The Great Firewall of China: what you need to know

China is a fascinating environment in which to do business online. Their sizeable population is digitally-savvy and responsible for over 40% of global e-commerce transactions by value.

However, China is also a complex environment in which to operate digitally - from both a technical and a regulatory point of view. Success in China requires an understanding of some fundamental factors and this article will set out two key complexities and our recommendations for how best to get started in the region.

Firewalls & licenses

The Great Firewall of China

Internet traffic both in and out of China is heavily fire-walled by the Chinese government. This gives the government the ability to restrict the flow of information and services for a variety of reasons, with little recourse for foreign companies if they run into trouble.

Websites hosted outside of the firewall will therefore be slower to load for Chinese customers. With the double whammy of both firewall restrictions and the physical distance between you and your target audience, this will negatively impact your conversion rates.

If your website has dependencies on third-party services that are hosted outside China, that can cause more problems. For example, using Google Tag Manager or Google Analytics, which are often blocked by the firewall, can cause performance and functionality issues.

China has also blocked certain versions of the TLS protocol (which secures the connection between users and servers) which utilise ESNI (Encrypted Server Name Indication) as it has allowed people to bypass some of the censorship in the past.

ICP licenses

An ICP license is mandatory for anyone hosting a website on a Chinese server in mainland China, including the use of Content Delivery Networks. Without an ICP license, a Chinese-hosted website would be operating illegally.

Chinese hosting companies are unlikely to do any business with you until you have obtained a license. Some will help you with the process, which is entirely in Chinese and potentially complex.

There are two primary types of ICP license: an ICP Commercial License and an ICP Filing. The commercial license is for transactional websites, the filing is for informational websites.

Having a license means you can use Chinese hosting services – better for Chinese users - and potentially avoid legal problems – better for you.

Our recommendations

Assuming that you either don’t currently have a Chinese website, or you have one that is hosted outside of China and not well optimised, these recommendations can be followed in order.

Implement a China-friendly site

Whether you have an existing digital platform that you want to roll out in China, or are building a new Chinese website from scratch, you must ensure that it is China friendly:

  • Identify third-party libraries that are likely to cause issues (e.g. Google)
  • Identify Chinese alternatives (e.g. Baidu)
  • Ensure your platform is capable of serving these alternatives for your Chinese site
  • Gather metrics from China-friendly analytics services to establish a client-side performance baseline benchmark

That last step is crucial as it will provide a baseline against which further optimisations can be measured. Services exist that can automate some of this work for you, such as Chinafy.

Implement a China CDN

This is by far the quickest route to improving site speed for Chinese consumers. A Chinese CDN will cache copies of your pages and serve them to users from servers within China – meaning any existing hosting doesn’t need to change.

  • Obtain an ICP license
  • Identify the most appropriate China CDN
  • Provision and configure the CDN
  • Route your Chinese domain to the CDN
  • Gather metrics to establish performance differential between baseline benchmark and now

Particularly dynamic sites (e.g. e-commerce or ones that incorporate heavy use of personalisation) may not benefit as much from this approach if calls back to a server outside of China are still required.

It may be that utilising a CDN delivers enough of a performance improvement to warrant stopping activity here and continuing to monitor performance.

Implement Chinese hosting

If performance is still not satisfactory, then the next logical option would be to host your Chinese website on servers within China.

  • Obtain ICP license
  • Identify the most appropriate China hosting
  • Provision and configure infrastructure
  • Gather metrics to establish performance differential between previous benchmarks and now

Work with an experienced partner

We have lots of experience working with international organisations, including those with a presence in China, and those with e-commerce functions.

We’ve just concluded a piece of work with a global manufacturing business who were encountering issues with their existing Chinese website. We’ve worked alongside them to provide a detailed assessment and set of recommendations for how they can improve their Chinese customer experience – some of those insights are in this article.

If you want to find out more about how we can prepare you to expand into the Chinese market - reach out to us here.

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