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BUSINESS & TECH

Doing Business in China: Keeping Web Access Calls for Virtual Mindset

By Doug Young

China’s unusual relationship with the internet takes center stage in this week’s column, as we zoom in on the very real issue of how businesses can maintain access to the information they need in a land where sometimes such access is problematic. The answer, as any China old-timer knows, lies in three magic letters: VPN, or virtual private networks.

As someone who watched the internet grow up in China, I can say with conviction that the online world has changed this society like no other. From days when even the most basic forms of staying in touch were off limits to many, the internet has been a huge equalizer. Just this week while having lunch with one of my former students, she marveled at how anyone ever could have gotten along without the hugely popular WeChat mobile messaging service, which makes staying in touch with just about anyone in China quite easy.

But in a land where the government likes to strongly guide the public discourse, the internet sometimes can be a bit too free — especially the parts based on servers outside the country. VPNs seem to offer a sort of compromise in the equation, allowing technically savvy people within China to access sites like Facebook, Twitter and major news services like Reuters and Bloomberg that are otherwise inaccessible to the average web surfer.

The issue was on rare display in the national spotlight just a week ago, when a popular service called Green abruptly went out of business. I was personally unaware of this service or its high degree of popularity, until a number of my Chinese friends commented separately to me about the closure. That underscores one of the first lessons about VPNs, namely that they come in all shapes and sizes, but can broadly be broken down into ones targeting expats and ones aimed at Chinese, based on the language used for their interface.

Those of us in China all know the importance of VPNs, but I’m always surprised to find how little outsiders are aware of this particular issue. That fact was driven home several years ago, when I served as trip reporter for a delegation from a major U.S. foundation that had planned to make regular posts to Facebook and Twitter during their trip to Beijing and Shanghai. They were surprised when I told them about the need for VPNs, and quickly and easily set one up using a simple computer in their home office.

Within the foreign community, a good amount of VPN use is pretty much social, and I know several people who might go into serious withdrawal without their daily access to Facebook. While visiting me a couple of years ago during her summer break, my niece matter-of-factly informed me that “My life is on Facebook,” and promptly went about finding a VPN that would tide her over during her brief stay. But from a business perspective, many of the inaccessible sites are also important for conducting day-to-day functions required to simply get the job done.

Research, client contact

Many of those functions involve research and email correspondence, which often necessitate use of Google and email services like gmail, both of which are difficult or impossible to access without a VPN. A growing number of companies also rely on social media to do business, using it for everything from managing client relationships to marketing. Social media strategy has become a buzzword for just about any company with a consumer-facing product these days, making access to such sites quite important.

Among my pool of foreign contacts, nearly all use VPNs in their daily life, and especially at work. Most said they use their VPNs for research and social networking, as well as for more mundane functions like accessing offshore bank accounts and travel sites. One even commented that VPNs provide speedier access to offshore sites in general. That pretty much parallels my own experience, which sees me switching my VPN on and off throughout the day depending on which sites I’m trying to access.

The nature of these access-enabling connections basically falls into two camps. In one corner are big companies that often have their own specialized systems. In the other are smaller ones that usually have more hodgepodge networks. The situation at my one of my former employers, a major global news agency, seemed to represent the big company category. Such major companies have their own direct, high-speed communications that aren’t subject to oversight, and thus all the sites I’ve mentioned were accessible at any time from any computer within the office.

Then there are the midsized and smaller employers, where the situation becomes a bit more patchwork. In those cases, some companies decide to buy VPN access for all their employees, while others simply let their workers find their own way. A few names of services that came up during my various conversations included Astrill, 12VPN and ExpressVPN.

Surprisingly, my own search of the highest-rated VPNs turned up a crop of services I’d never heard of, led by IPVanish VPN, which was at the top of the ratings list for PCMag, CNET and TechRadar. Another highly rated service was NordVPN. But my personal favorite, based purely on name, was one called Hide My Ass, which made the list of top services for both CNET and PCMag. Several people I talked to also pointed out the need to have at least one backup behind their primary provider, because services do go down from time to time.

None of these services is very expensive, usually costing anywhere from $5 to $15 per month, depending on the level of service and length of subscription. Newbies to the China market might try to forgo the VPN at first to save some money, and because most sites do have some kind of workaround. But at the end of the day, when your favorite site suddenly becomes inaccessible for some unexplained reason, such services very well could save your company’s ass.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.

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