How To Get Your Business Website Banned In China

Updated: February 15, 2011

It's no secret that the Chinese government is big on censorship. Much has been written about the Great Firewall of China, the massive infrastructure of state-owned ISPs and filters that, according to BusinessWeek, "employs more than 30,000 people to prowl Web sites, blogs and chat rooms on the lookout for offensive content." (Bloggers are even required to register with the government so that their posts can be filtered with ease!) All of this raises the question: what types of activities will get your business website banned in China?

Be Controversial

China, like other censor-prone countries, takes a dim view of controversy. While controversy is recognized as a powerful marketing strategy in the United States (advocated by Seth Godin among others) the Chinese authorities see it as dangerous and potentially unsettling. The types of websites China smiles upon tend to be neutral and "safe", offering little or nothing that would provoke strong reactions in the public. Admittedly, there is no hard-and-fast rule here about how controversial you can be. Chances are, if your controversy relates to something relatively tame (like how you're better than industry competitors) it probably wont get banned by the firewall. On the other hand, the closer your controversy is to anything of social or political importance, the more likely a ban becomes.

Reference Censored Information

Another fast way to land on China's "banned" list is to reference already-banned material. Unfortunately, that list is large and growing all the time. Google Translate maintains a hefty database of topics the Chinese government frowns upon. This list includes the obvious (Tienanmen Square, Human Rights in China, etc.) but also less blatant offenders, such as "today's society", "mass impact", "migrant workers" and even "investors." Of course, no filter is perfect, and some websites manage to squeak through China's firewall in spite of mentioning these words. Just know that including too many of them is an invitation for the filters to block your business website from the Chinese public (either permanently or temporarily.) Harvard Law maintains a gigantic list of specific websites that have been banned. Compare your site to these to get an idea of what your site looks like through China's eyes.

Criticize The Government

The international businesses that manage to succeed in the Chinese marketplace know not to criticize the government. As you'll see in the above list of banned topics, there is simply no tolerance for dissenting voices on this subject. While it's true that some businesses (namely Google) have spoken out against Chinese censorship, these are the exceptions, not the rule. What Google can get away with as a Fortune 500 juggernaut probably has no bearing on what your company can pull off. For best results, keep your company blog and other website far removed from anything pertaining to the Chinese government. Failure to do so is the fastest way to get banned. It is also arguably the fastest way to stay banned, since the authorities penalize anti-government messages more harshly than, say, gambling websites.

Explain Ways To Circumvent Censorship

As you might expect, the Chinese government has a strong interest in keeping its censorship firewall running. If there were easy and widely-known ways of getting around it, the entire system would ultimately become unsustainable and collapse. Thus, the authorities take an extremely tough stance against those who spread censorship circumvention techniques. Remember that the Chinese firewall is not just a collection of rules and filters. In addition to these techniques, there is a literal army of human beings whose sole job it is to root out things the government dislikes. So although it may seem harmless to offer tips on viewing blocked content, this one move could actually get your business website banned forever.

Offer Virtual Currencies

Chinese government filtering of the Internet doesn't just include information. It also encompasses commerce. The world saw a specific example of this in June 2009, when China banned most forms of online currency. According to CNET: "The ban is primarily aimed at "gold farming," an Internet-age phenomenon in which players in less developed countries collect and sell virtual gold (common to games like World of Warcraft) to wealthier gamers in the developed world. This enables gamers who have the means to buy virtual gold to get ahead in the games without actually having to accomplish the grunt work. The trading of virtual currency for real cash generates between $200 million and $1 billion annually, according to a 2008 survey conducted by Richard Heeks at the University of Manchester." The ban, according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Commerce, specifies that virtual currency is only permitted to be used on "virtual goods and services provided by its issuer, not real goods and services." If your business website provides any form of online currency, be sure that you are playing within the rules set forth by this recent decision.

Checking Whether You've Been Banned

How do you know and keep track of whether your business website has been banned in China? Fortunately, there are several handy (and free) tools that will tell you in a matter of moments:

  • JustPing has checkpoints inside of Hong Kong and Shanghai
  • WatchMouse has checkpoints in the same places
  • Website Pulse not only has checkpoints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, but goes a step further by conducting website connectivity tests from a server in Beijing.
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