In this article, sourcing veteran Helmut Maertin gives an overview of China’s online business culture and offers strategies for businesses wishing to leverage the internet to communicate effectively with China-based staff, suppliers and potential customers.
Are you “seen” in China or are your links just an error messages?
Your site would obviously work well in most parts of the world. All videos and social media integration probably functioned seamlessly last time you checked, but is it seen from over the “Great Fire Wall”?
One the first things people do, to get an understanding and background on a prospective business contact is have a look at them on the internet. Suppliers are no different to customers in this way. If they get an enquiry about big order, or want to know if a client or enquiry may be more trouble than it is worth, they will get online.
Whether you hope to build brand awareness in one of the world’s largest markets, or want to ensure that suppliers you contact can “check you out” and be impressed. You may want to know more about what is affectionately known as “The Great Fire Wall”.
I will not pretend to be “the web expert” with instructions on how best to address the issues, there is a lot online that someone better suited can look at. This article is mainly to draw your attention to some points that I find many in the West have no real idea about. First let’s put it in context.
China’s Online Population Exceeds the whole of the US live Population
Most of internet, especially the English content has traditionally been somewhat US centric.
More recently, IP and usage tracking is diluting the bias with more location specific content, however traditionally the bulk of English online content and activity is driven by the USA.
That is fair enough. USA has the largest native English speaking population of any single country. It has traditionally had some of the highest penetration and usage of any country at about 78%, leading to about 245 million users. The USA has also long been one of main drivers of all commerce and especially Ecommerce both through high usage and generally greater online spending.
None the less, it is worth considering China!
The penetration is still much lower at about 36% in 2010 leading to a very significant 485 Million users! The figures released end of 2011 are 513 Million online users, 356 million of which are online users.
China surpassed USA as the largest online population around 2009. Considering it has steadily grown from a penetration of about 2% in 2000, there is every reason to expect that it will continue to grow at a faster rate than nearly any other country. That more so now, as China recently officially tipped from a rural to urban society with that trend continuing to grow.
The number of Chinese speaking users is already greater than the combined total of USA and UK. It is expected to eclipse the total number of English speaking users over coming years. Further the average wage for most people in China is increasing, both of which makes China a more relevant online market.
China as a nation and the population as a whole has eagerly embraced technology.
For the nearly 10 years that I have been regularly in China, nearly everyone in small villages, all factory workers, cleaners and others that would not be viewed as “affluent” or “trend leaders” have had a mobile phone.
A very high percentage have moved beyond talk and text to “feature phones”. In 2009 there were already 155 million people mobile internet users many via feature phones. Sometime around 2010 that figure was 318million via feature phones and smart phones and by end of 2011 there was a reported 365 million mobile internet users in China.
In 2010 alone there were an estimated 30million Smartphone’s sold domestically and Smartphone sales in China have just overtaken the US with 24million shipped in the 3rd quarter of 2011 alone. Obviously that will lead to more time online as distinct from more users, though it demonstrates the eagerness for technology and online access.
Bear in mind that a good smart phone would be cost someone a few weeks – a month of their salary in China.
Nearly every public facility, such as gyms, saunas, and even some train stations and airports have terminals for the public to get online free.
Most cafes, hotels and some restaurants will have Wi Fi as do most airports. Many Wi Fi locations provide free access, some are provided by phone companies and require payment.
Access to the internet in China is prevalent and easy.
The big question is will your website, blog and tweets be seen, heard and understood in China?
This is one area where the US still the leader, however most people are looking at when, rather than if China will overtake. The sheer number of very active Netizens in China along with the growing affluence is expected to push China into the overall lead globally over coming years.
There are strong, well established local online shops such as Taobao, which has both C to C and B to C functions, though Amazon and others function here too.
Less language barriers than you may expect
You probably do not have a Chinese version of your site and that may or may not be worth considering. Certainly if you do, get it properly translated!
There is a massive potential audience in China, though it may or may not be sufficiently accessible and relevant to you.
Obviously if Chinese is available most will read that in preference, however if you have a message that will be of interest to people in China it will get read even in English. Provided the sites and links can be seen, rather than blocked.
A significant percentage of Chinese internet users can read and often write English with some fluency.
The Chinese people as whole have certainly grown adept at researching and learning often very technical information from English language sites, before that from English text books and journals.
There are a number of contributors to support them in accessing information on English language sites.
Pinyin is a standardized way of using the Roman alphabet to write Chinese.
It has been widely used in education since the late 1950’s and almost obligatory for computer use. Some scribe the Chinese characters on an electronic tablet with a stylus, but the vast majority, type in pinyin, using a keyboard and interpretive software provides the Chinese characters.
…so the vast majority of Chinese, especially Netizens are very familiar with the “western alphabet” as a start.
English is the Lingua Franca
For most of the last three decades, China has been focused on developing export business.
While you may not be able to strike up an English conversation with many people in many factories, they view English as the language of business.
Virtually every business in China will have a number of people can read and write, if not speak fluently!
Most people visiting China will use English in business, even if they are from a non English speaking country.
English at School & afterwards
The three core subjects taught at schools in China are, Chinese, Math and English. Obviously with all curriculum, what is taught and what is retained will vary widely from student to student.
Many Chinese see English as something that will assist their career path, so they will pro actively look for opportunities to improve.
English TV shows are popular in China. Normally with spoken English accompanied by Chinese and English subtitles. Nearly every office girl in China can tell you all the main characters from Friends, Sex In the City, Desperate House Wives, Gossip Girl and more.
The shows are seen as entertainment, a way to look at the world, follow trends, but also very much as an ongoing English learning tool!
They also often need to engage in English in international trade with people all over the world, many of whom also have English as second language. As part of that process, they will search English sites and post English content on their own sites.
There is wide idiomatic gap between English and Chinese.
Translating programs are still “clunky” at best. They still give people support with the content. Especially when used in conjunction with some prior understanding of English.
The Great Fire Wall
Knowing that the largest and fastest growing internet population can converse in English more than you expected, may be exciting with the subsequent prospect of getting 400 million friends on face book, or followers on Twitter. Unfortunately the Great Fire Wall stands in your way.
China generally has a desire to choose their own course. Some of their policies may seem odd or out of touch to many outsiders however that is beyond this discussion.
Suffice to say China has decided it is in their best interests to place certain restrictions on the internet. That is not expected to change any time soon.
Porn is illegal in China, and that is obviously blocked. A decade ago many completely innocent sites would be inaccessible, and it would generally be because they were hosted on a large public server many of which may also host a porn or similar site.
Now days the blocking techniques are more refined so most websites will be accessible, provided their content is not contentious, thought it worth checking on your own site!
The most notable site that is blocked, is Facebook, despite the origins of Marks girlfriend and his apparent interest in learning Chinese.
None the less most Chinese know or have heard about Zuckerberg and Facebook.
Others major sites blocked are any that link directly to Twitter and YouTube, though again most Chinese web users know of them and there are some local alternatives.
If your video content is an integral part of your online message, you may want to consider alternatives if you want it seen in China! Certainly post material on You Tube, but if any video material is intergeral to your site, consider building it in something that can be seen in China, rather than just plugging in a YouTube link.
Also many of the URL shortening sites are blocked. That of course means if you put a Bit.ly shortened URL in your Profile, Blog, or on your site most people in China will not be able to follow the link and read that content.
Some download sites for large file transfers are also blocked.
There is a lot of information on the web about sites that are blocked and how to test if yours will be affected.
Some of that information is of course blocked from within China, so again I am not as well placed to advise on that as your local “web wizard”. I am happy to check for you, or you can of course also ask your contacts in China if check. Sites being blocked is fairly routine, so it is nothing to be embarrassed about, it is just an inconvenience.
VPN’s do open the internet up, however they are mainly used by Expats. Some VPN’s are free, many have charges associated with them. So far it appears that the more popular ones (paid and unpaid) stop working sooner or later, particularly once they become more popular.
If you are considering having your message seen and heard in the Middle Kingdom, you may want to consider some alternatives so your content can be fully accessed from within China.
Sites that do work in China
As social media is growing especially in the business realms it is worth considering media that works well in China. I am not suggesting you abandon your Facebook or Twitter account but perhaps it is worth ensuring you have a feed of content into Linked In or Google +.
Linked In, is a good example of sites that are working within well in China. It was blocked briefly in February 2011, but is widely regarded as the main western social site functioning in China.
Linked In is very popular for Expats in China and Chinese working for foreign owned companies. It appears to be gaining traction with the wider Chinese business community.
Earlier in 2011 when Linked In broke the 100 million barrier, there were already well over 1 million users in China. While 1 million is a minuscule number, especially for this part of the world, from what I have seen Linked In is becoming more widely used and accepted in China.
Though business online in China is still very much focused on and populated in the B2B sites, such as Alibaba, Global Sources, etc
In fact many companies in China use a B2B profile as their main company website.
Google Plus is working quite well, despite the very public fall out between Google and the Chinese government, with regards to the search engine.
Yahoo products are generally quite reliable in China and gained some ground here when Google fell from grace with the authorities, though most people here use local search engines.
MSN and skype are both very popular in China especially for communicating with people in “the west”. There was talk about China banning or blocking Skype, however that has not eventuated to date.
If you connect on Skype or similar, you can expect most Chinese will want to text chat, rather than use VOIP. Partly for logistical reasons and again, most Chinese are far more proficient with written English compared to spoken. Normally once they know you and feel more comfortable they may be keen to VOIP or video conference.
There are many very popular Social Networks. Including Ren Ren, Qzone, QQ, Sina, Kaixin and the list goes on.
Traditionally one of the most popular in China is Tencent QQ, or simply “QQ”. Users get a 9 digit “QQ number” as their user name and email address. It is primarily used on computers though many also access QQ via 2G / feature phones while in transit. Pretty well everyone I know in China as a QQ number.
Reports of the number of QQ users registered varies widely, from about 200 million to about 1 billion, but it is safe to say there are probably well over 300 million people that are registered and very active on QQ normally most of the day, or at the very least once per week.
In March 2010, QQ attained the milestone of 100 million users online at one time. That is 100 million users simultaneously online, about a year before Linked In had same number of registered users.
QQ now has “QQ International” which works well for those of us who do not speak Chinese. It should be considered by anyone interacting with China and Chinese on a regular basis.
Your kudos goes up in leaps and bounds with the locals if you have a QQ number. It is nearly as impressive as speaking Chinese, but a lot easier to achieve!
Micro Blogging is very popular in China.
QQ recently added micro blogging to its product.
Sina, has long been a leader and has often been referred to as “Chinese Twitter”, now WeiBo, which is pinyin for “Micro Blog”. The is also 163 and others.
Most of the content is Chinese however it is certainly possible to engage in many English conversations on these platforms. Again a gauge of the degree of English literacy online in China.
It is also possible to feed / link your blog to the Chinese micro blogs. If you feel you message would have an audience in China it is worth considering. As with all social media it will take both time and effort, and will probably have a long gestation period. Again it is an individual decision if it is worth it for you.
Ren Ren started as a blatant copy of Facebook and continues to be one of the most popular Social Networking Sites.
China online is large, growing and open, but not completely open
Bottom line is that China’s online population is now roughly double the size of USA’s which has for many years been the clear leader.
The number of online users in China is growing an exponential pace.
The internet in China is very accessible, and that trend is growing.
Chinese users certainly prefer to read Chinese content given the choice, however they are very adept at accessing English online content and will certainly do so if needed for work or to pursue an interest.
Most of the online content on the web can be seen in China but some sites, especially certain shortened links, video and Social Media are blocked.
Social media is widely embraced in China, though you should not assume that what you can see on your PC will be seen in China.
If you feel there is merit in your content being seen in China you should check your links work in China, and ensure some of your content feeds into Social Media that is seen in China.
China vs. India
As a side note the next most populous nation is India.
India is also famous for embracing technology, with many well educated people there offering offshore IT services, manning call centers, etc, etc.
The two BRICS nations are often compared.
While the total human population of India is very close to China, the online population is only about 100 Million less than a quarter of China.
The Indian online population is also of course more homogenous with many western countries as English is more prevalent and to the best of my knowledge sites there are not blocked.
Checking You Site
Ask your local Chinese contact, or connect with me on Linked In.
Consider raising the question of access in China with your web developer. Again there is a lot of material online about this and more of that is accessible outside of China than from here within China.
Managing Director – Quality Products International Limited
Helmut, grew up in a production environment of his father’s successful printing and manufacturing business. The invention of Floaties Learn to Swim products by Helmut’s father brought the family business to the orient in the 1960’s. In those days China was still closed and Taiwan’s fledgling manufacturing industry was developing capabilities such as inflatable’s. QPI Ltd was later established to offer OEM product to 3rd party clients, that expanded to product development and quality control services. Though originally from Sydney, Australia, Helmut has been living in the Shenzhen area since about 2003. Helmut Maertin can best be contacted via Linked In where he is happy to welcome new connections.