<<This is part 2 of FOODragon’s complete guide to smartphones in China>>
Okay, we have inroduced the three main players in the Chinese cellular market and now it’s time we talk about the game, because the rules are different in China. There are a few thing you need to know about the Chinese realm of internet and cellular.
High Tech for Low Rates
Let’s start with the good news. If you come from a developed country you will pay much less than what you are used to pay for cellular communication services. While the cost of living in China is on the rise, the cellular rates are kept relatively low, even for China. That’s because rural China has pretty much skipped the the hard line phase of the communication revolution and many people own a cellphone but not a land line.
Smartphones prices are also relatively low in China. There are two brands worth looking into if you plan to buy a smartphone in China. One is the famous Taiwanese brand HTC and the other mainland up and comers in the global market are Huawei and ZTE (see more in part 4).
The Dark Side of the Wall
You know how through the ages China has built a Great Wall to keep its enemies out? Well, another great wall was built in the digital era only this time the enemy is any type of content the government disapproves of. Many of the world’s most popular website are on the party’s blacklist so before you enter China make sure you say goodbye properly to websites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Vimeo, Tumbler and even many of Google services. Also, tell your friends you might be less reachable online than usual. There are ways to get around that of course. The simplest one is to install a VPN program. Up until not so long ago free VPNs got the job done but lately the firewall has undergone a series of improvements and upgrades which has made it more robust, and it takes a more committed (and therefore paid) VPN service to circumvent it. To understand better the great firewall see this great infographic. If you you want to check availability of a certain website in China you can use this website to do so.
It’s not that Chinese people don’t have social media website or online videos services, it’s just that they are using the Chinese ones. They are designed specifically for the Chinese user and sometimes they are even more advanced than their foreign counterparts. If you plan to stay in China for a while you best make yourself familiar with Baidu (China’s leading search engine) Youku (Chinese Youtube), Renren (Chinese Facebook) and Weibo (Chinese Twitter), but keep in mind they are under government scrutiny at all time.
It’s worth noting that the situation is dynamic and in some areas of China the wall is higher than in others. The government also tightens and loosens the grip throughout the country as it pleases according to current events. When tension rises and there’s a crackdown even domestic websites slow down to a crawl.
If you don’t want to use a VPN (which is technically not illegal) you might want to consider opening a webmail account which is not gmail. Microsoft and Yahoo! are on better terms with the Chinese government than Google (because they have been more cooperative in adhering to local regulations) and therefore remain available also in “the dark side of the wall”. If you have basic Chinese skills or you like to play guessing games you can also try one of the local web-mail services like 163.com or 126.com.
Skype and MSN still work in China, though every now and again the government releases a statement saying it will change because their services aren’t properly registered in the Ministry of Communication and therefore illegal. Whether you plan to use the Skype on your smartphone or make calls from your laptop make sure you download the program before you enter China. It’s harder to find an installation package once you are behind the wall.
The Android Gap
Bad news for android users. Google Play (formerly known as Android Market) is only partly available in China and when you have a Chinese SIM card plugged in your phone you can only download free apps. That’s because unlike Apple, Google associate your country according to your SIM, and since Google and China aren’t on the best of terms at the moment the paying method is yet to be facilitated. The simplest way to get around that is to buy credit on the Google Play website and then logging into the store from your device using your Google account. The problem is this feature isn’t available in every country and in that case you’ll have to show more resourcefulness and connect the store via wifi with a non-Chinese SIM card (see here and here). To save yourself from much trouble, just download what you might need in advance and charge some credit to your account just in case.
If you plan to buy an android phone in China remember it will most likely be pre-installed with a Chinese ROM. Usually it only has Chinese and English, and many of the re-sellers don’t even bother installing Google Play. When you take it back home, you’ll probably need to format it and install new android so prepare yourself for that.
In China you don’t have to buy your SIM in the official store. There plenty of small shops of licensed (and sometimes not so licensed) re-sellers. If you intend to stay in China for a significant amount of time it’s better to go to an official outlet and do everything properly. If you only come for just a couple of months or less, you can check them out because sometimes they offer nice short-term deals. An official outlet will only sell SIMs of a specific carrier and it will have a small official sign outside like in the photo below: