Monday, July 11, 2011

Coming up soon...

Because I've been caught caught up with some things and wrote a couple of posts that aren't quite ready yet, it's been quiet here the past couple of days.

So, here's a preview of what I think I'll be posting about very soon:
  • A follow-up to my piece "Google Maps and Baidu Map in China".  In the earlier post I shared some interesting patterns I noticed in my research on Chinese youth, compared Google's and Baidu's map services, and commented on the implications this may all have on Google Maps' ability to operate in China (according to Bloomberg here the Chinese government is still reviewing Google Maps' application for an important license).  In the next post on this topic I will share some interesting things I found after reviewing the map services offered by another prominent company.  For now, I'll just say it's a different story from both Baidu Map and Google Maps -- in ways that may surprise you.  The earlier post provides some key context for the next one, if you missed it you can find it here.
  • An example highlighting how being "inside" or "outside" a culture can impact certain types of research.
  • Another post providing more of a peek into how I conduct research in China.
  • Photos highlighting a side of Shanghai very different from the flashy buildings and high speed railroad stations that more commonly make the news.
  • A post on food or beer.  Or maybe both.
  • Some other things, but not totally convinced to do them yet so...
More soon.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Access to Google+ in China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to websites in China here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More]

Lately, I've been keeping track of the availability of Google+ in China.

There's been a bit of interest on the topic.  To make life simpler I will try something new and only place future updates in the space below.  I will not update earlier posts.  I will only write new posts on this topic if there is significant news (for example, complete unblocking or blocking of Google+ for an extended period of time) or I have new musings.  I will link to any such posts from here as well.

I will note updates to this post publicly.  Feel free to circle, follow, share, or whatever it is you like to call it.
          On Google+ at
          On Twitter at

Latest Google+ status updates (China Time):
  • August 3, 10 p.m. -- Google+ DNS blocked.  Google Maps, Groups, Photos, Calendar OK.  Gmail took a very long time to load but ultimately worked.   Google News is sometimes blocked, sometimes not (peculiar).  Google Documents DNS blocked.  Picasa completely blocked.
  • July 18, 4:30 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked and the block is immediate.  I also noticed that the problems with some items from seem to be browser specific.  Again, the problem doesn't appear to be caused by China's Great Firewall.
  • July 13, 9 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.  This time the block was immediate.  I've also noted that some items from do not successfully load even with the VPN turned on.  So, this specific issue doesn't appear to be caused by China's Great Firewall.  One guess is that it is due to the connection not being fast enough (but I really don't know).
  • July 12, 6 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.  This time, the block wasn't immediate but instead there was an attempt to connect that lasted over 6 minutes before a failure was indicated.  Also, while switching to a non-Chinese DNS server allows me to access Google+ there are typically a few items for each page that won't load.  For example, in my most recent experience several items from did not successfully load.
  • July 11, 2 a.m. -- Google + is DNS blocked.  First time trying Gmail took over 1 min for sign-in page to load.  2nd time (cookies cleared again) no problem.
  • July 9, 6 a.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.  Also tested Facebook -- completely blocked.
  • July 7, 11:30 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.
  • July 7, 6:45 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.
  • July 7, 3-4 p.m. -- Google+ is once again DNS blocked when using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  This time I tested on multiple browsers in two locations in Shanghai that appeared to use different local DNS servers.  The results were the same for all combinations. Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.
  • July 6, 2 a.m. -- Google+ remains DNS blocked.
Note: For more about "DNS blocking" see my first post on the issue here: "Google+ Blocked in China".

Disclaimer:  I will try to keep an eye on things but I promise no regularity to the updates, especially if the situation seems to stabilize.  Also, I would love to check multiple other sites as well but currently it would be too time consuming.  For a variety of reasons, Google+ seems to be the most interesting site at the moment to keep a close eye on.  Normally when I am online, I use a VPN so I don't have to worry about any sites being blocked by China's Great Firewall.  And yes, my VPN has been working fine lately, but that's another story.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Games Continue, Google+ Accessible From China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

2 previous updates are at end of this post.]

At around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, I was able to access Google+ from Shanghai, China while using a local DNS server.  This is definitely a change from my most recent previous attempts when I could not connect (see here).  So, as of now Google+ is not blocked in China.

I should note that the first time I tried tonight I was not able to connect at all.  I then tested some of Google's other services and noticed some peculiar issues while trying to get to the US based Google Search site.  In short, I was being directed to different parts of Google after entering, even after clearing the cookies in the Internet browser.  I'll share more on that later if it continues as I'm not sure what to make of it.

Regardless, after a period of time I was able to access Google+, even after clearing cookies.  I repeated this several times on different browsers without problem.

Was the earlier "block" just technical difficulties?  Is China's Great Firewall playing games?  Did Google complain to China and somehow convince them to "resolve" the DNS issue (see here for more links to learn more about DNS)?

I don't know.  I'll explore more later.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 2:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Baidu, Microsoft Deal Could Significantly Impact Google in China

There is recent news that Baidu and Bing have made a deal that could have a lot of ramifications for Internet search services in China.  Bloomberg reports:
"The agreement will let Baidu users see English search results generated by the U.S. company’s Bing technology to users in China, Viola Wang, a spokeswoman at Microsoft’s MSN venture in China, said by phone today. A service jointly offered by the companies will start this year, Baidu said in an e-mailed statement today."
This could be especially bad news for Google Search in China for two reasons in particular.

1.  Now there is competition for Google Search in its perceived strength from a Chinese company

As I point out here in a post about a Chinese person's thoughts about Google's challenges in China, it is not uncommon for some in China to use both Baidu and Google.  One common reason for this behavior is the perception that Baidu is better for seeking material that's in Chinese and Google is better for seeking material that's in English or outside of China.

However, if Baidu is able to provide (and market) a significantly improved service for non-Chinese searches, people who use Baidu for Chinese searches may be less likely to also use Google Search.  Even if Google Search is perceived as better than what Baidu can offer with Bing, the difference may no longer be great enough to motivate people to switch between search services depending on their needs.

2.  Increased likelihood of Google Search being fully blocked in China

Google Search currently redirects searches in China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it does not have to self-censor (as it used to before the service was redirected) per the rules of the Chinese government for China-based search services.  In short, the Chinese government now censors the service itself by blocking "bad" search terms and pages with "bad" links without entirely blocking Google Search.  Google Search may have avoided YouTube's fate of being entirely blocked at least in part because the Chinese government may recognize that a significant number of people in China, both in the business and academic worlds, have a critical need for what Google Search can offer.  Like the case I made here with Google Maps, no Chinese company's service can take its place.

However, now the Chinese government may believe that Baidu, through its partnership with Bing, will be able to meet China's non-local search needs.  While some in China would likely complain if Google Search were to be entirely blocked, the Chinese government may simply tell them that Baidu is able to meet their needs and that Google Search will be welcomed back if it agrees to self-censor as the Chinese government wants.

Not only would fully blocking Google Search mean that China's Great Firewall need not worry about selectively blocking Google Search (presumably more complex to carry out than a complete block) but it would likely cause increased online traffic (business) to be directed towards Baidu, a Chinese company.  These are both things the Chinese government likely wants.

As I mentioned here earlier, I think it can be for the net good for the Chinese people to be better connected to the outside world, even when sacrifices for censorship need to be made.  From that perspective, I think the news about the deal between Microsoft and Baidu is positive.  People in China will be more exposed to world-class options for finding and discovering material outside of China.  However, if it comes at the cost of Google Search not being available in China, then I'm not sure the Chinese people will have made any significant gains in that respect.

We'll just have to see what happens.

Google+ Now DNS Blocked in China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

4 previous updates are at end of this post.]

As of about 9:30pm, Tuesday, July 5 in Shanghai, China my experience accessing Google+ has changed.

At the moment, when I try to access Google+ using a local DNS server I am not able to connect.  Once, I was able to get to the login page, however I was not able to get any further.  Other times, I couldn't even get to the home page at  I waited for over a minutes on several occasions with no success.  Normally, the browser would indicate it could not connect and stopped showing any activity.

I was, however, able to access my Gmail account at the time.

When I switched to a non-local DNS server I was then able to access Google+.

So, at the moment it appears that Google+ is DNS blocked, at least for the local DNS server I tested.  As I mentioned before, this is one of the easier blocking methods to get around.  However, many in China may not be aware that their inability to connect to Google+ could be resolved by changing their DNS server (and some won't realize there is any issue if they are already using a functioning non-Chinese DNS server).

For more information on my most recent previous experience accessing Google+ from China see here - at that time I could access Google+ though a local DNS server but it was much slower than using a non-local DNS server.  For my first experience and more information about blocking through DNS see here.

I'll check again in a few hours and provide another update

UPDATE 1: As of 2am, Wednesday, July 6 the situation remains as above.  I cannot access Google+ using a local DNS server but can using a non-Chinese one.

UPDATE 2:  Around 11:30pm on July 6, I was able to access Google+ while using a local DNS server.  More here.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE 3: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 4:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

More Bridge Adventures

In an earlier pair of posts I presented a variety of photos regarding the sign seen here:

sign with slash through a person on a bike with an arrow below the bike pointing to the left

placed at the entrance to a ramp for crossing this bridge in Chengdu, Sichuan province:

bridge crossing a road

The first post more fully describing the scene is here.  The second post with readers' very insightful & creative thoughts on the meaning of the sign, some additional clues, and the final "answer" is here.

So as not to give away the answer to the meaning of the sign to those who haven't yet read the posts, I'll simply say that many people, either in China or outside, were not able to figure out the meaning of the sign on their first try and that the message was being ignored, misunderstood, or not noticed by a number of people on the bridge itself.  A Chinese reader who now lives in the US had her own views on the situation:
"who, of chinese origin, would look at signs! That's where u americans get lost! u actually read them!!!

And take it from an American Chinese (sort of), this is the honest truth. The Chinese don't care about traffic rules or any other kind of rules, as much as the Americans. Just look at the way they cross the street, you think they haven't seen the traffic lights?"
I'll agree with the reader that pedestrians in China are typically more "free" in how they cross roads.  But why this is the case and a discussion of other differences in "road behavior" is a topic I'll save for another day, or year.  On the side, I've noticed some significant regional differences within both the US and China so I think comparing the entire countries can obscure some potentially interesting issues.

I also mentioned in the earlier post that the sign touches on the the design challenge of when it may be best to use a "do" or "do not" sign to express a message.  Since the ramps were apparently designed for a very specific use, a "do" sign may have been more effective.

Regardless, I saw no evidence that people would interpret the above sign as implying driving a car across the bridge is permissible.  There weren't any "no cars" signs but it may have been felt that such a sign was not needed since it would already be obvious to drivers.

However, someone did drive their car across a similar bridge in Kunming, Yunnan province.  This feat is all the more spectacular since there was no dedicated ramp and they drove up and down stairs clearly intended for pedestrians.   The video is a bit fuzzy, but from what I can tell these are a common design of stairs that have narrow and steep ramps on either side to wheel up or down bikes.  Most bridges I've seen in China are like this one and don't have separate ramps and stairs like the bridges I saw in Chengdu.  Here's the video of the determined driver:

According to a post on the Wall Street Journal's "China Realtime Report" here, the driver had been stuck in traffic and used the bridge to make a U-turn.  I've experienced my fair share of seemingly impossible-to-resolve traffic jams in China.  Once in Shenzhen I got out of the taxi to walk the rest of the way.  Another time in Xian the taxi driver made use of a bike path to turn around and find another route.  And once outside of Shijiazhuang a bus driver decided to get particularly creative and took a route that turned an easy two hour trip into a five hour adventure with moments I thought the bus was going to fall on its side (the roads were clearly not made for large buses).

So, I can somewhat empathize with the presumably frustrated driver although I don't condone his action.  Though, to be fair I can't see what, if any, signs were posted.  Of course, according to the reader above that wouldn't have mattered.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Google+ Now Not Blocked in China but Slowed Due to DNS

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

5 previous updates are at end of this post.]

There's been a lot swirling about Google+ in China and whether it is blocked.  Recently, some reports have stated that Google+ is not in fact blocked in China.  For example, see Steven Millward's post on Penn Olson here, Jessica Colwell's piece on Shanghaiist here, and a commentary on them and other reports by Edmund Downie on Foreign Policy's blog here.

However, none of the pieces touched on what I think is a key aspect -- the impact of simply changing the DNS server.  This is something anyone in China with access to the Internet/Network settings on their device can easily do (although many don't know about it).   I already discussed the issue of DNS in my previous post here.  I'll now provide a quick recap and update.

Around 5am (China Time) Friday, July 1:

As reported before (again, here), my experience in Shanghai was that Google+ was indeed blocked.  It is possible if I had waited much longer eventually I would have gotten through as others later reported.  It is possible the situation was different when I did my testing early in the morning.  All I can say is that I waited a minute or so without success.

However, if I switched from using the local default DNS server to which I was connected to one outside of China (that I've found reliable in the past) then the Google+ entry pages were readily and quickly available.  To be clear, this was without using a VPN or applying any other "tricks" to get through China's Great Firewall.  I only changed my DNS settings.   I was not able to check "inside" Google+ since I didn't have an invite at the time.

8:30pm Friday, July 1:

Earlier today I received an invite.  Even using a local DNS server I was able to log in and use Google+.  However, as others have reported pages could take an extended amount of time to load (maybe 5-10 seconds) or I needed to play around (click on several different links first) for them to open.  Not an entirely smooth experience, but not completely blocked either.

Again, if I switched to to a non local DNS server the experience markedly improved and there were no apparent issues.   I dare say it felt "normal".

Quick Thoughts:

During the morning's experience I wondered if my inability to access Google+ through a local DNS server was simply an issue of DNS propagation.  In short, it takes time for information about how to connect to a new website address to spread to networks around the world.  Maybe it was taking longer for it to reach China (or they had to first "review" it).  However, now the Google+ address has clearly been propagated, otherwise there would be no access to the service using a local DNS.

Now the problem is clearly an issue of slow access, not complete blocking.  Since switching to a non-local DNS server markedly improves the speed, the problem seems to be related to China's DNS servers (or at least the ones I and some others have tried).  Importantly, given the pattern of results it would seem that Google can't be blamed for the current slow access in China (as some in China may try to do).

As James Fallows has pointed out before (see here), there are many ways that China's Great Firewall can go about its business.  What appears to be happening to Google+ is the result of one of the more tame and easily managed methods the Great Firewall can use to interfere with websites.

It may be a case of the Chinese government wanting to dissuade users from adopting Google+ but not wanting to fully block it (at least not yet).  They also may be simply waiting for some "bad" material to appear on it before taking stronger steps.

We'll see.

Added note: The slowness of Google+ in China may be related to a more general, and curious, slowing of foreign sites that has been noted by some (including me at times in the past).  I did not make a direct comparison of Google+ vs other foreign sites and how they respond to changes in the DNS server so I am not sure.  Regardless of whether the slowing is specific to Google or not, it still appears to be a DNS issue.

UPDATE:  Around 9:30 pm on July 5, I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  See here for more:

UPDATE 2:  Around 2am on July 6, the situation remains the same.  I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  However, as before, after switching to a non-Chinese DNS server I could access Google+.

UPDATE 3:  Around 11:30pm on July 6, I was able to access Google+ while using a local DNS server.  More here.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE 4: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 5:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Different Obstacles in China for Google and Facebook

In my post "Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand" I highlighted that Facebook stands apart from Chinese social-networking sites in its ability to meet a key need & desire for many in China: connecting with the world.  I felt that Facebook could serve a positive role, both for China and the world, even given the fact that it would likely have to censor material on its site as required by the Chinese government.

So this clearly means that I think Google Search made a mistake in not keeping a censored version of its service in China, right?

Not necessarily.

On the issue of needing to self-censor Facebook and Google Search are different.

Last year, Google decided to redirect its search service in Mainland China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it would no longer be required to censor per the rules of the Chinese government (although it does presumably now "censor" according to the far less strict requirements in Hong Kong).  At that point China essentially took over the active duties of censoring the site.  China can block individual search requests or block individual pages of results depending on the content.  The experience one can having using Google Search in China can vary depending on the Great Firewall's apparent mood of the day, but essentially a user in China can go to Google Search, enter a "bad" search term, be "blocked", return to the search page (sometimes there may be a delay before the page is accessible), and then do something else.

In short, it is possible for China's Great Firewall to block "bad" things on Google Search without entirely stopping someone from using it.

However, if Facebook takes a stand to not censor material according to the rules of the Chinese government then there's no way for them to operate in a similar fashion.  Imagine if China reviews every incoming page from Facebook and only blocks pages that include "bad" material.  What if the news feed on a person's homepage includes a "bad" link that has been posted by a friend? China would block the page and that's it.  The person can't use Facebook at all.

As Facebook is currently designed there is likely now no way for it to be practically available in China unless Facebook itself censors material.  However, there may be hope that any censorship requirements for Facebook may not be as draconian as some may imagine.  A recent article by Loretta Chao in the Wall Street Journal that provides an overview of the competition between various Chinese social-networking sites (see here) touches on this:
"Chinese websites, including Sina, are required to police themselves to keep their government-issued operational licenses, a costly task involving dozens of employees who monitor the sites around the clock.

Although Sina is known for its heated discussions, at times over controversial issues such as local government corruption and soaring property prices, most talk on the site isn't political. When sensitive topics arise, the company can be creative in limiting conversation without cutting it off altogether—for example, by blocking searches of sensitive keywords but not stopping people from publishing them on their own microblogs."
Facebook may be able to allow similar "freedoms".  Although, it should be noted that as a foreign company they may be held to stricter standards than local companies for a variety of reasons.  As I've noted before regarding Google (see here), life is not always "fair" in China.

The only way for Facebook to take Google Search's route of not censoring themselves would be for Facebook to massively redesign its service.  Since China would still attempt to censor parts of the site, Facebook would have to ask itself whether it would be worth it.  For Google Search it was more simple.  Not censoring only meant less, not more, work for them since no fundamental changes to the design of the service were required (whether taking this route has led to more "interference" for Google's services in China is another issue).

This is why holding Google Search and Facebook to different expectations for self-censorship in China can be reasonable.  If China completely blocked Google Search then I would hope it would self-censor for reasons similar to those I've outlined for Facebook.  [Added note: Yes, I realize Google tried this once before and decided that it wasn't working for them.  Whether they should try again (if it's the only option) partly depends on the exact issues that previously caused them to stop self-censoring per China's rules.  My point is simply that a censored Google would be better for people in China than no Google.  Whether it is practical for Google to do so (China may not apply censorship rules consistently or fairly to Google) is another issue.]

The impact of the different situations faced by Google Search and Facebook relates to another issue Google is now facing: maintaining the operation of Google Maps in China.  As I previously discussed in my comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Map (see here), I think there are signs that Google Maps is strongly positioned in China and this may be why they're reportedly willing to form a joint venture with a Chinese company to meet new regulations.  In this case, there is presumably no option to offer Google Maps in China by redirecting traffic to servers in Hong Kong -- China would simply block the entire site.

There is also much talk about Google's new offerings in Google+.  See here for an in-depth overview by Steven Levy on and here for a piece by Ben Parr on Mashable.  Earlier today, I noted (see here) that at the time the entry portal to the service appeared to be blocked in China due to DNS issues that could be easily "fixed".  Later, the Shanghaiist reported (see here) that the service could be accessed in China but was very slow.  Regardless, Google+ will likely face it's own particular challenges if it wants to operate in China.

I feel that Facebook, Google, and other companies who can help Chinese people connect with the world all should do their best to have a presence in China.  They can all offer something special for people in China, each in their own way.  Depending on their services they may have to make different sacrifices to do so, but in many cases they will be worth it for the companies, their customers, and their users.

Google+ Blocked in China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

7 previous updates are at end of this post.]

TechCrunch is reporting that the new service Google+ is already blocked in China:
"That didn’t take long. Tons of people haven’t even gained access to the Google+ field trial yet, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese authorities from blocking Google’s brand new social networking project, reports Ren Media.

Indeed, Just Ping and the website both confirm that is not accessible from mainland China."
I just checked from Shanghai, China and it is indeed blocked.  But there are many ways that Internet sites can be blocked in China and this appears to be a case of DNS (Domain Name System) tampering.  This is one of the easiest forms of blocking to get around.  If you're not familiar with China's Great Firewall see here and if your not familiar with DNS see here.  For more details on DNS tampering in China, sometimes referred to as the "Great DNS Wall of China", see here and this paper by a group at NYU here.

As long I wasn't using a local DNS server (which is easy to switch) I was able to go to Google+ and explore it with not apparent problems.

Here is the Google+ home page as seen in China using a "good" DNS server:

Here is the login page:

Here I'm being told it's just a field trial but I can leave an email address for them to contact me later:

And here is where I can provide my contact information:

Unfortunately, I can't test whether the actual service is similarly blocked only through DNS tampering since I don't have an invite.

Does this get me one?

UPDATE: I've received an invite.  I'll do another post if I notice anything curious specific to access in China.

UPDATE 2:  Google+ now not blocked and I have full access.  There are still DNS issues, though.  See here for details on my latest experience: 

UPDATE 3:  Around 9:30 pm on July 5, I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  See here for more:

UPDATE 4:  Around 2am on July 6, the situation remains the same.  I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  However, as before, after switching to a non-Chinese DNS server I could access Google+.

UPDATE 5:  Around 11:30pm on July 6, I was able to access Google+ while using a local DNS server.  More here.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE 6: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 7:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

China's Great Firewall Helping Chinese Companies Get American Business

Warner Bros. Entertainment's joint venture in China has reportedly made a deal with Youku, sometimes referred to as the "YouTube of China".  Reuters reports:
"Under a three-year agreement with Warner Bros, Youku will add between 400 to 450 Warner Bros movies to its Youku Premium library.

"People are increasingly willing to pay for high quality content, and we take the growth of Youku Premium as a sign that the market is improving for paid services," Dele Liu, Youku's chief financial officer, said in a statement."
Why would Warner Bros. make a deal with Youku instead of say... YouTube?  Well, one reason probably of high importance is that YouTube is currently blocked in China.  Pretty simple.

So, from an American perspective is the news about Warner Bros. new deal good because an American company can further profit in China?  Is it good because possibly more content from the US will be seen in China?

Or is it bad because Warner Bros. is presumably helping the business of a Chinese company that heavily censors its material?

Will Warner Bros. receive as much backlash for this deal as YouTube would if it were to announce that it planned to heavily censor in China so that it could conduct business there?

What's the difference?

Just something to ponder.

Note: I can't be positive that YouTube agreeing to censor would lead to it being available in China and raise the possibility for the sake of making a point.

Update:  Regarding the statement "Warner Bros. is presumably helping the business of a Chinese company" there is an interesting update in the Reuters article:
"Youku shares up 15 pct on NYSE, among top gainers"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Starfish for Lunch

I will soon have some some follow-up pieces for my posts "Google Maps and Baidu Map in China" and "Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand".  I'd like to point out that I made some updates for purposes of clarification in the Facebook post to the section now titled "Censorship and Public Opinion Elsewhere".  It's worth checking out the section if you read the post (here) this past weekend (June 25/26) or earlier.

In the meantime, I've received some requests for food photos (seems some readers are foodies) so I'll take a break of sorts and share a scene I encountered in Qingdao, Shandong province:

cart with food to grill and starfishes
Food cart in Qingdao

At the cart in the photo you could get all sorts of grilled goodies, including the featured item which was squid.  But your eyes may have been drawn to a more conspicuous item available for eating -- starfish.

Later, after some deliberation I found this in my hand:

holding a starfish
A dead starfish ready for eating.

After getting some instruction on how to eat it I dug in.  Basically, the underside of the arms easily open up and there is a orangish clumpy material you can suck or scoop out.  I don't know how to describe the taste other than it is very "sea-ish".

For one who has grown up in the US, China offers many new eating adventures.  One trick I sometimes use when I require some extra fortitude is to just not think too much about what I'm eating.  In this case, when I could no longer resist thinking I recalled some highschool biology from long ago and wondered if I was eating starfish gonads.

According to some online sources, including this one, I now believe I was mainly eating digestive glands.  I think that's an improvement, no?

Regardless, digestive glands weren't my thing.  After giving it a solid try with a couple of arms I decided to call it quits -- too salty for my tastes.  I then gave it a proper burial in the nearby Qingdao Bay.  If you want to try some yourself just go to Qingdao.  I saw them for sale in quite a few locations.

OK foodies, I hope that appeases you for a bit.

Back to other topics soon.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand

Recently, there's been much speculation about Facebook possibly entering or, depending on how you look at it, re-entering China.  Facebook was once available in China but for the past year it has been blocked and inaccessible through normal means.  It can be accessed by breaking through China's Great Firewall, but many in China don't make such efforts for a variety of reasons (for more on how the Great Firewall works see here).  In short, being blocked is still very bad for an online business in China.  Now, Facebook is reportedly considering creating a China-specific version of its services, possibly in partnership with a Chinese company, that would meet local regulations and therefore be more available to Chinese citizens (for one earlier overview of the speculation see here).

It's a complex topic with many angles to consider.  Much has already been written.  I'd like to contribute some of my own perspectives, at least some of which I haven't seen presented elsewhere, that in part stem from my work as a user experience researcher in the technology domain in China.

In short, I strongly believe Facebook should come to China.  Not only do I think Facebook has much to gain from it, but so do the Chinese people.

I'll cover how Facebook can uniquely meet some key needs and desires in China, discuss why having to build a China-specific version of Facebook could be a blessing-in-disguise, and share some thoughts on the impact a China-specific service could have for Facebook in the US.  Much of what I write may in one way or another pertain to companies such as Microsoft or Google as well, but I will couch it specifically in terms of Facebook given the possibility of them making a "fresh" start in China.

But first, I'd like to introduce you to four young Chinese I met in very different parts of China.  The names are made-up.  The stories are very real.  And they matter.

Four Youth in China

Looking for a way out.

I met Zhao Yu at a basketball court in a university in Zigong, Sichuan province, the same city featured in my recent piece comparing Google Maps and Baidu Map in China (see here).

Zhao Yu is frustrated.  Very frustrated.  He feels that he is caught in a system that has already judged and labeled him for life.

He had little choice over his college or his major and he is satisfied with neither.  He would like to switch to another major but doing so would be extremely difficult -- not uncommon in universities in China.  He feels his school is not providing him an education that will help him succeed in life.  Furthermore, he doesn't believe it is very well regarded and is concerned that he'll be forever labeled by his college degree, regardless of his abilities.

In his own words, he feels "crushed" by the system around him.  Yes, he believes China has made great strides.  Yes, his life is probably better than his parents at his age.  But he's not satisfied with his lot -- it doesn't feel fair.  To him, the only hope he has is to break out.  His dream is to study abroad. Whether it is education or work experience, he believes that other countries offer him the opportunity to achieve his dreams.

What do the foreigners really think?

I met Zhang Li at a university in Tianjin after I noticed an student recruitment event held by Kaixin, one of the leading social network sites in China.  We talked about a variety of issues and eventually I broached the topic of Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist and winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize who is now held in China as a political prisoner.  She vaguely knew about him, although she only knew part of his name and some very general facts about the Peace Prize.

While I was very interested to hear her thoughts on Liu Xiaobo, what most caught my attention was her strong interest to hear my own views.  When I expressed some thoughts on freedom of speech she said she sympathized with speech being restricted in China because "Chinese are too emotional and people say irrational things" -- something I've heard said by a number of college students across China.  When I asked her why people in Hong Kong are able to enjoy such freedoms with no apparent problem she became puzzled.  She had never thought about it before and had no reply.

There was another fascinating moment while we were discussing how she learned about Liu Xiaobo.  In the middle of the conversation she paused for a while.  Then, as she gazed into the distance she thoughtfully said, "if this guy is in jail, there must be others."

I have something to tell you.

I met Fan Suhong on a nearly 3 hour train ride from Laibin to Nanning in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  I was standing in the aisle because there were no seats available.  Initially, she and her friends were standing in another section of the rail car, but I later noticed she was standing just to my side.  I was very confident she wanted to speak to me.  However, I just stood there to see if her desire to speak was strong enough to initiate the conversation herself.

It was.  And soon I was asking her about her life at a college in Nanning, where she was returning after a trip to visit her family during a short holiday.  During a pause in the conversation, she conspicuously flipped though pictures on her mobile phone.  It was clear she hoped I would ask her about the photos.  Again, I patiently waited to see if she would take the first step.

She did.  As we looked though her photos she was particularly interested in showing me some from her dormitory room including her roommates.  Very quickly, I noticed something special.  In China, it can be very typical to see girls walking arm in arm, holding hands, or interacting in other ways that would seem a bit too close or physical for friends in places such as the US.  But the photos of one of her roommates in particular suggested something much more than a simple friendship.  I looked at Fan Suhong and had no doubt she was hoping I would ask her a question.  Again, I waited to see if she would broach the topic herself.

She did.  She finally said very matter-of-factly, "I'm lesbian."  We then had a deep discussion of her current situation.  For example, she found her friends supportive, and even some teachers, but she didn't dare tell her parents.  What would she do about her relationship in the future?  She didn't know (see here for an article written by Chinese college students about lesbians in China "seeking refuge" in other countries).

This wasn't the first time for a young lady to proactively tell me she was a lesbian.  I've spoken to an American female who does some research similar to mine who has also noted that several females opened up to her in a very similar fashion.  Why?

Feeling safe to share.

Huang Beiping lives and works in Xian, Shaanxi province.  Near the end of an extensive discussion I had with him he shared some of his personal views about relationships in China.  He told me I was the first person to hear these thoughts of his.  He had never told his best friends, his close brother, or his parents.  I asked him why he told me.  Very emphatically while pointing his finger at me with every word he said, "You won't judge me."  As he described it, he couldn't share certain views that were atypical in China without fear of negative consequences for being labeled as "different".  However, he felt that foreigners were, in his own words, more open-minded and accepting of different viewpoints.  For this reason, he enjoyed opportunities in his work when he was able to interact with people from abroad.

A Common Theme

The four Chinese I've introduced are very different people from very different parts of China.  Each with their own dreams, yet all in their own way treasuring the opportunity or desiring to connect with the world outside of China.  These are just snapshots of the many youth in China, all with their own stories to tell.

While there are many differences that can be found in youth in China, there are many who share the desire to connect with the world outside.  However, what is exactly being sought after and why it's being sought may not be identical.  For some youth it is related to their growing personal connections to the international world, whether due to their studies or work.  For others it may be about connecting with people who are "outside" of their community and about whom they needn't worry or care about being judged.  For some it is about feeling like they are part of a global community, that they can see their passions and dreams are shared by others -- whether that means expressing a viewpoint or knowing that their favorite brand is also beloved by Americans.

Meeting these needs and desires isn't likely going to be achieved by a single design solution in a social networking service.  It will take careful efforts to discover the right combination of features and services.  And Facebook is in a unique position to better create and provide them.

A Unique Offering

I pointed out in a recent post that one of the areas where Google Maps was clearly stronger than Baidu Map was in its coverage of the world outside of China (see here).

There is another aspect where Chinese companies are lacking in their coverage of the world.  Currently, no Chinese company with a social networking service has a significant number of active users globally.  Renren doesn't.  Kaixin doesn't.  Sina Weibo doesn't.

However, of course Facebook does.  This matters for two reasons in particular.

One, as I've already discussed there is a desire by many Chinese to connect with the outside world. Facebook can offer this in a way no Chinese company can now match.

The second reason has a lot to do with how things work in China.

If Facebook opens a China-dedicated service, whatever innovative things they may do there is a good chance one of their main competitors will try to copy it.  In that case, why would people switch to Facebook if it doesn't offer anything different and people are already connected to friends on other services?  However, no company in China can copy Facebook's global reach.  Of course, Facebook will benefit from designs that meet purely "local" Chinese needs.  But it is in finding innovative ways to connect people to the outside world that Facebook will be extremely distinct from local Chinese services and provide a reason for people in China to adopt it.

Some say there is already too much competition in China's market for online social networking for Facebook to now jump in.  I believe this actually works to Facebook's advantage as their competitors will be competing with each other with their China-specific offerings while Facebook will be alone in offering a China-plus-world network to join.

A Service Special to China

Much has been written about the "sacrifices" Facebook would presumably have to make because of the possible need to create a separate China-specific version of Facebook.  However, I believe this is in fact an immense opportunity for several reasons.

1.  Successful localized design

Many foreign companies in the online services or software domain have either failed or significantly struggled in China.  Competition may not always be "fair" in China (for example, see here for a Chinese person's take on Google's recent struggles), but foreign companies should be well aware of how the Chinese market works before entering.

However, "fairness" isn't the only problem.  In some cases, foreign companies' desire to maintain "global standards" has prevented them from competing with Chinese companies who provide more locally tailored solutions.  I know of teams in China who conducted research in China and had design solutions for the local market, only to be rebuffed by senior leaders abroad who didn't want to do things differently than normal.  Now, some of those companies are effectively gone.

Needing to develop a China-specific version will provide a better opportunity for a local team to have the freedom to be different and to do it right for China.

2.  Driving Global Innovation

Facebook is entering a critical period for its growth and future.  Obviously, it has found much success and is the envy of many other companies.  But, this is also a time where some companies become so successful or large that further innovation becomes stilted, sometimes due to fearing changing what has worked in the past.

Having a distinct site that focuses on China will allow a new breed of innovation to appear with less risk to Facebook globally.  Often, very successful design localized for a particular market will find uses in other markets, even if used in a different manner or for different reasons.

In short, come to China.  Innovate and experiment.  Inspire the rest of your company.

3.  Respect

For many Chinese, gaining respect is very important.  And many Chinese feel that the world doesn't respect China.

A China-specific Facebook, if designed and marketed correctly, could indicate that Facebook has an immense amount of respect for China and create a strong bond with many Chinese users.  It will show Facebook cares.

4.  Good for China

Some Chinese have no problems buying fake international products in part because they don't see any need to spend what little money they have to buy the real version just so some already rich foreigner can add to their bank account.  Yes, Facebook is largely free for its users, but there is no doubt that it is providing the service to make profits.  Some Chinese simply want to use something "Made in China".

By having a China-specific version that's made in China, Facebook can better communicate that its profits and success will be benefiting China, whether through new jobs created, supporting local causes, etc.  It would be more challenging to convince people of this if Facebook was using a generic version controlled by far away California.

Censorship & Public Opinion Elsewhere

Many have written about the PR problems and resistance Facebook could face in places such as the US if they enter China, particularly regarding censorship and surveillance (for one example, see here).  I'm not going to get deeply into how Facebook could manage its global PR, but I'll cover a couple of issues.

For one, Facebook already censors in other markets.  So does Google.  So does Microsoft.  See here for an in-depth perspective by The Brookings Institution on the impact companies such as Facebook and Google and the rules of various countries have on free speech around the world.  It highlights how challenging it can be to define what is truly free and uncensored.  Of course, the censorship may not be to the extent that occurs in China and people may prefer giving it a different name but there is material that is blocked in many countries around the world.

Companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc. probably don't think it's always to their advantage to highlight that they censor, whether it is in Germany, Italy, Turkey, or yes, even in the US.  But, presented in the right way, it may be possible for Facebook to make an important point to potential critics.  Regardless of some degree of censorship, many countries still have a flourishing online community.  The same is true in its own way in China.

While Facebook may not want to highlight this as it approaches the Chinese government for a license, it is simply impossible to completely censor the internet.  Certainly censorship in China has had an impact, yet many Chinese are very savvy in finding creative ways to work around censorship, whether it is using new names for blocked phrases or through other forms of indirect communication.  Facebook can completely follow Chinese regulations and people can still find ways to share any ideas they want.

In part, Facebook needs to try to make the case to concerned people that a) operating in China without censorship is not at all an option and b) Chinese are better off with a censored Facebook than no Facebook at all.  It's easy for Americans to say Facebook should stay out of China when it in no way is a sacrifice for them.  Would they feel otherwise if they moved to China and had to operate behind the Great Firewall?  Unless they're happy to give up Facebook, I suspect many would change their minds.  And don't forget the stories of Chinese like the ones I've shared.  Facebook could play an important part in their lives.  Do people in the US really want to deny them of it just because the rules of the Chinese government are seen as too restrictive?  I'm not suggesting that Facebook should necessarily raise these points in such a direct fashion.  However, the ideas behind them could be useful in formulating a campaign to convince more people that it's a net positive for Facebook to operate in China, even if it must follow Chinese laws on censorship.

Regardless, making a case like this to the public isn't easy and some public backlash in places such as America is probably inevitable.  In fact, there may even be push back from the US Government (see here for a perspective from the Wall Street Journal).  As long as it doesn't significantly impact their global operations, I have one word if that occurs:  Good!

Having a few tussles with the US Government could be played by Facebook to its advantage in China.  As I discussed in an earlier post (see here), some youth in China with a very positive perception of Google had a drastic change of opinion after a speech by Hillary Clinton that referenced Google while also condemning censorship in China.  In a single stroke, it became easy for Chinese to believe that Google was simply an arm of the US government.  This was not at all to Google's benefit in China.  A public dispute between Facebook and the US government would help prevent such perceptions of Facebook taking hold.

I'm definitely not saying Facebook should deliberately try to generate a negative reaction in the US.  If they can successfully make their case, then fantastic.  I'm just pointing out that if there are lemons in the US, there's lemonade they can sell in China.

And to be clear, I dream of the day when censorship is drastically reduced in China.  I would be absolutely thrilled to see China's Great Firewall vanish.  But Facebook can't come into China and change everything.  I simply believe that Facebook connecting Chinese to the outside world can be such a good thing, both for China and the world, that accepting censorship is worth it.


There are certainly many other issues for Facebook to consider before entering China.  For some other possibilities see a series of posts by Silicon Hutong here, here and here and another post by Steven Levy here.  I may address several of the issues raised by those posts and some others as well later.

Yes, I think Facebook should come to China.  Yes, I think it will be challenging.  Yes, there are risks, but the potential rewards are huge.

Facebook has something to offer that if designed and packaged correctly will be embraced by many Chinese.  This will be good for Facebook.  But more importantly this will be good for China and the rest of the world -- so they can better connect and understand each other.

I've certainly found in my own experiences in China that listening to people and respecting what they have to say can lead to some wondrous things.  But it can't happen without a way to communicate.


Added notes for clarification:

1.  Regardless of any opportunity that exists, it may not be feasible for Facebook to operate in China for a variety of reasons.  For example, the Chinese government may not be willing to allow Facebook to operate even if it agrees to censor or other concessions from Facebook may be required.  Again, see the links provided above for a number of issues not discussed in this post.

2.  The potential benefits of localized design do not necessarily mean a China-based version of Facebook would need to be very different.  For example, sometimes small changes can have a significant impact (whether in usability or perceived "localness"), and some localizations may be more focused on associated applications or services.  The nature of any potential localizations is a topic for another day.  Of course, there are also benefits to Facebook in trying to keep as universal a design as possible.

3.  I don't believe localization of services is the only way Facebook can show "respect" and that it is "good for China".  As briefly mentioned above, I believe there are other efforts that could also have an impact in these areas.

[The section "Censorship & Public Relations Elsewhere" was edited on June 6.  The edits primarily involved shifting several sentences and adding some content for clarity.  In the spirit of openness the original is here.  Also, the world "possibly" was added to the first sentence in "A Service Special to China".]