Chinese netizens fixing a problem on the computer

There is a lot of misinformation on the web about hosting a website in China. Information about Chinese hosting by ‘experts’ based in countries outside of China seems to be the norm.

Common misinformation I read includes things like:

  • “Baidu prefers websites to be hosted in China”
  • “Hosting in China will help improve page load speed”
  • “In China obtaining an ICP License is required to have any chance of achieving high rankings in Baidu”
  • “Your website won’t be accessible in China if you don’t host in China”

Now we all know that Baidu is the most popular search engine in China, but is this really the main reason to host in China? And are these statements even true?

In this article I will guide you through the problems with hosting your website in China. I’ll look at the pros and cons of hosting in China and actually look at if you really need to or if indeed you can host your website in China at all.

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Server location

The truth is the importance of web hosting server location in helping your site to rank in search engines such as Baidu has declined a fair bit in recent years. But what a lot of companies want is a website that loads quickly, and this is related to server location.

Web hosting server location is still one of the most important considerations when it comes to appearing to a Chinese audience within Mainland China. The reason for this is to do with the Great Firewall of China. Having to penetrate this adds time onto the load speed of a website.

For example, a typical website hosted in America might take four seconds to load. In China the worst case scenario is that the same website might take 40 seconds to load. Of course it’s likely to be less than this, but performance can be affected and therefore the website bounce rate might increase.

Lets say that the main users of the site are in Guangdong province in the south of China. Hosting at a datacentre in Hong Kong will reduce the load speed, but the Great Firewall can still add up to between 10 to 15 seconds. This is fine for most websites and businesses.

But an e-commerce platform might use lots of data and include many images. On this type of platform where users want to navigate around quickly and seamlessly, would they wait up to 19 seconds for each page to load?

By hosting at a datacentre on the Mainland it’s possible to reduce the load time to around six seconds. Of course this is the optimum situation, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Here’s why.


Mainland hosting problems

The state of the internet is rather complicated in China. There is the fact that the Chinese government wants to control the majority of the information that the majority of the public can see.

Then you have to figure in the fact that the major ISPs, unlike in the US or Europe, are unwilling to work closely together meaning that there are a limited number of peering points.

In essence the networks don’t work with each other therefore a website hosted with one network might load slowly on another network even if both are in close proximity, damaging the argument of web hosting server location and load speed times!

Then there are some practical regulations to take into account. Certain industries may be obliged to host in China to sell their services and products. Industries such as finance, tourism, medical products and education are considered sensitive and therefore subject to strict government regulation.


ICP licenses

Hosting on the Mainland obliges a website to apply for an ICP license. This has associated costs and issues on top of all the other issues mentioned so far.

An ICP Beian is mandatory for all websites hosted in China. On top of this there are industry specific licenses for industries such as news sites, publishing, education, healthcare, medicines, culture and broadcasting.

To obtain these licenses in most cases you should go through the company that is hosting the website. Below is an example of an ICP Beian on Guokr an encyclopaedia network similar to Wikipedia.

ICP Beian number on the Goukr website

With sites that incorporate e-commerce and have a shopping cart further ICP Zheng documentation is required. But to get an ICP Zheng a company must apply to the relevant government department and can’t use a local registration agent such as a web host.

Again an ICP Zheng is at the bottom of the webpage. The example below is from Baidu.

ICP Zheng number on the Baidu website

So when considering whether to host on the Mainland a company has to think about supplying the right documentation to obtain the correct licenses. Without the correct licensing a website can be blacklisted, and once this happens it’s almost impossible to have the site unblocked.


Content delivery networks

So, you have an e-commerce website currently hosted in London. You want to sell your products in China. So you find a Chinese hosting company. But of course you need English language support.

There are one or two companies that do this, but I’d never recommend them because of the terrible customer service. So to host in China you’ll have to use a Chinese language hosting company. Unless you host in Hong Kong where you can find a company with English language support. But wait, you may still have to host on the Mainland because of government regulations.

There is one other solution. You can use a content delivery network (CDN). Basically a CDN is a set of datacentres in different locations in the world that get rid of the need to have multiple hosting locations.

A website hosted in Germany can have a fast load speed in China by using a CDN. The original website is copied and saved on the multiple datacentres so that when the end users look at the website it loads faster since its coming from a closer source.

This is an excellent choice most of the time but there is a caveat in China. It’s not possible to add a website to a CDN in China unless the company has a Chinese citizen that is willing to fill out a domain registration form, which has to be submitted to the Chinese government.

There is also the danger that your website might get blacklisted just because it is on a CDN that gets blacklisted. Essentially with a CDN if one website breaks the rules of banned content, such as political content, and is blocked then all the sites on that network are blocked.


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Working with a Chinese partner

As you can see there are numerous hurdles to navigate to host a website in China. And as I’ve pointed out there are various pros and cons.

The crux for me is the fact that there are no decent hosting companies that would support a foreign company with English support to anywhere near the level that would be expected in the west.

So if you want to host your website in China the need to work with a Chinese partner is paramount.

There are plenty of decent Chinese hosting companies. But an understanding of the cultural and language differences of hosting in China is essential if a foreign company is to successfully run a website in Mainland China.

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Do you have any questions about hosting in China? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please leave a comment below.

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