China's Globalization Means Shrinking Web Access

President Xi Jinping is making it tougher for business travelers to use the internet.

There's no climbing this wall.

Photographer: Gary Miller/Getty Images

I wrote most of this column at the Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center in Tianjin, the giant port city (population: 15 million) a half-hour bullet-train ride southeast of Beijing. It’s a sleek aircraft-hangar of a building that’s hosting the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, what the Chinese call “summer Davos.”

That all sounds pretty modern and global and connected, doesn’t it? Technologically sophisticated, too: I arrived too late this morning (lots of traffic in Tianjin) to get a seat at the question-and-answer session with Lei Jun, the founder and chief executive officer of smartphone maker Xiaomi, so I sat in a comfy chair in one of the cafés strewn about the convention center, drinking a coffee and tapping into the conference Wi-Fi to watch live on my laptop instead.

If I wanted to use that Wi-Fi connection to reach the outside world, though, things deteriorated pretty quickly. I could search on Bing, but not Google. Sometimes my Bloomberg e-mail functioned OK, but Gmail never did. Evernote worked, Dropbox didn’t. And if I wanted to check Facebook or Twitter, or read something on a Western news site, or -- God forbid -- watch a show on Netflix, I was completely out of luck.

Such are the workings of the Great Firewall -- the Chinese government’s way of keeping the free-for-all of the internet within bounds it finds comfortable. For most people in China, I get the sense that the firewall seldom interferes with their shopping and gaming and digital socializing. For Chinese internet companies, it may even be a net positive, providing a defense against the colonization by U.S.-based internet giants that has been experienced in most of the rest of the world.

For foreigners visiting or living in China, or for Chinese citizens trying to maintain business or personal relationships outside the country, it’s a different story. This isn’t my first visit to China, but it’s the first when I've tried to keep doing my job while here, and I can testify that the Great Firewall is a gigantic pain. Lots of China-based businesspeople I’ve talked to report similar aggravation.

There are workarounds. Virtual private networks that connect users directly to servers outside the country are a necessity for those aiming to remain connected to the outside world. But while the VPN I subscribe to has worked -- slowly -- about a third of the time at my hotel in Tianjin, it’s been completely blocked at the World Economic Forum meeting.

Cellular data networks are another option for visitors. It’s easy for Chinese mobile operators to tell which users are from other countries, so non-Chinese smartphones are allowed to bypass the firewall. But cellular is slower and can be expensive. Also, the fact that Chinese cellular operators can easily identify foreigners isn’t necessarily good news; some people buy phones just for China and discard them when they leave because they’re worried about inadvertently downloading spyware.

In past years, the World Economic Forum was allowed to bypass the Great Firewall and give participants at its summer Davos meetings unfettered internet access. But with the continuing tightening of control under President Xi Jinping, and lots of Chinese citizens at the meetings, that’s apparently no longer an option.

This is pretty remarkable, when you think about it. The Annual Meeting of the New Champions, now in its 10th year, is one of China’s biggest opportunities to showcase the country to the global elite. Yet the government is now perfectly willing to deny that global elite access to Google.

This strikes me as a useful indication of how China’s current leadership sees its relationship with the rest of the world. It wants to participate in globalization, but to do so entirely on its own terms. If that means it’s a place where it’s really difficult for outsiders to do business and live their lives, well, tough.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.