- Sites outside China like Facebook and YouTube are blocked by the Great Firewall, but you're not "breaking the law" by circumventing this blocking. Why? Because the blocking itself is not done through the legal process of China. "Banned" sites are transparently and mysteriously blocked by the GFW through technical means, and for the central government, the less said about it the better. For that reason...
- Foreigners are not being arrested or detained for circumventing the GFW. Most every working foreigner living in China knows of simple ways to circumvent the GFW, and they're used often and openly. In terms of China's citizens -- most tech savvy domestic folks and students know of easy ways around the GFW. All the government cares about is that there's no critical mass of users to these outside sites, and that China-based companies like Baidu, Sina, etc. dominate the dot-com landscape.
- There are plenty of cheap VPN services you can buy on a month-to-month basis: Witopia, StrongVPN, AnchorFree to name a few. OpenVPN is more advanced and better performing, but the older PPTP supports more platforms, such as iPhone and iPad.
- If you have an SSH account somewhere, use SSH tunneling for the cheapest way to SOCKS proxy. Google for "SSH Tunnel SOCKS Proxy Forwarding" and create a Firefox profile that is dedicated to SOCKS proxy through it.
As someone who's written a lot about the GFW, I always remind people -- the Great Firewall only affects connections going into and out of China. For domestic traffic there is no firewall or filtering at the router level. There is another system for censorship of content on servers inside China -- good old fashioned licensing to be a "content provider" and local regulation. If you're operating inside the sovereign borders of the PRC, then there are other conventional means of controlling content, like telling your ISP to shut you down or serving your company legal notice.
So it's a fallacy to talk about the Great Firewall as the most important part of the censorship system. The majority of folks in China are looking at entertainment content on servers inside China, and not trying to lookup the latest human rights abuses on foreign servers. Similarly, Americans are more interested in Britney Spears and the latest viral YouTube video than they are researching historical abuses of Native Americans.
I'm writing this from a coffee shop in Beijing using their free Wifi (which is quite common). With all these sensitive words in the post, hope it makes it through. (Though I'm kind of tempting fate by hitting the Preview button repeatedly)