Studying a foreign language inevitably means that you end up with friends in faraway places. Chinese is no different, but we’re lucky enough to live in an age with a wide array of ways to stay in contact.
Here’s a handy list of convenient ways to keep links with people in the Middle Kingdom when you’re elsewhere in the world.
飞信 / Feition
If you haven’t tried 飞信 yet, have a look right now. In short, it’s a free SMS text messaging service in China. You can send messages to and from PCs and mobile phones across the entire country, for free. The only catch is that they have to be China Mobile phone numbers.
There’s software for PC and a web-based interface, plus apps for the major smartphone OSes. Also, any bog-standard mobile phone in China can be set up with a special number to use 飞信. And it’s all free.
This is so useful if you’re outside of China and want to stay in contact with someone whilst on the move. You can use the 飞信 apps and software internationally. You just need to get someone in China to keep your China Mobile number topped up and in use (a couple of texts a month will do it).
Skype is still the ultimate international communications tool, in my view. It can do so many things: VoIP, SMS, real phone calls, file transfers and more. It’s all either free or very cheap, and credit can be added online.
Skype is totally unrestricted and operational in China, and makes an excellent way to stay in touch. It has apps and software for all major OSes. You can call other Skype users for free and text-chat with them, and with Skype credit you can make very cheap phone calls to phone numbers anywhere in the world. Excellent.
The biggest contender for Skype’s throne is Google Talk. It has all of the features of Skype, apart from software for all OSes. Only Windows is supported with a client. Bit of a fail for Google there. It does have a swish web-interface, though, and this integrates with all of the other Google services such as GMail.
The only reservation I’d have about Google Talk for staying in contact with someone in China is that it might get blocked. As of February 2012 it’s fine, but the Great Firewall makes a habit of tampering with all Google services (or blocking them completely in the case of YouTube) so I wouldn’t rely on it.
As well as you being able to contact people in China, presumably you’d like people in China to be able to contact you. Besides the other services on this page, there’s China’s largest mobile phone network: China Mobile (中国移动). This is the network someone in China is most likely to be using.
Apparently China Mobile don’t have a specific tariff for international calls and texts. They do have 全球通”), which is designed for people frequently traveling in and out of China, but that’s not all that useful for contacting people in other countries.
The rates for international calls and texts seem to be standard across all tariffs. International texts are 1元 each, and international calls range from 2 - 30元 a minute. Not exactly cheap.
However, you can get the price as low as possible by setting up 国际长途业务 (international long-distance service) for your number. You’ll need to go to a China Mobile office with ID and ask for this, and there’s a small monthly fee.
Once it’s set up, you can dial 17951 before making an international call. This will reduce costs, but Skype is still a far better option for cheap international calls.
This is probably the best way to share files with someone in China. Dropbox works in China, and has software for the major operating systems. It’s a file-syncing service which integrates pretty seamlessly with your file browser.
You have a folder called Dropbox, and anything in there gets uploaded to the Dropbox servers. It then downloads onto any other computers you’ve got Dropbox installed on.
So even if the two computers aren’t online at the same time, they’ll still get synced. You can also share items or folders with other Dropbox users just by typing in their email address. Then it’s like you’ve both got the same folder on your hard-drive, making it very easy and intuitive to share stuff.
The Dropbox website is blocked, but incompetently. You just need to use HTTPS and it works: https://www.dropbox.com”). The software client itself usually works fine. If not, there’s a simple work around.
China’s favourite instant messaging software! Almost everyone here has a QQ account. There are clients for Windows, Mac OSX and some smartphone OSes, and a very swish web interface. There’s an English-language QQ site as well.
The QQ software can do video chat as well as instant messaging, but only with the official client. Annoyingly, there’s no official client for Linux, but there is a good community-made one. For Mac OSX there’s also Adium, which supports QQ (thanks to **Mr V for that).
Some people find they can’t log in from outside China. In that case it might be worth looking at MSN Messenger, as that’s also very popular and has almost exactly the same functionality as QQ.
RenRen (人人网) is China’s Facebook. It’s a very (very) similar social networking site, with one main difference. RenRen employs staff to monitor everyone’s activities and delete any politically sensitive material. Presumably you’d also get reported if they caught you misbehaving.
But it’s fine for keeping in touch with friends in China!
Tencent, the company behind QQ, also produces an app called 微信 (Weixin). Like 飞信, above, it’s a mobile messaging service. It’s similar in many ways to Blackberry Messenger - you can communicate with other users for free across the mobile phone network.
Weixin’s coolest feature is that it also lets you send small recordings as messages. It’s easy to record your voice and send it to other users for a more personal form of communication.
Thanks to Kevin for this tip.
Hopping the wall
If you want to use Facebook, YouTube, Blogger and other such naughty things, you’ll need to have some method of ‘hopping the wall’. This refers to getting around the so-called Great Firewall of China - the government’s Internet blocking system. Dodging the blocks is fairly common among Chinese people, and is almost universal among foreigners living here.
I won’t go into details of how to do this, but Google around for a VPN. If you’re on Windows, have a look at some software called Freegate. Inevitably, access to this stuff is blocked in China, putting you in a catch 22 if you’re already here. The only way to get it is to somehow have it smuggled in from outside.
And of course there’s always email and snail mail. Got any other good ways to stay in contact with people in China? Share them in the comments!