When I saw Leah (last name withheld until she’s back in the U.S.) in May a week before she left for a three-month trip to China, she admitted it would be difficult to break her Facebook and Twitter habit.

But, like any good addict, it took Leah less than a week to get settled and circumvent the Great Firewall of China. Along the way, she learned it was a relatively easy process.

Leah, a 21-year-old student at the college where I teach, emailed me this week. She figured out that for about $9, she can download a virtual private network, which effectively nullifies China’s efforts to block access to certain websites. Every time she logs onto the Internet, she also signs into the VPN, which gives her access to Facebook, Twitter and all the other sites the Chinese government tries to censor.

“It was fairly easy for me to set up,” Leah said.

China did try to crack down on VPNs last year, but the effort seemed to primarily focus on university and corporate connections. Home users were largely unaffected.

China, of course, is not trying to block all users from accessing those sites. An all-encompassing censorship strategy for all of the country’s 513.1 million Internet users is not feasible or practical. The government’s hope is that if it can make access to Facebook, Twitter and other sites enough of a pain, it will deter most people from bothering.

“No One Googles Anything”

Six years after Google launched a government-monitored version of its search engine in China, and two years after Google said it would stop self-censoring in the country, Leah said few people still use it. They instead opt for the more widely popular Baidu

“Most people wouldn’t even think to use Google for online searches the way I would,” she said. “I actually had an experience like this the other day when I was asked how I found some information, and I said in an obvious tone that I Googled it, not remembering that normally they wouldn’t even think to use Google as a search engine.”

Leah also noted that Weibo, a Chinese social network that combines Twitter- and Facebook-like features, remains hugely popular as an alternative to the better-known but banned American social networks. And QQ is also gaining traction as an instant messenger, video chat and file-sharing client.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.