Two days ago the most amazing thing happened. I needed to buy a new SIM card for my Apple iPhone 6+, and when I went looking for a local China Mobile (中国移动) store, I saw a competing China Unicom (中国联通) store closer to my office and decided to give it a try for convenience. When I put the China Unicom SIM card in my iPhone, I was shocked and delighted to see that after all these years of suffering, I finally had 4G service. Wow! That means fast access to the Internet and, for example, all the valuable functions WeChat provides (taxi hailing, payments, bus schedules, social media, even video calls). Life just got better.
One of my few frustrations in China has been the slow data services on my iPhone. When I need to use the Internet and don’t have local WiFi, I’ve been limited to 2G. Folks at the Apple store here explained that my US iPhone was designed for a different cellular network not compatible with China’s network, so there was no hope of 4G service like everyone else seems to have. But they were wrong. The real problem, as explained by a knowledgeable Taiwanese colleague, was that the provider of my former SIM card, China Mobile, operates over a portion of the cellular spectrum that is incompatible with my iPhone. China Unicom, on the other hand, operates over a different portion of the spectrum, making their network more compatible with US phones. The China Unicom employee smiled as she explained what was apparently well known to her: their service gives me 4G, but China Mobile’s service can’t. Wish I had known this a couple years ago! Even after a supposed updated SIM card was installed in my iPhone courtesy of my employer, the service remained 2G.
Why am I changing SIM cards at all? My employer is giving me a new company phone, a Samsung model with high security features (VMWare to track employees and make it harder to steal trade secrets, supposedly) that has 4G, and are giving me a new SIM card with that phone while requiring me to return the old SIM card I have been using in my iPhone. Changing phones is a bit traumatic, but discovering accidentally that I could easily upgrade to 4G just by switching to China Unicom helps make the change more welcome. Thank you, China Unicom!
ExpressVPN is something I use daily in China, but I’ve found it’s a useful privacy tool anywhere. For China, it allows me to connect to foreign websites like Facebook that are normally blocked. It creates an encrypted connection between your computer and a variety of servers around the world (you can choose where), and then makes all your Internet traffic appear to come from that local server. By doing this, you data is always encrypted and your privacy is enhanced. Essential for China, valuable everywhere else. Annual subscription is required. Well worth it.
With one subscription, you can have a computer and iPhone protected at the same time.
I never do online banking or other sensitive tasks unless ExpressVPN is on, reducing the risk of someone intercepting my traffic and snooping.
Internet access is a cat and mouse game in some parts of the world, but ExpressVPN is regularly updated and seems to stay ahead. Tech support has been excellent. There have been times of frustration, but they’ve got me through the problems.
On the iPhone, there are two ways to access ExpressVPN. One is via the app, which works well. The other is via configurations in your settings area, which used to be the fastest and easiest way to connect, but with recent changes in either the iPhone software or ExpressVPN or China, I’m not sure which, that option often doesn’t work for me. But I can always get on through the app.
Other VPN tools are out there. However, among foreigners here in China, there seems to be a pretty strong recognition that the gold standard really is ExpressVPN. Others I know have encountered many frustrations with other tools, especially free ones. Let me know what your experience has been if you’re a user of VPN of any kind.
An increasing number of friends are reporting troubling cases of theft from their China bank accounts. One friend, after years of working in China and saving every penny, was preparing to return to the US, but suddenly every penny in her ICBC bank account was stolen. The ICBC bank officials told her that someone had a copy of her card and had taken the money out. She asked how this was possible without knowing her password. No explanation was given, except that it was somehow her fault. She spent five days arguing with them and got nowhere. They said that the thief could have been working with her to perpetuate fraud on the bank, so why should they refund her money? Her only option now is to sue, but she has to go back to the US soon and fears she won’t have the ability to pursue the case. But we’ve encouraged her to work with a lawyer to fight this. She will, and I hope to have good news to report sometime.
Her story has almost exactly the same set of facts that we find in a chilling account, “How I sued the world’s largest bank and won” at Shanghaist.com. In this case, it was a smaller amount, 15,000 RMB that was taken from the author’s ICBC account. He encountered the same helpful consumer service policies and attitudes, and was forced also to sue for something that was clearly not his fault. He won, and it only took 7 months and some modest attorney fees to get his money back.
If you have a bank account with an ATM card, there is a real risk that one day money will begin disappearing from your account. There are some very high risk factors in China you need to understand:
1) The daily limit for ATM withdrawals is much higher than it is in the U.S. and Europe. A thief typically can take out 20,000 RMB a day (over $3,000), which is 5 to 10 times higher than typical US limits.
2) The daily limit may not be over a 24-hour period, but may be based on the calendar date, so if that applies to your bank, then a thief can take 20,000 RMB out at 11:55 pm, and another 20,000 RMB out at 12:05 PM.
3) Banks in China often don’t have effective anti-fraud protection.
4) There are many thieves with card copying or card scanning devices who can make a duplicate of your card. If they or a small video camera can watch you enter your password, having your account number and your password leaves you defenseless.
5) Thieves can sometimes pull money out of your account without using your password. I don’t know how this happens, but it has happened to multiple people in China, and it happened to us with our US bank.
6) When someone pulls money out of your account without knowing your password, it should be the bank’s fault and they should reimburse you. But consumer service attitudes and policies may not be identical to those in your home country. China banks may tend to blame the customer and argue that maybe the thief was collaborating with you, so they might not cooperate unless you take them to court. You can sue and win in China, but it will take a lot of work and the help of an attorney.
Because money in the bank is so vulnerable, I suggest several best practices:
1) Do not keep large amounts in any single Chinese bank. Move a lot of it into US accounts without ATM cards or with two-part authentication, and keep plenty of cash.
2) Use your bank cards as little as possible. Instead, use cash to make payments when possible.
3) Do not let employees walk away with your bank card (they might run it through a card copier device of some kind). Keep your eyes on it.
4) Do not let your card be scanned in any place that seems questionable or seedy.
5) When using ATM machines, look for unusual devices, small video cameras, etc., that might have been added.
6) Keep good records of where you have been so that if the bank says it must have been you that pulled all your money out of your account in, say, Harbin, you can prove you weren’t in Harbin that day.
7) Monitor your bank account frequently, and make sure you receive automatic text messages when money is taken out of your ATM.
8) When you do find a problem, document in detail who you spoke with, what you said, what they said, etc. You will needs lots of documented details if you have to sue the bank to get back missing money.
9) Avoid trusting your money to any bank that has a bad track record of protecting the money of its customers. If you know of banks that have performed well in this regard, please let me know.
These problems are not unique to China, but they seem to be a lot more frequent here and more severe, especially with the high daily minimum that thieves can take out.
If you do online banking, your risks are also high due to hackers. I suggest you use complex passwords that you change often, and only use secure computers to access your bank accounts. It’s good to have a cheap computer that is never used for browsing but only for bank access, and even then keep good firewall and anti-spyware software on it, keep it updated, use more secure browsers like Chrome or Firefox, and don’t use untrusted wifi networks to access your accounts. For added security, use VPN when you access your bank account.
Don’t keep all your money in any one account, and keep a wad of cash somewhere, too. Thieves can get everything, but we shouldn’t make it easy for them.
After several tries, here is what has worked for me and it has helped some friends. First, clear your browser cache and close your browser. Second, flush your DNS cache. Third, restart your computer. The DNS cache flush may be most important, so if you want a fast fix, try it first (after closing your browser) and see if that helps. But I suggest doing all 3 steps. Search for details of how to clear the cache of your specific browser and how to flush the DNS cache for your computer. On Windows machines, for example, the proper approach may be to run CMD as administrator (press the Windows button, search for CMD, then right click on the CMD program and select “run as administrator”) and then type “ipconfig /flushdns” (without the quotes). On my Mac, I had to run terminal and then enter “sudo dscacheutil -flushcache” (without the quotes). Check for your operating system.
But what is going on? Some article at Reddit (here and here) explore the possibility of this being some kind of practice of new capabilities related to the Great Cannon. I’m not sure. But it’s ugly and frightening that it can happen so easily. It may be that using https:// connections for added security could help prevent the problem in the future. That’s just a guess.
Foreigners in China: Get the VIP Internet Service from China Telecom to Improve Access to Foreign Websites
We recently upgraded our Internet service to the fastest available: 100 Mbps service for 248 RMB a month. Even with that high speed, we noticed that accessing foreign websites was still painfully slow and unreliable. When we turned on ExpressVPN, our generally good VPN service, the speed was even worse and was essentially blocked, or so it seemed on many days.
Then I learned about China Telecom’s VIP service for foreign websites. This service costs an extra 50 RMB per month and gives you “more stable” access to websites in the US, Japan, Europe, and Hong Kong. Desperate. we tried it, and it has made a huge difference. Foreign websites now upload much faster. We still need VPN for sites like Facebook, but that also seems much faster than before.
To change your service, you need to be on their monthly billing plan. We were on a prepaid plan, having prepaid for a year, so we needed to make a change. How we got on their strange prepaid system is a long story of itself: someone in our real-estate agent’s company handled this and possibly tried to rip-us off, paying for the lowest-speed service instead of the highest and pocketing the money. Only we caught the “mistake” and insisted on correcting did the upgrade happen, and then they only prepared for one month and possibly tried to pocket the difference again. We finally got all or nearly all of the money we had given to show up in our Telecom account. Don’t let intermediaries do this for you! Our mistake.
To switch to monthly billing, you would think it should just take a phone call and the flip of a digital switch. Nope. I had to go a special office in person–not the closest one, but one that is authorized to handle the VIP account. That office is at 500 Jiangsu Road, close Yan An Road. It’s inside an electronic store on the second floor. Right next to the escalator is a round desk with an English speaking young man working there, and he was great.
To get the VIP account, I had to cancel my entire previous account and have a new line installed. That meant a big service fee or getting a year-long plan. Since I heard that 50 Mbps with the VIP service was better than 100 Mbps without, I accepted a special deal they had on 50 Mbps (no similar deal for the 100 Mbps unless I would take a two-year plan). So now I’m paying about 150 a month plus 50 for the VIP service, less than the 289 a month I was paying for the 100 Mbps service. They had to come and install a new line and put in a new cable modem. But the new service with VIP magic is definitely better. Finally, we can use the Internet, even in the evening, and access foreign websites with acceptable speed. We even were able to watch a movie on Netflix. Wow, it’s a new world for us here in China.
We had 1100 in our account that was closed. To get a refund, we had to take our old modem back in with my passport and apply for a refund. The same guy was very helpful. They will call us in a few days when I can come in and get my cash. They cannot just put the money into my account. That, I’m afraid, would be far too easy. But overall, the process wasn’t bad and I’m delighted with the mysterious yet effective VIP service.
Some folks at ShanghaiExpat.com discuss this as “GFW-free” service. No, it is not free of the Great Firewall. VPN is still needed if you want to access things like Netflix or Facebook. But you might have much better results, I think, than you are getting now. If you are about to abandon hope because of slow Internet in China, try the VIP service from China Telecom.
I commonly hear Western businessmen stating that China doesn’t get innovation and customer service. I’ve discussed the myth of China’s lack of innovation on the Innovation Fatigue blog. Today I’ll share my experiences with China Telecom that convince me that the West has a few things to learn about the new world of customer service in China.
Some of the worst customer service I’ve ever experienced involved internet and cable TV service — in the United States. When we had technical problems, the hassles we faced when working with Time Warner in particular put real strains on my endurance. It took forever to reach someone, and then getting help to come fix a problem when that was needed was a real pain. Required advanced scheduling with no knowledge of when the people would show up. Coming to China, I expected things to be even worse. What a surprise that has been!
Two days ago I bought a new router for our home, worried that the signal strength of our old Apple Airport router was too low. But the new router, with instructions only in Chinese, wasn’t working right even after I thought I had done everything properly. I called China Telecom after 9 PM, reached an English speaking agent in about 2 minutes, and they said they would send someone out the next morning. I asked if they could make it around 6 PM when I would be back from work. They said OK, 6 PM or later. The next day at 6:05 PM, a friendly tech support man showed up. Big smile, very polite and kind. He understood exactly what I needed, went to the router, looked at the router page on my computer, clicked one area and immediately spotted an error in my set up. Within 2 minutes the problem was fixed. He then tested the connection, gave me his number in case I had any other trouble, smiled again, shook my hand, and was off. Then 5 minutes later, I got a call from China Telecom to ask how things went, if the problem was fixed, and if the service man had a good attitude and had given me his phone number, etc. Wow.
Rapid access to support, rapid scheduling of service, prompt arrival, quick resolution of trouble, and follow up. What a great lesson for American businesses. China Telecom is a large state-owned enterprise that represents mainstream Chinese business in this new era. China gets customer service. Sure, there are plenty of cases of bureaucracy in the way and lazy employees who don’t care, problems that abound in the West as well. But China Telecom’s fantastic customer service should be the gold standard that the West tries to copy and imitate, before it’s too late. Likewise, the burgeoning spirit of innovation and intellectual property support in China is something the West should learn from, though China has much to do in this area still. But don’t discount the competitiveness of China because you think they don’t get customer service or innovation. Time to start relearning what you think you knew about China, and relearning what you know and do about customer service.