2568436053_a9734f5d0d_zSo I am in China for a week. I will write about the wider politics of the place when my time here draws to a close, but for now I will focus on just one aspect: what China’s block on Google tells us… about our use of Google.

China blocked access to Google services before the 25th anniversary of the Tian’anmen uprising, and it seems that things have not improved since. On my laptop I can access no Google services through my web browser at all. The only thing that works is Gmail via IMAP (web interface is also blocked). Twitter and Facebook are also blocked, but I do not actually need those as urgently, or they are not as central needs. Dropbox not working is a pain, but for a week I can live without it, as I use it mostly for my own files anyway.

So I can live without Google Search, right? Indeed that’s actually the easiest part. I have added DuckDuckGo to my browser and it works fine. Bing.com is just about passable if I need it. The interesting thing here is how I have become so used to browser address bar search – after years of doing just that, going to a website for search felt really odd.

The next challenge was maps. I have used nothing but Google Maps for a good few years, so what’s the best bet for a replacement? Turns out that the search on Bing Maps is rubbish unless you use the Chinese characters. So here Apple Maps (and indeed the Maps app in Mac OS that I’d even forgotten existed) has turned out to be a fair substitute.

Then what about calendars? I use Google Calendars for a bunch of collaborative projects (I don’t use these for my own use), so those I will have to live without for now. Were I to be in China more often I would have to find an alternative, as would businesses doing China – non China collaborations.


Then, to my surprise, there is Google’s Font APIs that are increasingly heavily used, even in open source software – including WordPress that powers this blog. Yes, pages will load without these fonts, but browsers keep on trying to load the APIs, and slow down the loading of pages.

Last but not least, and rather central when in China as I do not speak Mandarin, is Google Translate, which is also built into my browser. Baidu’s translation tool is useless as its interface is just in Mandarin (unless I am missing something), so Pons is basically my only option.

So the conclusion is this: while Google makes the argument that provision of web services is a free market, and that anyone can switch to alternatives, we nevertheless find ourselves so dependent on Google as a matter of habit that those habits are damned hard to break.


  1. @Ben – interesting! Thanks for posting that! I have not really sought out a solution – I was only in China for a short period.

  2. Ben Winters

    Maybe you figured this out by now, but I just wrote a lengthy comment on this issue in the WordPress forums. This is not self-promotion, just trying to be helpful for anyone searching this topic. Here’s a link: https://wordpress.org/support/topic/decouple-wordpress-from-google-apis-and-fonts

  3. @Alan – thanks for the map info! Apple Maps were indeed good, as were Google’s when I could get them. Bing Maps less so.

    @sjgklajslkaj – I have Tunnelbear VPN, but it’s not much good for China. If I go again I will do better investigations into the VPN option before I go.

    @Leo – thanks for the comment! As for choices to make – you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be happy with what you do. Too few people can do that I think!

  4. Hello, Jon. Sorry to hear that you had a hard time in China. I am Leo, the interpreter working with Rex last week at the Mercator salon. Didn’t get to talk to you that day.

    I kind of have the similar experience with what you said about change at the salon. I worked in one of the largest SOEs in China after graduation, but resigned later when I found what I really wanted to do was interpreting which was only a tiny part of my previous job. So I quit and became a freelance interpreter. A lot of people think I have made a stupid choice but I never regret it. However, I found that even in my generation, which I thought was very open and free, this is not the choice that many would embrace. One of my cousin is entering college this year, and she is taking the choices made by her father, long enough to include her work and life after graduation. When I asked her what she wanted, she had no idea and would like to take the path chosen for her. That made a sharp contrast in my mind to what I have chosen and immediately reminded me of what you said at the salon about trying different things in life and making changes.

    The block of Google is a pain for all but the gov. Google is so important for my work, like I worked for a wine training recently and realized it was so hard to look for information of all those wine and wineries all over the world without Google. And also I have to shift my work from Gmail. It’s really a shame for the gov.

  5. sjgklajslkaj

    Have you considered using a proxy service, such as VPN or TOR, to access the blocked websites?

    When going to and from China, did you choose the trans-Mongolian or the trans-Manchurian route?

  6. I didn’t notice that Baidu translate only works in Chinese, my bad!

    It seems that Chinese is increasingly building its nationwide intranet different from the rest of the internet, with de-Googlisation being its aim for national champions (Tencent and Baidu for example but also Alibaba and Sina), which is as worrying as our heavy use of Google to the internet.

    It’s known that Apple Map uses Chinese partner (amap.com) for PRC map details which means it can be actually BETTER than Google’s offering, and indeed was miles better than the rest of the world map data of Apple Map when it first launched…

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