Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Different Languages of China

My previous post touched on the immense variety one can find in China's places & people and how that can impact research.

One of the more obvious of China's variations can be found in language.  The official spoken language in China, Standard Chinese, is based on dialect found in the Beijing area and is commonly referred to as Mandarin or Putonghua.  While Mandarin is becoming more widespread in China, in many regions other local dialects are still commonly spoken.  These local dialects can be completely unintelligible to speakers of other dialects, including Mandarin.

One of the many examples I've seen in how this can matter for research involved a previous colleague of mine who is fluent in Mandarin.  Regardless of her native Chinese speaking skills, when we conducted a project several years ago in Wuhan, Hubei province we ran into significant language issues.  While the participants could speak Mandarin, some were far more comfortable speaking in the local Wuhan dialect.  Sometimes this lead to participants expressing frustration with the need to speak in Mandarin.  Other times it meant that people would frequently slip into the Wuhan dialect.  While the Wuhan dialect is more similar to Mandarin than many other dialects, it was not always comprehensible to my colleague -- obviously a problem for research purposes.

It's not only an issue of whether someone can speak Mandarin at an acceptable level.  If a person doesn't feel genuinely comfortable using Mandarin they may be less likely to open up and share details that could be extremely important. Choosing a dialect for an interview in China may be as simple as determining which dialect people use most.  However, for people who speak multiple dialects it may be more important to identify when they use each dialect.  If the research is focused on work-related issues, it may be better for interviews to be conducted using whatever dialect is most commonly used at work, and not what is used at home with family and friends.  Previous research has indicated that memory can be dependent both upon context and language.  Furthermore, research suggests that people who are fluent in multiple languages can exhibit different personalities and provide different answers to questions depending on the language being used.  In other words, the choice of language used in interviews could impact research results even when people are fluent in both languages.   

In a city such as Shanghai there are many people from a variety of regions, so for any research studies conducted there it may not be practical to conduct each interview in a different dialect if research participants are diverse.  For a number of research purposes it can be appropriate to only use Mandarin given that it is commonly used at work places and in social settings in Shanghai.  Such decisions depend on who and what is being researched.  However, particularly when conducting research in other cities in China which may be more homogenous and where Mandarin is less often used, including an interpreter or researcher who can speak the local dialect can be crucial.  For example, one large project I conducted at Microsoft included 5 different interpreters -- one for each of the cities we were exploring.  Although this may mean sacrificing in terms of the quality of the interpretation (finding a top-notch translator for some local dialects can be much more challenging than finding one for Mandarin), for some types of research allowing people to speak in the most appropriate language is paramount.

While Mandarin is certainly becoming more widespread in China, particularly in younger people, it may not only be a barrier for research, but prove to be entirely unusable.  Companies can't necessarily do away with needing interpreters for research work simply because they have a single Chinese-speaking researcher.  It may mean some extra-challenges in managing and conducting research projects, but it also means a better chance of making meaningful discoveries in a country that is diverse in many ways.

Language matters, a lot.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Different Colors of China

Last year while raveling with a friend in remote Mingshi, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China we came across this scene:

colored streamers on vertical sticks stuck in the ground

Neither of us had seen these "streamers on a stick" before.

Especially since my friend is Hong Kong Chinese, very well traveled, and experienced in professionally writing about China, I was curious to hear her impressions.  She strongly believed that they were for wedding ceremonies.  When I shared my very different suspicion that they were for graves she disagreed and said colors like the ones seen here would never be used this way on items related to death.

Although I recognized that my friend possessed much knowledge about China, from a research perspective I wasn't convinced she really knew the answer, particularly since she was not from this part of China.  So, when we later saw someone who appeared to be a local we asked him about the streamers on sticks.  He said they were for graves.  My friend was surprised and as we walked onwards I had the sense she wasn't entirely convinced.

Not far from there we came across another site that proved to be more compelling.  Here you can see her soaking it in:

Not only are the streamers even more brightly colored, but there are more obvious (well, more obvious to an American and Hongkonger) markers for the graves.  She was now completely convinced.

This is one of the many examples of China's diversity.   Often, what you find in Shanghai or Hong Kong will not apply in other places in China -- even when you're looking at something so seemingly fundamental as associations for colors.  This has an immense impact on how to best conduct research in China -- whether for driving the design of technology or developing effective marketing campaigns.  For example, if business goals aren't limited to a specific region in China, conducting research in multiple regions can be critical to ensuring any results will apply to the range of people being targeted.  It doesn't necessarily mean the resulting product, marketing campaign, etc. will need to be tailored to each region, but it could mean finding the best single solution that can apply to multiple regions.

It's not only just about what differs.  In some of my research, I've seen unifying threads across China and its people.  But depending on what you're looking at it may be related to factors such as region, size of the city, prosperity of the city, income level, personal interests, age, etc.  For example, I've seen some surprising similarities in people living in very different parts of China -- such as Changsha, Hunan province and Changchun, Jilin province.  However, there were other ways in which they differed that were largely related to regional issues.  Identifying these patterns and understanding them can be key to applying any findings in an effective and meaningful manner.

Finally, in the experience with the graves in Guangxi my friend had a more difficult time than I did in questioning her initial beliefs.  In part, this is likely because her cultural associations with the colors were very strong and she assumed they would apply elsewhere in China.  As an outsider I had fewer (or at least different) biases that made it easier for me to question whether I really knew the answer and also made it more likely I'd seek additional input.

This leads to another topic I'll address in an upcoming post:  How being an outsider to a culture can be advantageous for certain types of research.  In many ways it holds true for all cultures, but I have found it to be especially true in China.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bing Maps and Google Maps: The China-India Border

In my earlier post, I pointed out that both Bing Maps and Google Maps appear to explicitly indicate China's border surrounding the regions of the South China Sea and Taiwan in their China-based versions but do not do so in their US-based versions.  Leon White, who is working on his master's degree in international relations, commented on another disputed border of China that shows a similar pattern in how it is represented, but with a slight twist:
"I am currently writing my thesis on the 60 year old China-India border conflict, and the images of whole China at the end struck me as interesting...

... my main reason for writing is to highlight the differences in how these different mapping services portray the disputed border between China and India. The area most sensitive to China is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as Southern Tibet. China has not exercised control over this area since it briefly advanced to its own claim lines in the border war of 1962 - the current Line of Actual Control (LAC) runs along the controversial McMahon Line, which connects Bhutan to Myanmar starting just north of Tawang town, roughly at the north-east point of the roughly rectangular shape of Bhutan.

All of these mapping services show the border according to China's claim, i.e. at the SOUTH-east point of Bhutan's border:,92.60376&spn=7.979828,14.27124&z=7&brcurrent=3,0x3761317e9c4a2cc1:0x1fc12c628413da99,1%3B5,0,1,2907956&cc=&s=tpl%3ACity&sc=0

China does NOT actually control this territory, and both parties recognise it as under dispute!

Bing appears to be trying to have it both ways, according to their Indian mapping service:

Only Google Maps US, which loads sporadically for me here in Beijing with the VPN off, is honest about the border dispute. Note the second part of the dispute in the west, confused up with the whole Kashmir issue:,94.152832&spn=16.273866,28.54248&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=58.076329,114.169922&z=6

And, just for laughs, the Chinese government's official mapping service:

Because every mapping services needs a flashy splash screen. I couldn't seem to find a link function on that site, but it did kindly provide me with a little red car in the middle of Sichuan for some reason. Reshma Patil, the correspondent for the Hindustan Times in Beijing, had the following to say about this service:

Sorry for the barrage of links. I suppose the conclusions to be drawn from this are fairly obvious. In order to operate in China, you must toe the line on where the government says the borders are, even though there is no hope in hell they are getting all of that territory back, just as India will never control the Aksai Chin under dispute in the west. Most academics and even the press in China realise this, although Tawang (birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama and potential reincarnation site of the next one) is still under serious dispute."
Based on what I found before, I'm not surprised by the variations in representing the disputed border between China and India.

That Google Maps US clearly represents this border as disputed but does not do so for Taiwan or the South China Sea is worth notice.  I suspect at least part of the reason is due to how Google Maps US represents the borders for islands that have no internal international borders - for example, Taiwan, Madagascar, and Hawaii.  In short, there is nothing explicitly indicating whether islands are part of another country or independent -- for example, no country border lines around Madagascar and no dashed line to explicitly show that Hawaii is part of the US.  However, one could infer Hawaii is part of the US due to it being labeled with its state abbreviation (HI) at certain zoom levels similar to other US states.  One could also infer that Taiwan is not a part of China according to Google Maps US.  At a zoom level where China's provinces are only labeled in Chinese, Taiwan is labeled in both Chinese and English (it is peculiar that Google Maps US does not provide the names of China's provinces in English).

The details provided by Leon White regarding the disputed border between China and India brought to mind something I've been pondering recently.  What is the difference between censoring information according to government rules and providing maps of disputed regions that conform to government rules?  Both can have great impact on how people see the world around them.  I'll share some of my thoughts on this topic later.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Slowly Vanishing: Shanghai's "Old" Xiaonanmen

Frequently the news in the US about Shanghai regards its latest and greatest -- high speed rail, new skyscrapers, etc.  However, there are other sides to Shanghai that are often overlooked, even by some of the people who live there.  One such side can be found in the Xiaonanmen area of Shanghai's centrally-located "Old Town".  Its landscape is changing, though, as sections of it feel the impact of the seemingly unstoppable march of "progress".  Whatever merits the changes may have, certainly much history and culture is disappearing.  But some of it remains, for now.

With that in mind, this past weekend I visited Xiaonanmen.  In some ways it reminded me of much of what I've recently seen in many other cities in China that have undergone far less change.  In others ways it seemed to capture a spirit that is special to Shanghai.

If you can bear through the bobbling of the the following video, you'll catch some of the sounds, sights, and energy in a local street market I walked through.  Every time I watch it I see different things I want to comment on.  For now, I'll just say that it touches on aspects of the daily lives for many in China that can feel far removed from Great Firewalls and high speed trains.

And here are some photos of more people and scenes in Xiaonanmen, each with many stories to tell:

The writing in red is a Chinese character to indicate the building will be demolished

Around the fabric market

Chinese squash can be rather large

Most of this block is demolished.  Hints of the possible future in the background.

Time for a beer

Cooking food

Trying to get the recently washed cat to pose for a photo

I've recently seen a few young kids with similar haircuts

Some small scale construction -- not so typical for this area.

The chef for my outdoor street-side dinner

Partially demolished home

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google

In an earlier post I compared Google Maps and Baidu Map.  There were several key areas in which Google Maps was clearly superior even though Baidu Map has what some find to be a very visually appealing hand-drawn 3D view.  Combined with some of what I've found regarding the impressions of Google Maps held by Chinese youth I suggested that there could be a lot at play in Google Map's recent application for a license to continue operating in China.  If you didn't read the post taking a look at it here will provide more context for the following.

I've since received feedback from a few people indicating they like to use Microsoft's Bing Maps for some of their needs in China.  I'll take a look at how it stacks up to Google Maps and Baidu Map using the same metrics as before.

Here is a section of Zigong, Sichuan province, the same as used in the earlier post, in Bing Maps:

Zigong in Bing Maps

In comparison to either Google Maps or Baidu Map, Bing Maps shows very little detail for Zigong.  For example, the map shows none of the many roads in this area.

The level of detail in Bing Maps for Zigong is similar to many other places I've checked in China, including Shanghai.  While Beijing appears to have a bit more detail, including some streets, and Hong Kong is very detailed, they are not typical of other cities.  Needless to say, based on this it would seem that Bing Maps would be very limited in its usefulness in Mainland China.

However, there's an important piece of information I haven't mentioned.  The map above is from the version of Bing Maps for the US (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps US).  If you go to the version of Bing Maps for China at (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps China) you'll see a very different level of detail.  Here's a map of approximately the same area as above, but seen in Bing Maps China:

Zigong in Bing Maps China

The detail of streets at this level of zoom is obviously much better and compares to Google Maps and Baidu Map.  And unlike Baidu Map, it accurately represents the river.  In that respect Baidu Map has been outdone on its own turf by two non-Chinese companies.

To be clear, all of the examples from Google Maps in the earlier post were from the version of Google Maps for China (I will now refer to it as Google Maps China).  So, in the version for the US (I will now refer to it as Google Maps US) is the view of Zigong sparse in details similar to Bing Maps US?

Zigong in Google Maps US

Not at all.  The above view of Zigong in Google Maps US appears to be the same map as seen in Google Maps China except that English or pinyin (a way to write Chinese words using the Roman alphabet) is also included depending on which is the most appropriate (not always an easy decision, a topic for another day).

In fact, if you zoom in a bit more, you'll see that it even provides other important details in English such as those seen here:

Google Maps doesn't miss the McDonald's and KFC

Yes, indeed Zigong has a McDonald's and KFC just where the map shows.  I walked by them several times while I was in Zigong (though, there are some local specialties I'd highly recommend instead, a possible subject for a later post).  There are also several local business shown on the map as well.  I can't be sure of their accuracy but I can say that more exist than what is shown.  However, neither Baidu Map nor Bing Maps China shows a larger number of businesses in the area and neither offers any information in English.

Is everything there looking better for Google Maps US?  No.  A not-so-small street next to the KFC is missing from the map.  It's also missing from Bing Maps (the more I explore Baidu Bing Maps China and Google Maps the more it appears that at least in Zigong they are using very similar if not identical sources for street data). 

However, here is slightly overlapping section of Zigong as seen in Baidu Map:

Baidu Map captures a street missing in Bing Maps and Google Maps

The traffic light symbol at the intersection in the lower right is where KFC is located.  The road that extends diagonally up to the left is part of what is missing on Google Maps and Bing Maps China.  It seems to deserve being placed on a map and is not just some tiny side street.  I'm rather confident about that since I walked on it several months ago.  Fortunately, I also have a photo of it:

A street that most certainly exists

At another point on the road is this view:

A view of a section of Zigong

There are numerous apartment complexes and small businesses along the road including these:

More of the street in Zigong that certainly exists

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I've found mistakes or omissions in both Google Maps and Baidu Map in various locations in China, but I have not yet noticed any issues in Google Maps that equaled Baidu Map's mangling of Zigong's river.

Regardless, where I claimed Google Maps was most clearly superior to Baidu Map was in its coverage of regions outside of China.  While I shared what North America looked like in Baidu Map (reminder, mostly just grayness without any features) I didn't share a view from Google Maps because I assumed it would be obvious that it was much better.  That may not be the case anymore so to resolve any doubts here is North America as seen in Google Maps China (

North America in Google Maps China

After zooming in quite a bit more, here is a map of the city where I did my undergraduate & graduate studies long ago:

The Baltimore, Maryland area in Google Maps China

Many of the locations on the map are identified in both Chinese and English.  If people in China know of Dundalk by its Chinese name and want to find it that they can do so with Google Maps.  While some in Baltimore may scoff at the idea that people in China would ever need to do this, Dundalkers may feel otherwise.

If you zoom in more, the map is almost entirely in English.  However, my old alma mater does have its name in Chinese provided: 约翰霍普金斯大学 (I need to get that on a sweatshirt).  While Google Maps China doesn't provide the same degree of translation as found in the coverage of China by Google Maps US, its coverage of the US is clearly vastly superior to Baidu Map.

Since Bing Maps shows a very different view of China depending on whether one uses the version for the US or China, one could be particularly suspicious about how North America would appear in Bing Maps China.  Here is what it offers:

North America in Bing Maps China

That's as detailed as it gets.  Zooming in actually causes rivers such as the mighty Mississippi to disappear and for most locations the viewing area will be entirely filled with a light beige color.  There is no mention of the USA but there is a label for Washington, D.C.  It's a little more detailed than Baidu Map but not much more and still of rather limited use.  And Dundalkers you're not alone in being swiped from the face of the earth.  The rest of the world outside of China is equally lacking in detail.

There could be a variety of reasons as to why Bing Maps US and Bing Maps China are each lacking detailed coverage of areas that are offered in the other -- for example, the effort it would take to translate maps, licensing issues, etc.  I've noticed some curious patterns in the global coverage in Bing Maps US that add further intrigue to the issue (I may share these in a later post) so I'll refrain on making any bets for now.  If anyone from Microsoft would like to offer their thoughts I'd certainly be interested to hear them.  Whatever the reasons, the lack of coverage in both cases could lead to some disappointing moments for people using Bing Maps and could hurt its chances in being used by other online services (such as for global hotel reservations).

Since much of what I've shared pivots around what is inside and outside of China, I'll briefly touch on an important related issue for map services in China -- the borders of China.  Here is "China" in Bing Maps China and Google Maps China:

China in Baidu Bing Maps China

China in Google Maps China

Notice that in both there is a dashed line around the South China Sea and around Taiwan to presumably make it clear they are parts of China.  To say the least, these are both areas where any such claims China may make are under significant dispute.  The dashed lines do not appear in Google Maps US and Bing Maps US.  The China-based versions seem to indicate how both Google and Microsoft are trying meet the Chinese government's regulations for map services.

As I mentioned in another post, I think companies such as Google and Microsoft can serve an important role in better connecting the Chinese people to the outside world, helping them to better understand it, and helping the world to better understand China.  I think it can be worthwhile even if it means a significantly higher level of censorship than typically practiced or, as in the cases above, adding in some dashed lines. 

As I mentioned in yet another post, Microsoft Bing's new partnership with Baidu may be of value in this regards (while also possibly putting Google Search in more peril of being blocked).  However, in its current form Bing Maps China won't greatly help in achieving any such lofty goals.

Of the map services in China I've reviewed, only Google Maps effectively offers people in China a detailed view of the US and people in the US a detailed view of China.  This isn't only good for helping people learn more about the world, but also good for Google's business.

Again, Google's strength in its map services in China may mean it will face some special challenges.  For now, both Google and Microsoft continue to wait to see if licenses will be granted for their map services in China.  How that plays out may shed some light on the differences between them. 

Regardless, based on what I've seen it's not hard to imagine what Baidu is hoping for.

Disclosure:  I worked at Microsoft China in the past.  My work did not cover Bing Maps.

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".