Thousands of expats, returned Chinese, web developers, travelers, students and the like would hope not, but things are not so well with Googles China relationship, it would appear. Most Google services including search, at any domain (.com,.com.au,.com.hk etc..) have been returning “This web page is unavailable”. Whilst it’s not uncommon for certain searches to be unavailable, or for Google to be unavailable on weekends, it’s unusual that the whole of Google be out of action, the whole of the time.
The outage, if you like, extends to Gmail, Maps, Translate and just about everything Google do. Which, as you could imagine is somewhat frustrating to many, especially expats. However, Bing and Yahoo are available as they have complied with local requirements. The reason for the ‘outage’ is unknown with neither Google nor the Government making any statement, some speculate it’s due to the US/China relationship, the sensitive time of year, giving local services more of the market, Google not complying with local requirements, whatever the reason, it makes life tough for many that depend on the services it offers.
Most foreigners that have settled in China no doubt have VPN services to enable access to their favorite sites, so for many it’s not such a big deal bar being a bit of hassle to pay for a VPN connection every month and the fact that some services are slow at times..
Baidu, Chinas leading search engine, at this point offers no English language services, where Google was offering multiple language options and in many applications such as maps, offering dual language with Simplified Chinese and English which is indispensable for finding where you want to go, then showing it to the bus ticket office or taxi driver.
Not only frustrating for travelers, it’s massively frustrating for businesses that depend on G services more here
So what are the alternatives?
For translation, there’s loads of tools available for both PC and phone (see here ), plus there is http://www.bing.com/translator/ (which has a very handy link you can add to your bookmark bar to easily translate web pages on the go) but unfortunately none compare to the service offered by Google for both daily use and for learning.
Another option which works well is Baidu’s translate, fanyi.baidu.com, which will auto detect the language you input and translate as required. There’s more language and translation tools/apps listed here.
update 2016 you can also go to translate.google.cn, and access online translation, which also provides pinyin.
Google maps is unusable and performing any kind of map searches which simply returns the error ‘can’t search’. An option is Baidu Maps but it is in Chinese, Bing Maps offers map services covering Hong Kong. Another option that is working at this point is Open Street Map, Mapquest is another option. Maps Plus for android is an option that allows you to download and store maps locally, so, when you have an open connection, you can view the Google map and store it to the phone for offline use. If you have the Google Maps app on your phone you can also cache the maps while you have a connection so that they are available while you are offline, remembering to zoom in so you get a cache of all zoom levels.
Another tool and APP is Maps.Me which is available for Android and Apple, offering offline maps.
update in a bind, you can also go to english.ctrip.com, the travel booking service, go to the hotels page, click the map button, and you have access to Google maps in English (no search capability).
update 2016 you can also go to google.cn/maps/, and can access maps, in English, via this URL.
update 2018 you can also use the Autonavi Navigation 高德导航 app (aka Amap) which has English version (same maps as used by Apple Maps).
Gmail is out, so really that puts most people in the position of one option, which is to use a VPN or redirect your mail which would be somewhat of a hassle..
Outlook is working OK, as is Yahoo Mail.
Play Store for Android
There are local alternatives to Play Store for Android but nothing comparable or perhaps none that offer the same level of trust. Another reason that makes VPN a necessity although there have been rumors of Google setting up an APP store in China, let’s hope.
Using a VPN is the obvious solution but it’s far from a perfect one if you’re flicking between local sites and foreign sites once logged into a VPN you’ll find local sites impossibly slow to load. Having VPN on your mobile and PC at least gives access to google maps, Facebook, Twitter and so many other English language sites. To be honest it’s staggering how many sites are blocked.
update 2018: VPN’s are under pressure again with many being closed down. These two are operational.
I use Express at the moment on both mobile and laptop, usually works quite good, lots of server locations, and plays video OK, sometimes you may have to pause the video and let it load up before watching, downloading torrent files is OK too. The VYPR service from GoldenFrog works just as well and both services have simple and easy to use interfaces.
The other solution is to learn to read local characters and switch to using local services. Good luck with that.
So, I guess it’s a wait and see game as to whether Google returns to China…. Many hope it can.