From language to culture to navigating a unique digital ecosystem, Western organisations looking to do business in China via digital channels must navigate a variety of hurdles.
And, just as the famous 21,000km Great Wall of China was built to keep out foreign forces, one of the biggest barriers to businesses today may not be tangible like the Great Wall but is just as potent a force.
The Great Firewall of China.
The Great Firewall is a vast technical and legal system that allows Chinese authorities to regulate content on the internet within China such that a vast number of non-Chinese websites and applications are blocked to mainland Chinese people.
So, with the Great Firewall in place, how can organisations navigate it so they can offer their products and services within China?
Like so many things in life, the answer can be found in a well-known children’s song: We’re going on a Bear Hunt (bear with us)!
When the children meet a series of challenges the refrain is always:
We can’t go over it
We can’t go under it
We’ve got to go through it!
Just as those kids go through a series of things until they achieve their objective, when it comes to the Great Firewall, the way forward is neither attempting to leap over or to undermine it. And the proof is in the trying—international businesses (such as Google) or media organisations (such as The New York Times) that wanted to play by their own rules and go over or under it have been effectively shut out.
However, other businesses, including LinkedIn (Microsoft) and Apple, have worked within the parameters set out by Chinese Authorities. By understanding the rules and restrictions, they have managed to gain a foothold in the market.
So, if international businesses want to reach the Chinese market, understanding the Great Firewall, its restrictions and challenges is essential.
What is the Great Firewall?
The Great Firewall is one aspect of a series of measures called “the Golden Shield Project” put in place by Chinese authorities related to surveillance and security during the 1990s when China began opening up more to the world.
The project was primarily concerned with two key things:
- Content regulation
The result, according to the New York Times, is an incredibly complex series of filters and blocks that shut out any foreign site Chinese authorities don’t think they can control, in effect creating something akin to a national ‘intranet."
A by-product of the Great Firewall has been the fostering of a robust Chinese digital ecosystem and media sector, with a range of platforms, websites and search engines that mimic counterparts in the West.
As a result, you can find Uber replaced by Didi, Twitter by Weibo, Facebook by WeChat and Google by Baidu, just to name a few.
How does the Great Firewall work?
While the tools and methods used are quite complex, some of the main ways the Great Firewall works are via:
- IP Address Blocking.
- DNS Spoofing or DNS Cache Poisoning whereby the Great Firewall uses altered domain name records to redirect traffic to a different site.
- URL Filtering for sensitive keywords that blocks websites based on words or phrases.
- Manual & A.I. Censorship by government employees who monitor, remove and edit online content.
- VPN Blocking.
How can businesses navigate through the Great Firewall?
The two key rules for having an online presence in China are:
- You cannot hold views contrary to the government
- You must make all data that passes through or that is stored on your website available to authorities.
The International Business Times elaborates on this:
If foreign companies are completely complicit with censorship and are willing to share sensitive data with the authorities, then they are welcome to do business in China — see Apple and LinkedIn. If the authorities wanted a domestic company to succeed, they would have shut Apple out of China long ago, despite Apple's willingness to do whatever the authorities ask of them.
Some of the biggest digitally focussed businesses in the world, including Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Alphabet (parent company of Google, Fitbit and YouTube), Uber, Netflix and many others (access a full list here), have not been willing to compromise. This is mostly due to the large amounts of personal data from users they harvest.
The gap in the market this has created has meant many Chinese equivalents have sprung up, with local developers shaping these according to the demands of Chinese consumers. This means that these Chinese equivalents including social media, search engines and other platforms have evolved to the point where their capabilities quite often outstrip the original Western models they were based on.
As the New York Times suggests, if developers want a glimpse into the future ‘then they need to be looking to China.’
What websites are restricted in China?
Volume 8, edition 4, of the journal China and the Internet: International Debate cites that the official government stance is that content cannot be ‘superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling, and or “generally harmful” in nature.'
However, given many international sites don’t fall into these categories, the real litmus test for getting through the Great Firewall is whether Chinese authorities feel that a site or company aligns with their message, a sentiment that can change quite quickly.
Situations also arise where sites may not be blocked but due to tools, plug-ins or other services the sites access, they don’t won’t work properly due to the Great Firewall. And with the ever-expanding reliance on the cloud by so many businesses, this too can cause sites to malfunction or be blocked.
In addition, there is a list of ever-changing blacklisted terms in China. Some are more obvious, such as ‘Tiananmen Square’ and ‘Tibet’, but others are not so obvious. These include: ‘Kang’s instant noodles,’ ‘yellow duck,' ‘toad’ and ‘candle.’ For a really comprehensive list of terms, greatfire.org provides a fantastic, up-to-date list of currently off-limits words.
Breaking through barriers: A solution to entering the China market
Another way to make sure your site isn’t coming up against the Great Firewall is to have a Chinese IP.
Most international sites are automatically filtered, so having an address that comes from China or Hong Kong will increase your chance of success. To do this, you must obtain ICP (Internet Content Provider) certification approved by Chinese authorities, which you can read about in this Sinorbis explainer article.
How can you tell if your site has been blocked?
The government won’t inform you that your site has been blocked and neither is there an official list, so you could be conducting business for months without knowing that your online presence is rendered invisible (or may as well be if the site load speed is pushed out to several minutes).
However, greatfirewallofchina.org allows you to enter your site and see whether your website has been blocked. If you discover your site has been blocked, investigate whether you are using blacklisted terms, and then remove them and hope for the best.