You have probably read an article or two about censorship of the Internet in China. Websites that are critical of the government or the Communist party, and websites deemed to be immoral (featuring gambling or pornography, for example) are blocked by the “Great Firewall of China.” The firewall becomes more prohibitive during certain times, for example in the spring each year when the National People’s Congress meets. Unfortunately, it is less well known that even business sites without controversial content may find themselves subject to blocking by the firewall. While the vagaries of the Great Firewall may seem daunting, being able to reach out to 700 million Chinese internet users is essential to the success of a global business.
If you are making an investment to expand your business to one of the largest and fastest growing markets in the world, you can’t afford to be inaccessible to the very audience that you are targeting. If you already have a Chinese language website, how can you check to see if it’s blocked in China? And if you are planning on creating a Chinese targeted website, what steps can you take to make sure it’s not blocked?
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One of the most popular websites for checking a site’s accessibility is greatfirewallofchina.org. Keep in mind that website blocking is not always uniform across the country. Individual cities and provinces keep their own lists of blocked sites, meaning that your site could be accessible in Beijing but blocked in Shanghai. Depending on your site’s content, it’s also possible that individual pages could be blocked because of their keywords.
What to Do if Your Site is Blocked
Because the list of “blacklisted” phrases are not made public and are used inconsistently across regions, it would be a waste of time to try to extract them from your own site. They may not even be under your control: the most common way that non-controversial commercial websites find themselves blocked is when they are using shared web hosting. With shared web hosting, although your website appears independent to the user, its files are stored on a large web server with many other websites, sometimes 100 or more. It just takes one controversial site among them to taint that IP address and lead all other websites to be blocked. Blog hosting websites like WordPress.com and Blogpsot.com are often (but not always) blocked for this reason.
If your site is blocked, you have a few options. You can petition your web hosting company to move your account to a different server, although there will be no guarantee that the new server will be any better. You can also change hosting providers entirely, but again, in a shared hosting environment you will always be at risk. Getting a dedicated server, with a unique IP address, can be a big help, but it isn’t 100% effective. China’s firewall technology is always evolving and changing, and sometimes foreign websites end up being blocked for no obvious reason.
While hosting your site in China isn’t a foolproof way to avoid the firewall, it offers a number of benefits. The most significant advantage will be the increase in access speeds for your Chinese customers. In technical terms, the more “hops” it takes to get from your website server to your target client, the higher the “latency.” High latency means slower access speeds, which in turns means a degraded experience for users. Optimizing your website by investing in international SEO services will be more effective with a local IP address, and the increased speed will boost your rankings as well. You’ll also need to have an ICP (Internet Content Provider) license which will protect you from random take downs. Hosting your website in China gets easier every year. The process can take about a month; your web hosting company can assist you.
If your current US-hosted website is not blocked in China, be sure to test it every month or so to make sure, especially if you’re on a shared hosting platform. Hosting a site in China proper will increase your speed, improve your SEO, and help you get past the firewall. China is home to the largest online population in the world; creating a digital presence through a Chinese-language website is an essential means for reaching it.