firewall of China, a series of technological and human mechanisms filters internet information within China, restricting access to certain material based on its content. As a legal research instructor who was teaching American legal research to Chinese law students, I was able to get some firsthand perspectives on how the Great Firewall works—and doesn’t work—in China.

The good news is that I didn’t have any trouble with sports. As I settled into my office, I booted up the laptop that I had brought with me from the U.S. It connected—after a bit of effort—through my Google Chrome browser to my three startup pages: my home university, my email, and a page that has my wire services, RSS feeds, and other content. It was May, and both the baseball and basketball seasons were in full swing, along with talking heads on the upcoming football season, golf, tennis, and the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. I had no problem scanning the headlines and reading selected articles.

News Services Blocked

Accessing news services was more of a challenge. Reuters (one of my RSS feeds) seemed to be completely blocked regardless of the subject of the article, as were The New York Times and The Washington Post. Some colleagues reported that their cable television services provided access to CNN and the BBC, but they would be frequently cut off, then resume, depending on the story being covered.

In my substantive course, I rely heavily on a select number of “free” internet services for legal research instruction, including Google Scholar for scholarly articles, U.S. and international patents, and U.S. federal and state court decisions. Google Scholar, like nearly all the Google content that I encountered, was blocked. Interestingly, I could continue to use Google’s Chrome browser, but I had to reset my choice of search engine—I selected Microsoft’s Bing, which worked well.

U.S. Government Websites

I was somewhat surprised that I had very little trouble using U.S. government websites. In my class, I direct my students to a wide variety of government resources, including,,,, and websites from a number of federal agencies, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Department of State. I was never blocked or restricted from accessing this content, nor did my students report any problems as they used these services to complete homework and research projects. I had a similar lack of problems with international government organization websites such as those for the United Nations and the European Union.

The university and law school provided access to a robust range of commercial legal and other databases, including Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw, Lexis Advance, HeinOnline, and JSTOR. I had little problem using these resources other than some occasional dropouts in the overall internet service. It was a relatively common occurrence, and from talking to longtime faculty members on campus, it seemed to be attributed to telecommunications system and Wi-Fi infrastructure issues rather than blocking or censorship. I was advised that some content on the commercial services was not available due to licensing restrictions, including on many legal news services.


The standard workaround for accessing blocked internet services is the use of a VPN. VPNs were widely recognized and seemed to be well-accepted in the law school community. I opted to use a VPN on my iPad but was not able to access my university VPN on my laptop. For the most part, the VPN provided me with access to content that had been restricted, as well as allowed me to use the Google search engine and access my personal banking and finance services, some of which would not have been accessible from China. The legality of using a VPN in China is somewhat debated, but given the broad comments from law school, expat, business, and other users both in and out of China, it seems to be an accepted solution, at least for non-Chinese users working or traveling in the country.

The impact of the Great Firewall continues to be debated. The Epoch Times suggests that China’s protectionism would likely harm the global economy by disadvantaging U.S. and other firms that operate in China. Barriers to cross-border data access, separation of IT services and data centers, and a lack of reciprocity may serve to impede “all sectors of the economy.” Inkstone reports on a study that found that when a number of Chinese college students were given uncontrolled/uncensored internet access, only a small percentage interacted with uncensored content. The New York Times notes that social media access in China has not resulted in increased attention to “sensitive public issues” but has resulted in some level of vigilantism against “those deemed harmful to the public good.”

For a temporary resident of China, the Great Firewall turned out to be a generally minor inconvenience. But its both spoken and unspoken presence as a fact of life in China could not be ignored.

George H. Pike is the director of the Pritzker Legal Research Center and a senior lecturer at the Northwestern University School of Law. Previously, Pike was director of the Law Library at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and held professional positions at the Lewis and Clark Law School and at the University of Idaho School of Law, and was a practicing attorney in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Pike received his B.A. from the College of Idaho, his law degree from the University of Idaho, and his M.L.S. from the University of Washington. He is a member of the American and Idaho State Bar Associations, the American Association of Law Libraries, and the American Intellectual Property Lawyers Association.

Email George H. Pike

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