3 Things You Need to Do Before Making a China Play

Ernie Diaz

Whether you’re a programmer, developer, web entrepreneur, or an evolving combination of all three, China should be on your radar. With more than 620 million online at less than 50% penetration, China is far and away the biggest national niche of Internet users, for now and the foreseeable future.

The aspect of this new and unquestionably massive demographic that gets the most press attention is the commercial one. China saw $1.6 trillion in ecommerce turnover in 2013, and $300 billion in B2C in online sales. These figures help build momentum for the imminent IPO of Alibaba, whose Tmall property was responsible for half of the those B2C sales. Chinese consumers are becoming global consumers, and demand western quality goods and services. Increasingly, they go online to buy them.

As a slightly unfortunate result, China’s biggest search engine, Baidu, emphasizes ecommerce over information. A search for “notebook” in Mandarin on Baidu returns a slew of paid and then organic results for notebook computers and where to buy them. The same search on Google yields Wikipedia definitions and links to info about the eponymous movie on its first search engine results page.

This commercial orientation leads to the true China opportunity for web developers and programmers, and the many content providers who depend on them. There is no Chinese Khan Academy, no Ultimate Guitar Tab equivalent, no Chinese Gutenberg Project. Social networks and video sites are diverse, and those who say China’s internet is a mirror of the West’s are correct in terms of width, not depth. Go East! Hundreds of millions of users await your talent.

But first – has anyone heard about the Chinese word for opportunity also being the word for crisis? That’s open to interpretation. But there’s nothing fuzzy about the crisis lying in store for Westerners who haven’t laid the groundwork for providing the cool content China lacks.

That groundwork – regulatory compliance, hosting, and the choice of CMS – means the difference between a smooth path to a China site launch, and frantic day-too-late panic, if not an outright site block.

Regulatory Compliance

Being safe from government penalty means being inside China’s firewall, and being inside means proving you’re compliant. You don’t need a .cn for your domain, but you do need an ICP number for your site.

You can register for a .cn, but there is a formal procedure for application: business certificate, registration number, ID and signed letter, or else letter and ID for non-commercial applicant. Start the procedure here.

But think carefully before going through the trouble. You won’t get any tangible benefits in SEO or bandwidth with your .cn, and there are no branding benefits in advertising yourself as a “bonafide Chinese website”.

It’s the government you have to convince, and that starts with your ICP number, issued by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. This is also a formal procedure, no longer available online, as it once was. It is also vital for a long term online presence in China. The Bureau of Telecom Administration just announced that possession of an ICP number is a strict requirement for all content delivered in China. This does not mean that all sites without one will be instantly blocked; nothing happens that suddenly or comprehensively in China.

But it does appear that the days of hosting in Hong Kong as a work-around are drawing to a close. Besides, for commercial purposes, your website needs an ICP number for such essentials as Baidu advertisements. Dealing with the MIIT’s paperwork and extra red tap is usually best left to a trusted in-country partner. Otherwise, it’s definitely a “spending lots of time to save a little money” scenario.


The main reason to get an ICP number is to get in-country hosting. China has the world’s largest online population, combined with the world’s second-slowest internet infrastructure (take a bow, India).

Government censorship is far less of a threat to your site’s performance than peak overload, a daily threat in China. Overseas traffic is the first to get throttled when ISPs are over capacity, and Hong Kong counts as overseas in this case. On a related note, this is why you keep your China-based content featherlight using compression and HTML5 when possible.

Of course, ‘light’ content is often contrary to a site’s purpose. If your site requires rich content such as videos, you need a CDN. Besides having the biggest population, China is third in land mass. There are 137 Chinese cities with more people than Berlin, many of them in far-flung corners of the country. Imagine how many potential Khan candidates, guitar players, and free e-book lovers there are in Urumqi, a city of 4 million in western China.

Another argument for the CDN: hosting, like so much else in China, is a matter of relationships. Hosting providers will sign the service-level agreement, agree to terms of service, then think nothing of throttling your site during holiday peak demand. A good CDN provider has the leverage with data centers to make sure your number doesn’t come up.

Bottom line for hosting – loading fast is where UX begins, but it is far from a given in China. Given increasing demand, behind-the-curve infrastructure, and government fiat, hosting inside the firewall is the new normal. As for pricing, you get what you pay for. Any offers of $99 per year are likely to land your site on a subdomain of a wannabe Chinese Blogspot.


I’m not a programmer, but based on my experience and contacts I can tell you that China-based projects favor Drupal. Many brand-sensitive clients, who were sure that only a custom back-end would deliver the UX they wanted, were satisfied with the flexibility of Drupal. Drupal also has an evolving library of plug-ins that rivals WordPress, as well as relative structure control and the ability to customize where necessary.

Anyone wanting to go native and work with a Chinese CMS has two main options: Dede and Discuz. They’re both written in PHP, and run on IIS & Apache. Neither is necessary for building a Chinese website, and neither has any native advantage over western options. The only real reason to use either would be if you were building a site for Mandarin-speaking users who will be adding and managing content.

As for ecommerce, your go-to platform is Magento. Praising an open source solution like Magento on SitePoint is probably preaching to the choir. But so many companies need to be dissuaded from Hybris or Demandware and the privilege of paying huge premiums for the security of an SLA. As for a payment gateway, Alipay is best, commanding over 75% of Chinese online transactions in 2013. The international version doesn’t work for mainland transactions, but you can find a comprehensive presentation for setting it up here.


Once you’re compliant, hosted, and availed of the CMS that will serve you best, you’ll be ready to create the content that 620 million Chinese internet users want and need!

Have you had experience entering the China market? What preparation tips do you have?