Staying Connected / 保持联系

My tips and tricks for staying connected to the outside world despite the Great Firewall of China, slow connections, or simply..no internet. News, RSS, e-mail, social media, and more…

As someone who thrives on information, dealing with Chinese web censorship compounded with slow, and intermittent internet connections has been a veritable nightmare.
In China, most foreign social media, blogs, video and file sharing sites, as well as certain news sites are blocked. During the 18th Party Congress, nearly all of Google’s services, including GMail, were inaccessible. However, I’ve been able to create a fairly robust system to not only access the online world on the other side of the “wall”, but take it offline with me on the go.

Here are the components of this “system”:

1. A reliable VPN
2. An offline IMAP mail client 
3. A Google Reader account.
4. An offline RSS Reader application.
5. A RSS full-text converter.
6. Pocket: Saving webpages for offline reading.
7. A simple e-reader.

1. A VPN (virtual private network), proxy, or other tool that effectively allows you to access the internet through a remote network or computer is crucial in China. I could go into details about how this works, but Wikipedia does a good job. A quick google search or other blogs go over many popular and free VPNs, so I won’t spend time on this. Most corporations, and large academic/research institutions have VPNs, so you might be able to use one of those. Of course, check to make sure you’re allowed to use the VPN for personal reasons. Keep in mind that VPNs (especially free ones), can slow your internet connection down. I use my VPN mostly for accessing social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

2. A mail client is a must for anyone who want to increase their productivity, but especially for those who travel or are likely to be faced with unstable internet connections. A mail client essentially saves your e-mails to your computer’s hard drive. Google’s instructions for setting this up with Gmail can be found here, but Lifehacker has a couple additional tips. Popular Mail Clients include Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Apple Mail. Now, all my e-mails are synced automatically whenever I have an internet connection. I respond to e-mails offline (on a train, in a bus, etc.) and they are all automatically sent whenever I connect to the internet again. When Gmail was completely cut off in China, I would connect to my VPN, let all my new e-mail sync to my computer, and then check my e-mail quickly a at later time rather go to gmail.com and wait for each new message to slowly load in the browser (slow internet + slow VPN = extremely slow internet).

Screenshot of Apple Mail client in OSX 10.7.5

The Apple Mail client. All my Gmail messages are saved to my hard drive, accessible whenever I need them.

3. Google Reader is an RSS reader. What is RSS? Well again, Wikipedia has the answers, but in a nutshell it allows you to subscribe for various websites and read all the latest posts in one place – through a program known as an RSS Reader. As a Gmail user, I use Google Reader. It takes about twelve seconds to set it up. Subscribing to an RSS feed is just as simple. Most websites have an orange icon or the text ‘RSS’ that you click to subscribe. Most likely your browser will recognize it’s an RSS link and open up Google Reader. Alternatively you can simply click the big “subscribe” button in Google Reader and copy and paste the RSS URL. Remember that it should probably end in .rss or .xml.

The RSS logo and a screenshot of the suscribe button in Google Reader.

The RSS logo and a screenshot of the Subscribe button in Google Reader.

4. RSS Reader Application. Google Reader is great, but it’s web-based, meaning that to access your news feeds, you have be online and go through your browser. This is where an offline RSS Reader application becomes useful.  There are a lot of great RSS Reader applications for Windows/Mac/iOS/Android. I have a Mac, so I chose Reeder. ($4.99 on Apple Mac Store.) So far it’s been great! Once again it’s easy to set up. You enter your Google Reader account information and it syncs your feeds seamlessly, saving them to your desktop for offline reading. You can specify how often it checks for new feeds, how long to keep articles for, etc.

A Screenshot of Reeder

Reeder: A simple desktop RSS reader application, with great features!

5. A RSS full-text converter.  Now wait, before you run off to subscribe to all your favorite news sites, there’s one more important step you need to take. You need to use a tool to get the full-text RSS feeds.  Why? Most websites assume their users have full internet connections thus RSS feeds, rather than providing the full text of the article, simply provide a short snippet. The user, to get the full article must click to read more. This is meant to accommodate the growing number of mobile users. It is faster (and less data intensive) to send snippets of articles than full text. Now we’re trying to customize our RSS reader for a different purpose: offline full-text reading. This is where two tools come into play:

 FiveFilters.org  or FullTextRSSFeed.com

Both of these tools function the same way. You paste the URL for the original RSS feed; it spits out a different URL with the full-text article that you can now paste into Google Reader. Simple.   I’ve found that FiveFilters works better for certain sites and FullTextRSS.com works better for others. You’ll have to play around with this and it’s the most time-consuming part of this entire process.

A screenshot from FiveFilters.org

Both FiveFilters.org and FullTextRSSFeed.com are simple tools for obtaining full-text RSS feeds.

Super-secret-added-bonus-feature! Now, even if your news sites do provide you directly with full-text feeds, I still recommend running the feed through one of these two tools. Why? Because it allows you to bypass the restrictions put on by the Chinese government without having to connect to a VPN. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’re trying to access the New York Times, but that it’s currently blocked in China (this did happen while I was here). Your RSS feeder will not be able to fetch feeds from the NYTimes as any communication between your computer and the NYTimes server is blocked. However, if you pass it through one of these tools, the web traffic appears to be your RSS feeder communicating with FiveFilters or FullTextRSSFeed’s servers (neither of which are currently blocked in China).  Now keep in mind, it’s a PHP script fetching the article: the formatting may be off, images might not load, etc.

Now you could easily stop here, and be well connected to the outside world. The following two tools are less about getting around internet censorship, and more about dealing with slow/intermittent internet connections.

6. Pocket. Sometimes I like to read webpages offline that I don’t obtain from an RSS feed, and thus won’t be synced to the Reeder app. Say, for example, the Wikipedia page on Mandarin Slang. A good resource to always have with you when in Beijing (especially if you are like me and frequently make mistakes in Mandarin tones: I’ve accidentally ended up saying some of these words). Pocket is a web-browser extension that allows you to save any webpage for offline reading. There’s a desktop and mobile app for it so you can sync offline articles between all your devices. I’ve been using it to maintain a personal library of interesting reads and references. Furthermore, Reeder integrates seamlessly with Pocket, so that if I want to save a news article into my e-library, I can simply click the little Pocket logo, and it will be sent to the Pocket application.

Pocket desktop application

Pocket saves webpages for later reading. It removes advertisements and streamlines the formatting.

7. e-Reader. Okay, Now I am really going off topic, because to the best of my knowledge, by $99 Barnes and Noble Nook e-Reader will not help me get around China’s Great Firewall. At least I haven’t explored the possibility. I’m sure some people have hacked the Nook firmware or have customs ROMs. But as much as I love to mess around with my tech gadgets, this little e-reader is perfectly fine as originally designed – and it’s probably been one of the best purchases I have ever made.

The Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

The Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

In essence it’s like a big USB flash drive with a black and white screen and low-power consumption. It won’t do anything fancy like an iPad but there are significant advantages:  (1) I’ve only had to charge it every two-weeks or so, and I read daily for hours at a time. (2) It’s best used outdoors and in well-lit areas – like a real book!  (3) You have your personal portable library that weighs less than your average paperback .  Not only does it hold a hundred or so books, it has now become my alternative to printing. Need to have a copy of an e-mail on you for reference?  I save it as a PDF, and transfer it to the Nook.  Other odd items I have on it:  Lonely Planet travel guide PDFs for nearly every Asian country, my notes for my last powerpoint presentation, GPS coordinates for a hike, and scan of my passport and visa page, my Thermal Fluids Engineering textbook…

~

This concludes my post on tips for staying connected in a world where uncessored, fast, and stable internet connections are still not ubiquitous. Now, don’t get me wrong, China is making a lot of progress when it comes to the internet. For example, Sina Weibo, China’s equiavalent of Twitter, has over 400 million users. In Beijing, nearly everyone on the subway seems inseperable from their phones. But like many fellow foreigners in coming from a lifestyle of constant, instantaneous online interaction with our own country’s websites, even using 百度  (baidu = China’s Google) can seem like a daunting task.

However, little by little you learn to adapt. I am connecting to my VPN less and less, find myself using Chinese counterparts to western websites, and have disabled the Google Chrome translate feature for chinese webpages. In the meantime, the above will help making interacting with life on the other side of the “Great Firewall” must less daunting.  With that, it seems only appropriate to conclude this post with the appropriate “Hello [outside] world.”   The view is much nicer once you are standing on the ramparts.

Great Wall

Me and a couple friends on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall. The blog post with the details for this hike will be uploaded soon.

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