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Running your business in China in Google Apps - NOT!

posted 24 Jan 2015, 15:59 by Peter Black   [ updated 7 Feb 2015, 17:18 ]
Before going into China, I had been vaguely aware that the Chinese government had blocked Google access but had not really paid any attention to it as I did not currently do business there - either on the ground or with Chinese individuals and firms. The relevance of this to me is that I run much my my business through Google Apps - which means this website is written in Google Sites, my calendar is Google Calendar, my contacts are Google Contacts, my email platform is Gmail and I store my documents through Google Drive.

I spent 5 nights in Hong Kong before travelling by train into Guangzhou, and had full access both at the hotel and at the Asian Financial Forum through Wi-Fi.  My back up was to turn on Mobile Data on my phone (I had not bought a Telstra data pack before leaving thinking I would be around Wi-Fi most of the time). Whilst Hong Kong has since 1997 has been a Special Administrative Territory of China, it is still regarded and operated separately similar to the way it operated when controlled by the British which means that it has all the legal conventions and protocols expected in a Westernised country - including access to Google Apps - until at least 2047 under the One Country, Two Systems principle.

Upon arriving in Guangzhou and being hosted for the day by a local firm,  we were kindly provided with very generous hospitality and access to Wi-Fi in their office. However, I quickly discovered I was not able to access any of my aforementioned Google Apps though here.    My only means of access was to turn on my mobile data on my phone which I had on international roaming through Telstra.  So am thinking that I am offline with my business for the 2 days I am in China although I was able to access sites such as the Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald.

But not to worry said the tour leader - "you can access Google through the VPN (Virtual Private Network) of the Hilton Hotel in Guangzhou".  And that was the case with email, website update and I was also able to undertake a 45 minute Google Hangout with the family back in Australia.  

In case you don't know what a VPN is, this article and diagram assist in understanding how this works - so in my case, I was effectively accessing the wider internet through the Hilton Hotel's global servers located outside China [I am the remote user in this diagram, Hilton's global servers are in Head Office and the Hilton Guangzhou is Regional Office]. [UPDATE 25/1/2015:  The Chinese government now appears to be now further restricting access through VPNs - see this Forbes Article].

Whilst I had internet access, I then out of interest Googled how many other websites are banned in China - and found there are over 2700 such banned websites, including Dropbox, Google, Twitter, Vimeo, Yahoo and YouTube.  

From a practical perspective, I then concluded that I could access my business provided I had Telstra Mobile data and/or a VPN connection [ although as at 25 January 2015, the VPN access may not be available per Forbes Article above] 

However, what about the people in China to whom I was providing business cards as shown here with all my contact details including my website, email, Google+ and Twitter details thereon - in both English and Mandarin?  These details were also all over my marketing collateral.

I then talked further with various people both on the Invest in Australia mission and at Australian Chamber of Commerce networking drinks and it appeared that there are two main applications in use in China (presumably all fully monitored by the Chinese Government and I respect their right to do that even if I may not agree with it - remember we are having similar debates in Australia about metadata access) being Tencent QQ for desktop/computer, WeChat for mobile use and Weibo as a Facebook/Twitter substitute. 

My conclusion upon appreciating the implications of all this was that I would need to reconsider my overall branding and connection strategy if I am to undertake business in China or with Chinese firms - and this is before I consider the translation of marketing collateral and websites etc.  So, if your business is in the process of transferring to cloud computing through Google Apps, this implication needs to be borne in mind.

I also concluded that the security in Google must be very good as the Chinese Government can't appear to access access it - which may be a comfort and good risk management outcome.

All in all - another very interesting series of lessons in doing business in China!

Copyright: Peter Black 2015 @PeterBlackCoach