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The State Of The Chinese Internet: How To Expand Into China Without Making A Fool Of Yourself

So, you want to expand into China? Awesome! China has a huge market and the economy is growing at a crazy rate, making it a prime place to do business. China became the biggest e-commerce market in the world in 2013 when total sales passed $307 billion, and according to projections by the research firm Forrester, will grow at a compound rate of 19.9% each year, reaching $1 trillion by 2019 (that’s only four years away, by the way!). On Single’s Day 2014 (similar to the U.S.’s Black Friday), Chinese consumers spent $9.3 billion dollars. In one day.

The increase in spending is largely due to increased mobile sales, a streamlined payments experience (more on that later), and companies expanding to different regions and demographics within China. Forbes found that 20% of the population are weekly mobile shoppers and 80% of online shoppers made at least one purchase on mobile last year. Companies have invested heavily in infrastructure for speedy delivery, with some companies even offering deliveries within hours. This allows businesses to ship anywhere, even remote areas, within just a few days, opening up previously underserved regions and markets

If you’re a luxury retailer, the opportunity is even bigger. There is a massive, $102 billion luxury goods market, with 60% of consumers having bought luxury goods overseas. According to McKinsey & Company, Chinese consumers account for 20% of worldwide luxury product transactions, and that number is only rising.

As Chinese citizens move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they have more time and money to spend online than ever. That’s where you come in.

Tapping into the Chinese market can mean huge profits for your business. But as we’ve talked about before, you can’t just translate your website and be done with it. There is a lot to take into account, particularly in the realm of how the Chinese interact with websites and apps.

Kendra Schaefer, an ex-pat designer working in China for over a decade, says in an excellent article about Chinese web design trends, “Localizing for China means more than translating your desktop website into Mandarin and calling it a day. It might sound harsh but here’s my advice: Do China right or don’t bother.”

This is true for any country, but especially holds true for China. Design is a form of communication, which is heavily influenced by culture. If you’re used to thinking about Western customers and Western product design, you’re used to a certain way of communicating — and that won’t work in countries with vastly different ways of seeing and interacting with the world.

First things first: You need to have empathy.

William Harald Wong, chairman of The Design Alliance Asia, says “Design empathy is the invisible spiritual link between people. It’s the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings and thoughts, even though one person’s background may be very different from another’s—socially, culturally, or by circumstance.” Respecting cultural differences is a huge part of expanding into any country, and these differences, especially in China, heavily influence UX and UI.

A disclaimer: China is a huge and diverse country, with people of all ages, socioeconomic status, religions, and ethnicities. We’ve tried to stay far away from the stereotypes and assumptions that popped up again and again while researching, trying instead to truly understand the reasoning behind these cultural differences as they apply to how Chinese people as a whole interact with the internet.

Looking at China as a whole is important to get an understanding of the general landscape — but we highly encourage that businesses looking to attract Chinese customers look deeply at their target market and adjust their strategy accordingly.


It goes without saying that mobile is an absolutely essential part of doing business in China. Mobile counts for over a third (39%) of Chinese web traffic, and as of August 2014, 1.27 billion people had mobile devices. In just Q3 of 2014, Chinese consumers spent $37.59 billion on mobile e-commerce, accounting for over a third of online sales. “Mobile first” is barely a thing in China — instead, it’s increasingly “mobile only,” as much of the country doesn’t even have desktop computers.

If you’ve read anything about the Chinese tech industry in the past few years, you’ve heard of WeChat (it’s called WeiXin over there). It’s the insanely popular “chat” app, although it has way more functionality than that. As of March 2015, it has over 500 million active users (compare that to Twitter’s 300 million). Smashing Magazine notes that because so much of the mobile web traffic takes place in WeChat, having your mobile experience work within WeChat’s browser is an absolute must.

“I read a ton of articles by non-Chinese mobile developers who have to test their work in multiple browsers,” says Thomas Graziani, who founded Walk the Chat, a marketing firm that specializes in helping foreign companies enter the Chinese market, specifically with WeChat. “In China, we need only test our light apps in the WeChat browser, and if it works there, we’re good to go. That’s how universal the platform is.”

Oh yeah, and what’s this “light app” he mentioned? They are simple mini-sites, often just one page, often temporary used for a specific purpose, and exclusively accessed through mobile (they barely work on the desktop, if at all).

It might be a surprise for Westerners to know that these light apps are almost always accessed through a QR code. Yeah, a QR code, the technology that’s practically dead in the West, but hugely popular in China with no sign of slowing down. Not only are they used in print, but on desktop sites and TV commercials as well. This is because of two things:

  1. On mobile, scanning a code is much easier than typing in a URL
  2. The popularity of WeChat, which has a QR scanner built into the app. In fact, codes usually link directly to the company’s WeChat page instead of a website.

User Experience and User Interface

One of the main differences between Chinese and Western websites is the user experience. Due to cultural and economic differences and the unique way the Chinese internet has evolved, people are used to interacting with apps and websites in ways that can be totally alien to outsiders, and they can be easily overlooked by people who aren’t familiar with the culture.

User Interface

It’s pretty obvious that Chinese websites have their own style and design rules. Many Westerners think they look cluttered, often making comparisons to the old Yahoo homepage. There are two things to consider here. First of all, just because it looks cluttered to you, doesn’t mean it looks that way to everyone. Many people have noted that Chinese characters are easier to speed read than Roman characters, which can make a seemingly cluttered page easy to scan.

Secondly, Chinese history comes into play here. Chinese internet used to be extremely slow, so out of necessity websites would include a ton of links to limit navigation throughout the site. Generally, people will click on a few links and let them load in another window while continuing to browse the original page. The internet is getting faster, but it’s still slower than many other places in the world, ranked 41st in terms of average connection speed.

Something that we hadn’t thought of, but has been mentioned a few times, is that Chinese people in general are comforted by clutter (probably better referred to as abundance). There is a history of scarcity in China, and so abundance can have many positive implications.

In terms of user interface, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: typography and color. Have you ever noticed that there aren’t a wide variety of Chinese typefaces? It’s because there are so many characters that the font files are huge (3-7MB), drastically increasing load times. However, a new TypeKit-like service is trying to solve this problem. It’s called Youziku, and by limiting the amount of characters you’re allowed to use, they’re able to provide a bunch of interesting typefaces. For more information, here’s a guide to typography for Chinese characters.

And don’t forget about colors! This is a common topic amongst designers, so we won’t go into too much detail, except to say, remember to do your research. Here’s a handy guide to colors in different cultures (it’s kind of a horrible layout, but the information provided is useful).

As a side note, there is an emerging trend of minimal Chinese websites. Here’s a list of some to check out.


In the Western world, people generally register with their email address, or in some cases through third-parties, like Facebook or Twitter. Wouldn’t this be the same in China? Well, no. Email actually isn’t very common in China, and people prefer to use their phone number to register. Third-party registration is often available as well, but of course, not through Facebook!

As far as logging into accounts, people will use their phone number, a third-party, or a QR code (as we talked about above).


Instead of connecting a credit card, apps usually connect directly to your bank account. In fact, some of the larger apps can be used as an intermediary, so if you’re using an app for a one-time purchase or aren’t comfortable giving it your bank account, you can pay for it through something like WeChat. This is leagues ahead of the U.S., where credit cards still reign king. Sometimes in the U.S. you can pay for something through PayPal rather than entering your credit card info, but it’s not that common. It’ll likely become more common in the future, as it’s just much easier, and safer!

It’s always important to think about the larger context when designing for new places. Eugene Chew, chief digital officer at JWT Shanghai sums it up well:

“Ultimately, it’s culture, not just function, that informs good UX design. Ensure your customer experience is designed specifically for Chinese needs. Make sure it is enjoyable and easy to engage with your brand, to purchase and use your products.”

The Great Firewall

You can’t talk about the state of the internet in China without mentioning The Great Firewall, the methods the Chinese government uses to censors the web. It’s why you can’t get Google or Facebook over there, and it makes things difficult for companies looking to do business in China. It’s important to follow the rules or else you will be blocked and your attempt to expand into China will fail.

If you don’t have a business license in China, you can’t use Chinese hosting services, making the load times on your website or app extremely slow. To host in China, you need an ICP number — here’s some information about that process. For many companies, having a business license in China is impractical, so load times are definitely something to take into account when designing your China experience.

As is using Google products. If your site has any Google code in it (with the exception of Google Analytics), it will hang and probably won’t load. That means there’s no Google Maps or YouTube, forcing companies to use alternatives like the open source OpenStreetMap, or Chinese video hosting websites instead of YouTube. Some websites will host their video on YouKu or TuDou, and then use a visitor’s IP address to determine which embed shows up on the page.

For more information on navigating the Great Firewall, this article is a great resource.

Just like expanding into any other country, there are a lot of moving pieces to consider when thinking about doing business in China. It can definitely feel overwhelming, but what it comes down to is two things: opportunity and empathy. Depending on your business, targeting China could be the best decision you’ve ever made. But if you don’t have empathy for the culture, you’re certain to fail. We’ll leave you with this observation from Shikuan Chen, a Taiwanese and Chinese designer: “The Chinese are looking at the brands that walk into their backyard, and whomever shows the most respect to this market, consumers will respect and support with their sales.”

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