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February 28, 2006

China's New Domain Names: Lost in Translation

This morning I got a bunch of alarmist messages from friends asking about this English-language People’s Daily article titled: China adds top-level domain names.  The paragraph that’s freaking people out is:

Under the new system, besides "CN", three Chinese TLD names "CN", "COM" and "NET" are temporarily set. It means Internet users don't have to surf the Web via the servers under the management of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) of the United States.

Not for the first time, it appears that the People’s Daily’s English translation is very misleading.

Here is a Chinese language story on the subject, and here is the original announcement in Chinese on the Ministry of Information Industry website. Below are the two most important sections, which I am translating/explaining in English (please post corrections in the comments section if you read Chinese and think I got anything wrong):


2. “In China’s internet domain name system, aside from the “CN” top-level domains, there will be three Chinese language top-level domains: 中国 (which means “China”), 公司 (which means “company”), AND 网络 (which means “net”).”

In other words, China is NOT, I repeat NOT creating alternative .COM and .NET top-level domains that would be separate from those now administered by ICANN.  (Though it is true that CN, 中国, 公司, AND 网络 will not be administered by ICANN, but by a Chinese entity.) 


3. “Beneath the CN top-level domain, there will be 2 kinds of sub-domains: topical categories and administrative regions. There will be 7 “topical domains”: AC for research institutions; COM for commercial; EDU for educational institutions; and GOV for China’s government organizations, MIL for Chinese national-defense organizations; NET for organizations providing internet services; and ORG for non-commercial organizations.”

Note that these are sub-domains, not top-level domains. So in other words, the websites will look like this: http://website.ac.cn, http://website.com.cn, website.edu.cn, website.gov.cn, website.mil.cn. website.net.cn and website.org.cn.

    设置“行政区域名”34个,适用于我国的各省、自治区、直辖市、特别行政区的组织,分别为:BJ—北京市;SH—上海市;TJ—天津市;CQ—重庆市; HE—河北省;SX—山西省;NM—内蒙古自治区;LN—辽宁省;JL—吉林省;HL—黑龙江省;JS—江苏省;ZJ—浙江省;AH—安徽省;FJ—福建省;JX—江西省;SD—山东省;HA—河南省;HB—湖北省;HN—湖南省;GD—广东省;GX—广西壮族自治区;HI—海南省; SC—四川省;GZ—贵州省;YN—云南省;XZ—西藏自治区;SN—陕西省;GS—甘肃省;QH—青海省;NX—宁夏回族自治区;XJ—新疆维吾尔族自治区;TW—台湾省;HK—香港特别行政区;MO—澳门特别行政区。

This section outlines the English letters used for administrative region domains. So Beijing will be website.bj.cn, Shanghai will be website.sh.cn, Tianjin will be website.tj.cn, and so forth.

A more accurate Interfax story is here. So my understanding is this: China will administer the 4 top-level domains of: CN, 中国, 公司, AND 网络 – and all their sub-domains – independently of ICANN.  China has not shut out the global internet, or created parallel evil twins of our well-loved and well-used top-level domains. What China has done is create its own Chinese sub-internet adjacent to the global one run by ICANN. This is precedent-setting. Will other governments follow? An Iranian-administered set of top level domains in Farsi? A Russian-administered set of TLD’s in Russian? Why not?

But to my knowledge, if you can read and write Chinese and have the ability to enter Chinese characters on your computer, you should be able to access those domains from anywhere, and the creation of this new Chinese sub-internet does not preclude Chinese internet users from typing in their usual .com and .net domains and getting at the same sites that we would from the U.S. – that is unless the Chinese government happens to be filtering those particular sites that you want to access.  UPDATE: This is not entirely correct, as Steven Murdoch explains below.

Will the existence of a Chinese-administered sub-internet make it easier for the Chinese government to filter the international internet more aggressively? Once the new Chinese domain system becomes well-populated and full of content, it seems likely that the answer would be “yes.”

FURTHER UPDATE (11:30PM EST TUESDAY): This entry has been posted over at CircleID where James Seng from Singapore, who has been following these issues for some time, has weighed in. He writes:

It is not an alternative root because there is no “root” being setup. And the ISPs continue to use the same default (IANA) root that ship with BIND.

In a longer comment James elaborates, copying a comment he wrote in another thread on another site, in response to somebody named Dave:

I just posted this on IPer where the news is spreading. I hope everyone calm down.


Hi Dave,

Just saw this news and find it funny because I just had dinner with Mao Wei and Prof. Qian last night (Mao is the Executive Director of CNNIC). To be exact, they have no idea of the news as they are in Perth right now. But after showing them the news and speaking to them, this is what I gathered.

The focus of the news is actually the launch of .MIL.CN, a new 2LD CNNIC is launching which requires a change in their Article. As a matter of procedure, they announced the revise Article that includes the the policy for the three Chinese TLD for .NET, .COM and .CN (网络,公司,中国). The Chinese TLDs was actually added 3 years ago in 2003. It is hardly news now.

It has been in operation for 3 years now as you can see from http://www.cnnic.net.cn/index/0B/index.htm

In practice, they did not actually use any alternative/parellel root. Instead, when someone registered a domain name like 联想.公司, what they get is 联想.公司.cn and the append of .cn is done automatically by the client resolution.

Dave, hope you can help to clarify this issue. The news is just .MIL.CN.

-James Seng


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But to my knowledge, if you can read and write Chinese and have the ability to enter Chinese characters on your computer, you should be able to access those domains from anywhere

For users to access the new domain names, their ISP must be configured to use the new Chinese root server. Presumably Chinese ISPs will do so, but outside of China the vast majority of ISPs use the ICANN controlled network of root servers.

This means that outside China, the new domains will not be accessible without configuration changes. These could be made by the user, by configuring their computer to use the Chinese root server in addition to their ISP provided one. Alternatively the ISP could add the Chinese root server to their own DNS configuration file, which would allow all their customers to have access.

This assumes that China permits connection to their root server from outside of China, and in the case of user-side configuration changes, that the user's ISP doesn't block DNS (sometimes done for security reasons).

Thanks Steven that's an extremely useful clarification.

This has actually been around for a while - see this story from exactly a year ago:
I guess this announcement makes it a little bit more official.

Steven's right to point out that this will (almost certainly) be restricted to China - although I'm guessing that ISPs in places like Singapore and (interestingly) Taiwan(taidu.org anyone?) will also provide access to them.

Although there is almost certainly a censorship implication, there are very good reasons for this move: ICANN has been criminally slow in allowing IDN (international domain names, i.e. anything with non-ASCII characters). It makes perfect sense to have these three top level domains, and given that ICANN hasn't done anything to facilitate it, China has gone it alone ...

Chinese language URLs have been used in China for several years. I recall back in 1998 when some Chinese academics talked about this, some concern arose in other countries about China isolating itself in some way. A Chinese computer science professor explained to me at the time that Chinese language URLs are meant to make using the net easier for Chinese people.
I just tried one -- Beijing University. I typed in the
URL http://北京大学.cn/ and it brought me to the Beijing University website aka http://www.pku.edu.cn
I noticed that http://北京大学。中国 produced an error message, as one might expect from the comments above. Perhaps it would work for someone inside China.

FYI, Peter Norvig, Google's research director, Spoke at Santa Clara about drafting an search engine ethics code:


Commercial companies have done this kind of thing for years of course for their own intranet; and whilst it isn't exactly the end-of-the-internet it nearly always is a pain.

Really the root cause for China doing this is the defect built into the DNS that (AFAIK) it can't do foreign language DNS lookups correctly.

@Ian Woollard

Really the root cause for China doing this is the defect built into the DNS that (AFAIK) it can't do foreign language DNS lookups correctly.

The DNS protocol cannot reliably handle non-ASCII domain names. However foreign language domain names work fine. Rather than dealing with the change at the protocol level, the client (typically a web browser) translates Unicode to/from ASCII.

There have been a number of competing proposals for performing this conversion but IDNA, completed in 2003, is the current standard. This has been supported by Firefox/Mozilla for some time, but Microsoft Internet Explorer currently needs plugins to do so. IE7 apparently supports IDNA natively.

As I understand it, ICANN has not introduced foreign TLDs for non-technical reasons, such as security, politics and user confusion. China is using IDNA to implement the new domains, so they will face the same browser support difficulties.

Foreign second level domains are supported, and these are possible under .net and .com which are managed by ICANN. The decision whether to support IDNA under the country code TLDs is up to the country in question, but many have chosen to do so (China included).

There is much discussion of Chinese domain names on the Chinese Network Information Center website in English at http://www.cnnic.cn/en/index/index.htm
and in Chinese at http://www.cnnic.cn/index/0B/index.htm
When I opened the site in Chinese, in Firefox, it said I needed to open Internet Explorer. Then when I did that, it said I need to install some additional file to use Chinese language domain names properly, and then close IE.

I also tried guessing at Chinese character URLs. An obvious one I found is 外交部.cn It is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website at www.fmprc.gov.cn

Here is a description of the software I downloaded from the website for Chinese language domain names --


Chinese Language Web Browsing Software - Official Edition

The explanation says that software meets an international standard for multilingual domain names.



I went to the website of one of the PRC domain name registration authorities http://www.net.cn/
The site invites registrations...
I checked for www.中国.com [that is www.[China in Chinese characters].com According to www.net.cn that domain is available and asked me if I wanted to register it. I decided I was too nice to be a squatter. Hard to believe. There must be some rule against doing that. In March there will be a meeting in Beijing to discuss domain names. Here is the information:


  · 跨国巨头中文域名漏洞百出,宝洁身陷抢注危机,迪斯尼品牌损失已很难挽回
  · 法律缺失:世界五百强陷入中文域名被抢注泥潭
  · 疯狂注册CN域名 跨国公司纷纷启动域名保护战略
  · 世界文化遗产天坛启用中文域名“天坛.CN”,旅游界纷纷效仿
  · 国企,不要在背影中哭泣
  · 中文域名屡遭抢注 保护".CN"企业需要补课
  · 域名争议日益频繁 专家:重要网站应启用CN域名
  · 网络掘金 域名先行 高速路上的中国标识:CN域名
    …… ……
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Ian Wollard said:
The DNS protocol cannot reliably handle non-ASCII domain names.

That is not correct - the DNS handles any
binary value for its names (see rfc2181).
The issues that lead to translation from unicode into ascii for the proposed IDN solutions all relate to the use of domain names in other protocols (like e-mail) which do have character set restrictions.

@Robert Elz

Actually I said that.

Yes, technically the DNS packet format can handle arbitrary binary data (up to a certain length), but I think the requirements for ASCII go deeper than simply higher level protocol requirements.

For example, the ASCII value for "." exists in the UTF-16 representation of "Ю". If you wanted to use this in a domain name, such a string could not be passed through the standard resolver APIs, e.g. gethostbyname().

Although it could exist in a DNS packet, it would be problematic configuring DNS servers to accept it in their zone file. Null bytes (also present in UTF-16) are in a similar situation.

solyak1 http://www.solyak.com ; Thanks!


Don't know anything about technical requirements and details of using a foreign (or Chinese) domain name but our company applied one for our online store.

Interesting enough is that the latest version of FireFox and Opera have no problems at all (I don't know earlier version since I don't use them personally) for handling Chinese domain name (Traditional Chinese). IE 6, however, cannot handle it without first accessing this annoying site from VeriSign (http://www.idnnow.com/index.jsp).

We can't introduce our Chinese domain name to many older Chinese customers (yes, they perfer to use Chinese, traditional or simplified) because IE is being used by the majorty users.

I do consider this is a major bug for IE.

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