I don’t have a political agenda in China. I do, however, have a business to-do list and a syllabus for the (US) college class I’m teaching. The ongoing systematic blockage and degradation of common non-political internet tools is forcing me to sharply reduce the scope of my business activities. This lack of basic business infrastructure undermines the widely accepted narrative that China is on the cusp of becoming an international commercial superpower.
Although the latest efforts to hobble internet access in China haven’t been picked up by the international media (or maybe they have and I’ve just missed the stories because I have so much trouble getting online), I’d be surprised if managers from Chongqing to New York aren’t feeling constrained by China’s restricted internet access. It’s ironic that while the international business press headlines articles asking, “is China dominating the global telecom industry?” and fretting about Huawei’s links to the PLA, they seem to be turning a blind eye to the dismal conditions facing international internet users in China’s major commercial centers.
Pundits and Chinapoligists will argue that basic email and VOIP services – which are not illegal in China — can still eventually be coaxed to connect, so they are not ACTUALLY being blocked. It just takes 4 or 5 tries, or the right time of day. Still, students and staffers who would rather not do assignments take the pokey connection as a holiday. International clients like to use Skype and email. When the services fail, cut out or become unreliable, it reflects poorly on me and my business. Services like VOIP and email are so established and robust in the rest of the world that people assume that they will also work in Shanghai – widely touted as the City of the Future.
If your firm’s future involves cloud-based computing, VoIP or web-based applications (including such basic functions and email or search), you have a new layer of due diligence and management to worry about in China. You will need back-ups, redundant channels and fall-back options. Most of all, you will have to manage the expectations of your international colleagues and clients who have grown accustomed to connecting with your website or getting a response to the emails they send.
China talks about becoming an international center for value-added services, but until average users can conduct normal communication with the rest of the world the business environment still favors low-value-added manufacturing, mining and agriculture. Without a functioning internet cloud, China is transporting itself back to the early 1990s in terms of technology. A pretty neat trick – but not the kind of indigenous technological development that the government is trumpeting.