Making Sense of China’s Great Firewall
Building a good Chinese website is hard work: translating to accommodate turns of phrase and idiom is a tough balancing act, while Chinese web design aesthetic and user interface expectations are different from back home. Many Western companies and institutions are disappointed to discover that, after doing all of this work, their Chinese website isn’t fully accessible in China, leaving local parents to resort to other sources of information like rankings and agent websites to find information about a university or company. In this article, we aim to demystify the Great Firewall of China and how websites abroad can be partially or completely blocked in China. This piece is based on our white paper about the latest trends in China’s digital recruitment and marketing landscape, which you can download for free here!
Many are surprised to learn that, even if a website contains no content that could be construed as politically sensitive, it may be inaccessible to users in China. Accessibility isn’t a black-and-white question in China, but the surest way to be accessible is to use local platforms, comply with local regulations, and register a local domain in order to comply with Chinese cyberspace rules. There are three kinds of accessibility limitations in China: complete blockage (rare), partial blockage (more common), and limitations on speed and functionality (most common). We examine how to avoid these issues so that your website “works” in China.
The most common story you’ll encounter abroad is that the Chinese government uses a massive censorship apparatus to maintain “the Great Firewall” to keep foreign content and companies out of the country. It is true that cyberspace is heavily regulated and monitored by the central government. However, other actors matter just as much. All of China’s internet service providers are state owned enterprises, but have different stakeholders and local subsidiaries. There are also private local technology companies themselves, such as Baidu or Tencent, which discuss amongst themselves which terms should be blacklisted and the length of blockages. Internet companies self-police in order to avoid running into compliance issues, and there’s often a game of guessing what the government will find too sensitive. Digital governance in China is constantly evolving, and the players within it are constantly negotiating the rules of the game.
While China has maintained controls on the internet ever since it came to the country, the last decade has seen significant tightening. Controls on Chinese internet used to be negotiated primarily to prevent pornography from reaching children or blocking terrorist activities, with occasional blockages of only the most politically sensitive news in a month. However, in recent years, Xi Jinping and chief party ideologist Wang Huning have advocated for the concept of “cyber-sovereignty”. In 2017, Wang stated that “China stands ready to develop new rules and systems of internet governance to serve all parties and counteract current imbalances.” In this formulation, the internet is not a global network, but instead a virtual territory, with each country having the right and obligation to govern its particular corner of the internet, ranging from physical pipelines and hard infrastructure, to service providers, what content is accessible in-country.
My Product or Program is Apolitical, So Why Doesn’t My Site Work?
A website may be completely blocked in China, or it may have some pages blocked. It may work in Beijing but not Inner Mongolia. Or it may be available throughout China, but completely inaccessible to the average user, because photos and videos don’t appear, or because it loads so slowly that users assume the site is broken.
Outright website blockage is rare: only 10,000 of the world’s 329 million domains are blocked in China. The good news is that it’s unlikely that your entire website is blocked. The bad news is that nearly all your social media accounts are invisible in China because nearly all popular Western social media platforms are blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Usually though, one page on a website is blocked in a particular location for a certain amount of time. Many of these more granular decisions are automated through AI and algorithms. The Chinese government also outsources the review and approval work to local government contractors, usually recent college graduates from tier 2 and 3 cities, far away from the Cyberspace Administration of China’s small headquarters in Beijing.
A “broken” website to the average Chinese user means that it doesn’t work well in China. Two complaints are most common: slow load times or blocked media. Many universities and companies abroad host files, pictures, and videos on restricted services such as Amazon Web Services. So even though your website may technically “work” in China, the pictures and videos that are supposed to make up the user’s first impression of your website don’t appear. Forms can load extremely slowly or not work at all. Load times for complex web pages can be very long, because, even if the website isn’t blocked, the data traffic is bottlenecked by the need to monitor traffic.
For most users, particularly less tech-savvy parents, getting around the Great Firewall is difficult. Virtual Private Networks, perhaps the most popular circumvention tools, are illegal to share, banned from the Chinese App Store, and frequently targeted by internet service providers
So How Can I Make Sure My Website Works in China?
The most reliable solution to these problems lies in one word: localization. In order for brands to effectively engage prospective students or customers, it’s become imperative to invest in a China-hosted website with locally-hosted files and media. By hosting a Chinese-language version of your website (or a simplified microsite) inside of China, your website and all of its functionalities are much more likely to work in China. Localizing not only helps you avoid blockage: localized Mandarin content and user-friendly web design will significantly help you keep Chinese users on your website.
In order to make a website in China, you’ll need to register a domain name and get a license to host and publish your website. The license is called ICP (Internet Contact Provider). To apply for an ICP license as a company, a company must have a Chinese business license. If you have a presence in China, you can complete this process in about one month.
However, if you do not have a physical presence or entity in China, the government will require you to find a Chinese agency or partner who can represent your domain names and complete your ICP licensing to register with the government. This can take a bit longer, but these licenses are not optional - you must have them in order to advertise on many Chinese ad platforms, and without one, you’re always at risk of having your website shut down or blocked, bringing you back to the drawing board. If you’re a foreign organization that wants to guarantee that your website will work in China, it’s vital to find an experienced and responsible Chinese partner to do your ICP registration so that your website is accessible and legal.
Having a Chinese website can have an outsized impact on your long-term recruitment outcomes, but the Great Firewall is complicated and untransparent. To make sure that users can see your website and to guarantee return on the hard work or investment in your Chinese website, make sure to host your Chinese website locally and find a trustworthy partner to take care of your ICP license.
Have a look at our full length white paper to learn more about marketing on the Chinese internet, or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or feedback!