Saturday, April 30, 2011

Millions watch royal wedding, others try

Millions around the world tuned in to watch the Royal Wedding in Britain though coverage varied depending where you were located.

For viewers in Britain there was saturation coverage with the BBC beginning early in the morning. CNN's coverage was described as "extensive" by one commentator on the BBC World Service and Sky News also gave up many hours of air time to the event.

Many networks around the globe had special programming though coverage was often interrupted with studio discussions or advertisements.

In China viewing the royal event was more problematic given the tight restrictions imposed on broadcasters and the few foreign channels available. While BBC World and CNN International are available in China, they are mainly confined to expensive apartment complexes and hotels.

CCTV, China's state broadcaster, and Channel News Asia, which broadcasts from Singapore, are more widely available though both interrupted their special programming with studio discussions. While the actual ceremony itself was shown, as prayers and hymns were sung both channels dropped pictures from inside Westminster Abbey. CCTV News seemed more interested in discussing fashion choices and handbag designs. Channel News Asia even reverted to regular news programming and aired reports of recent skirmishes on the Thai-Cambodia border.

Trying to view the proceedings on the Internet failed for many people. Beijing's Internet is relatively fast, though the BBC site appeared to crash shortly before the service began. Other websites which aired live pictures constantly buffered and displayed messages saying the connection was not fast enough. Listening online in Beijing on the BBC World Service was also a little shaky.

Of course, few in China were immersed in the royal wedding fever which was gripping Britain. There was only one advertised event in Beijing. The Black Sun Bar in the capital's Chaoyang district offered royal watchers British beer such as Boddingtons and Newcastle Brown Ale during the scheduled two hour event. However most expats were more likely to have watched the wedding on CCTV News, while drinking Chinese beer or green tea.

Despite the problems of tuning in, millions around the world watched at least some of the two hour spectacle. Others followed events on Twitter or listened in to online radio broadcasts. For those who missed the event live or experienced technical problems, highlights were quickly posted on many websites including the official Royal YouTube channel. Further coverage was also available in the form of pictures on the official Royal Wedding website as well as on dozens of news websites.

As for newspaper coverage, every newspaper in Britain carried the story on their front page with a picture of the couple kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace [Papers: BBC / Sky]. 

Many foreign papers also led with the royal wedding. In France Le Figaro and Aujourd'hui both carried the story on the front page as did many papers across Europe including those from Germany, Finland, Hungary, Italy and Spain. In the US a number of papers hit the news stands with pictures of the Prince and Princess kissing. The LA Times, New York Post and Washington Post being just a few. Further afield coverage was less extensive. While the English language China Daily and Shanghai Daily both ran with the story on their front pages, the royal wedding failed to gain such prominence in Chinese language papers. In Japan only a tiny picture adorned the Mainichi Shimbun Digital while others ignored the wedding altogether.

Australia's Age and Daily Telegraph carried the royal kiss on their front pages, but the Herald Sun pushed what little coverage it ran to the inside pages. Several papers in New Zealand also carried the story on its front pages including the Dominion Post, The Weekend Press and the New Zealand Herald.

There will be further commemorative and special souvenir publications in the coming days. And of course the royal wedding memorabilia will remain on sale for some time. There will be cynics that say the wedding was a waste of money, in times of hardship. Others have suggested it has brought a 'feel good factor' to Britain and that the wedding may even help boost the economy. That remains to be seen, but for one day at least, there was some sense of partying and excitement. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Android gets Google Docs app

Google has finally released a Google Docs app for Android smartphones and tablets. For many Android users this is welcome news. GMail was integrated from the very beginning, and Google Calendar and picture syncing with Picasa Web was already in place for a long time. But anyone wishing to access or edit their documents on the go had to either access GDocs through the browser or a third party app. Now Google have made the process of accessing documents stored in the cloud that much easier. But users in some parts of the world, such as China, are excluded.

Google Docs for Android is essentially a shell wrapped around the mobile version of Docs for the browser. It consists of menus designed to make finding and working with documents easier to do by touch. Swiping from menu to menu is fluid and works well and pinch & zoom is incorporated into many aspects of its design.

The Docs app also allows users to upload content from their phone and open documents directly from Gmail. A widget can be added to the home screen for easy access to three core tasks: jumping to starred documents, taking a photo to upload, or creating a new document with one tap.

OCR support

Much of what is available in the desktop version is available in the Android app with a few added extras. There is a new ability to capture notes using the device's camera. After capturing, notes can be edited with text to augment the image. Google Docs can also use OCR [Optical Character Recognition] to convert text contained in captured images into a text document, similar to Evernote.

How well this works in practice, especially as regards foreign languages, remains to be seen. On its blog Google says the built in OCR "does a pretty good job capturing unformatted text in English but won't recognize handwriting or some fonts - stay tuned, it will get better over time!"

Voices of disappointment

While GDocs for Android is certainly a step in the right direction, there are already some voices of disappointment. A number have complained that the interface is little different from the web interface. Others have pointed out that they cannot see docs in offline mode, only a list of them, and question what the cache setting is for. While many people use Android devices with a data connection, there is a high percentage of users who make use of available WiFi connections, especially when travelling. Offline viewing end editing would thus be of great benefit in such situations.

The biggest failure of any app is the user interface. For Android smartphone users the app will be useful in order to access documents and make small changes. But due to the size of the screen and keyboard, it is unlikely that users will use a smartphone to type anything more than a few notes. On a tablet, GDocs is well placed, and the release of this application is likely timed with the emergence of a number of Android tablets hitting the market. A demonstration of the application can be seen on YouTube.

No access in China

The biggest disappointment is that users in China are effectively excluded from this technology. Google Docs in both http and https modes has been blocked for the last 8 months and this new app will not work in China. While it downloads and installs without issue, it cannot update and refresh the document list since Google Docs is blocked by the Great Firewall of China. A VPN is little use for many as PPTP and L2TP have been blocked since early march. The iPhone allows IPSec which is a little more robust, but unfortunately Android does not have this option.

While Android has made some inroads in China, many of the applications familiar with users around the world simply will not work. All the social networking apps such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Foursquare are just pretty icons on an Android device in China. A VPN rarely works since many such services have themselves been targeted by China's censors.

For Chinese users, these blocks are or little consequences since there are many Chinese equivalents, Sina Weibo, Xiaonei, Youku and Jiepang, and their respective applications.

Threat from Baidu

But there is another threat to Google's flagship mobile operating system. Part of Google's strength in foisting Android on the world market was open-sourcing, which allows anyone to create and develop applications. But open-source is a double-edged sword. The free and "open" Android platform has been a boon to Google in most places around the globe, but in China the story is somewhat different.

The Next Web reports that Baidu has proposed to increase its own dominance by persuading manufacturers to pre-install a Baidu search box application to Android smartphones distributed in China instead of the current Google standard.

Despite losing the search game on desktops in China, Google is winning when it comes to its open-source mobile operating system. But this openness is allows Google's competitors to take the advantage and a give companies such as Baidu the ability load its search application to the operating system. By December 2010, around 50% of smartphones in China were running on Android, a staggering increase from zero in 2009.

China has almost 900 million mobile users, about three times the entire US population. With Android, Google regained some of the market after being all but ousted from the PC search market by Chinese government favouritism of Baidu and hacking. But trading inside China has many pitfalls. Favouritism, protectionism, intellectual property theft and censorship being just a few.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hong Kong, a land of signs

One has to be careful in how one labels Hong Kong. Technically it is a part of China, and as such not a country. It is not really a city, since it extends across several islands, and the city proper is mainly confined to a relatively small area. The territory is officially known as Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region], and while a part of China, this is a part of China that is very different from the Mainland.

The differences were almost immediately apparent after crossing the border between Shenzhen which borders Hong Kong. The region returned to China in 1997, but there are many hangovers from British colonial rule. It was in many ways like Britain with Chinese characteristics, or was it the other way around?

Road signs and road markings throughout Hong Kong retain a very British feel, whether it be the Give Way triangles at junctions or the yellow lines along the road side. And of course the cars still drive on the left.

There is a difference between both Mainland China and Britain which will strike any visitor -Hong Kong is clean, scrupulously clean. There is barely a scrap of paper, cigarette butt or splatter of chewing gum to be seen anywhere.

A 'Keep Britain Tidy' campaign has largely failed in preventing people littering the streets. Stroll the streets of London and it is not uncommon to have to wade through discarded McDonald's wrappers, avoid treading on discarded gum or to navigate piles of dog excrement. The threat of a fine is not enough to encourage Britons to keep their country clean, partly because fines are rarely enforced.

In Mainland China, it seems that only the army of street cleaners prevents a build up of refuse. And there are certainly no signs warning of a fine, should one drop litter.

In Hong Kong order seems to be maintained by threats of fines and a barrage of informative notices plastered all over the place.

Everywhere one looks there are signs. In a park, situated in the Kowloon district, a sign asks visitors not to dry their linen and clothes, refrain from climbing, urinating, hawking, and even lie on benches. Further south another sign bans skateboarding and paddling in an artificial pond.

Many such signs do not threaten a fine, but others do. On the Hong Kong subway, known as the MTR, there are countless bans which all come with stiff penalties. Ignoring a 'No Spitting' advisory could result in a HK$ 5,000 fine [nearly £400 or $600], as could hawking, bill posting or smoking. Eating or drinking on the subway comes with a HK$ 2,000 fine [£150 / $260].

It was not immediately clear how often such fines are imposed, but there were no obvious transgressors.

Even where there was no financial penalty, it seemed that most people followed the advisories. On the subway passengers queued in an orderly fashion, letting passengers disembark before making a move to board. There was no pushing, shoving or queue jumping - as is commonly seen in the mainland.

Passengers kept to the left as they walked along interconnecting subway tunnels. Only a sign and a painted line was needed to help keep people on track. There were no physical barriers, yet people did not deviate. Even the traffic stayed within the designated road markings. The weaving of cars, a common sight in Mainland China was almost entirely absent.

In Hong Kong there is far less risk when crossing the road. The 'green man' at pedestrian crossings means that a person can cross with absolute safety. Anyone who has attempted to cross a city street in China will be familiar with crossing on a 'green man' only to find that they still have to avoid turning traffic, bicycles and mopeds. In Hong Kong drivers run the risk of fines should they ignore a red light with enforcement cameras a regular sight.

Where danger poses a risk on crossing, Hong Kong is not short on advisories however. At one road in Kowloon there were several signs warning pedestrians of the dangerous road. "Crossing ahead closed, use subway", "Please do not cross here" and "To Kowloon Park Drive subway" were just a few.

There is no escaping the signs at the beach either. One notice at a beach on Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong prohibits kite flying, fishing, cycling, skateboarding, the throwing of objects, ball games, dogs, and waterskiing. Fortunately swimming was not banned, though in April the water was still a little too cold.

For smokers, Hong Kong is a little frustrating in that it has adopted strict anti-smoking policies over the last few years. A ban on smoking in public places extends to bars and restaurants, and while visitors from the West may be used to such restrictions, it is one 'freedom' which visitors from Mainland China might miss. On the mainland smoking in bars and restaurants is commonplace, although new legislation is set to restrict this in May.

Cigarettes, like many things in Hong Kong, are very expensive. A packet of Marlboro will cost around HK$ 50 [$6.43 / £3.94 / 42 RMB]. This is some what cheaper than the UK where a packet of twenty would cost near to £7 [HK$ 88 / $11 / 75 RMB], but way above the 15 RMB [HK$ 17.85 / $2.30 / £1.40] seen on the Mainland.

Bars are mainly confined to just a few areas of Hong Kong, as is often seen in Mainland China. And the prices are generally quite high with prices upwards of HK$ 50 [$6.43 / £3.94 / 42 RMB].

The cost of public transport is on a par with London or other western cities, and for those arriving from Mainland China, this will be the biggest shock. A bus ride in Beijing can be measured in pennies or cents, but in Hong Kong the cost will often rise into pounds or dollars.

Space is also at a premium, and as such renting and accommodation is extremely expensive. Many Hong Kongers live in tiny flats, and for visitors, hotel rooms are no less different. Only if taking an expensive room in the Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton or similar, will one get space enough to swing a cat.

There are many more freedoms that the people of Hong Kong enjoy compared to Mainland China. The political system is far more relaxed and of course there is little if any Internet censorship. The irony was that there were fewer freely accessible WiFi hotspots across the region.

In Beijing many bars and coffee shops provide free Internet access, many without the need to agree to Terms & Conditions. Even Shenzhen airport provided free WiFi Internet. Despite travelling extensively around Hong Kong recently, free WiFi hotspots were difficult to find or access. GovHK provides free WiFi at some locations, but despite many attempts tvnewswatch found it impossible to establish a connection on an Android device.

If you do achieve a connection, all those favourite social networking sites will return. And in Hong Kong they are very popular. It is not uncommon to see people check-in on Facebook and Foursquare, or posting a tweet on Twitter whether you're on the subway, in a bus or sitting alongside Victoria Harbour. There is no sign banning that.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rising fears of Fukushima impact

"Where do those prawns come from?" a female shopper asks the assistant in a Beijing branch of Carrefour. "Tianjin," the shop assistant responds. "Oh, OK," the woman says, "I'll leave it." The assistant calls after her. "They're fresh," he exclaims. But the shopper was not convinced. "I think we should only buy river fish in future," she tells her husband, her concerns heightened over radioactivity flowing from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Tianjin lies on the east coast of China, 116 km to the south-east of Beijing and over 2,000 km from Fukushima. But despite the distance from Japan, consumers are concerned about the spread of radiation.

It is not only shoppers who are worried. This week the Chinese government raised its concerns over the disaster, prompting Premier Wen Jiabao to call Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan [Xinhua]. The premier's phone call followed an earlier official notice sent to Japan. In a statement posted on the ministry's website on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China hoped that Japan would take concrete measures to protect the marine environment and asked that information be provided in an accurate and timely fashion [Seattle Times].

Despite Chinese concerns, authorities insist that thus far the risks posed to the public are small. Nonetheless the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, which also acts as the nuclear safety watchdog, said the "long-term consequences of the Fukushima accident cannot be ignored", and that the government would continue assessing its impact on China's environment and seas.

Radiated water issued from Fukushima "is likely to have a certain impact on aquatic life" the ministry said in a statement, which was dated Tuesday but appeared on the government website on Wednesday.

"Its impact on our country's environment has been small, equivalent to about one percent of the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear accident on our country," said the ministry [Xinhua / Reuters].

The statement came as Japanese authorities reassessed the crisis upgrading the severity to a level 7, on a par with the Chernobyl nuclear accident which happened 25 years ago.


Japan insists that the raising of the status of the accident did not mean there had been a change in circumstances, but merely a reassessment of all the available data concerning the situation at the plant.

Several explosions, fires and leaks have poured a significant quantity of radioactive substances into the environment, though beyond the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima plant officials insist there is no immediate risk to human health.

Small amounts of plutonium have been found close to the plant, but have not been detected further afield. However, iodine 131 and caesium 137 have been located hundreds of kilometres from Fukushima.

China says the radioactive isotope iodine 131 as well as caesium 134 and 137 were found in 22 provinces; Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Hebei, Shanxi, Liaoning, Jilin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Shandong, Henan, Hunan, Hainan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Shannxi, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang.

However Xinhua, China's state news agency, reported that the detected particles were "harmless" and that there was "no need to adopt protective measures."

There is some cause for concern however. Iodine 131 has been detected in spinach planted in Beijing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shandong. The radioactive isotope was also found on lettuce and Chinese cabbage in Guangdong, Xinhua reported. Though not officially stated, it is likely that particles of radioactive caesium have also entered the food chain.

Authorities insist that the levels do not pose a threat, but some scientists are speaking out and warning of the long term effects. Helen Caldicott, president of the Helen Caldicott Foundation for a Nuclear-Free Planet and the author of Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, aired her view in the Guardian and suggests many journalists and scientists are underplaying the risks.

No safe level

Nuclear industry proponents often assert that low doses of radiation, below 100mSV, produce no ill effects and are therefore safe. But, as the US National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII report concluded, no dose of radiation is safe. Even low exposure can pose health risks. Exposure is cumulative and adds to an individual's risk of developing cancer.

While external contamination poses a relatively low risk in that decontamination may simply involve the discarding of clothes and the washing of skin, internal ingestion of radioactive particles can increase risks dramatically.

Hazardous radionuclides such as iodine 131, caesium 137, and other isotopes currently being released in the sea and air around Fukushima bio-concentrate at each step of various food chains. They build up in algae, crustaceans, small fish, bigger fish, then humans. Or they might pass through soil, grass, meat and milk, and to humans.

After they enter the body, these elements, known as internal emitters, migrate to specific organs such as the thyroid, liver, bone, and brain, where they continuously irradiate small volumes of cells with high doses of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation. Over many years they can induce uncontrolled cell replication, often referred to as cancer. Many such nuclides remain radioactive in the environment for generations, and will ultimately cause increased incidences of cancer and genetic diseases over time.

While iodine 131 will gradually melt away having a very short half-life, other substances will persist for much longer. Caesium 137 for example has a half-life of some 30 years, and even small particles, if ingested, significantly increase a person's risk of developing cancer.

Relative risk

Some authorities suggest that while some concern is warranted, the increased risk is small given people's exposure to background radiation. After drinking water was discovered to contain small amounts of radioactive iodine 131 in Denver in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency released a statement in an attempt to allay people's fears.

"We understand that people get concerned when we talk about radiation, but it's important to understand how these low levels compare to the radiation we experience from natural sources every day," EPA spokesman Rich Mylott said. "To put this drinking water sample into context, an infant would have to drink nearly 7,000 litres of this water to receive a radiation dose equal to just one day's worth of natural background exposure. That's exposure we all experience every day from natural sources, such as the sun and rocks and gases in the earth's crust" [Denver Post].

In the view of many environmentalists, the damage was done many years ago. Atomic tests in the 1950s spread quantities of radioactive particles around the globe and the release of a significant amount of radiation from Chernobyl and Fukushima has just added to the thin layer of radioactive particles coating planet Earth.

Several radioactive substances are already in the food chain. Radioactive polonium 210, which gained increased attention following the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko [tvnewswatch], is contained in phosphate fertilizers and is absorbed by the roots of plants. Tobacco plants readily absorb the polonium 210, which emits alpha radiation and is estimated to cause about 11,700 lung cancer deaths annually worldwide [Independent / NYT]. However, polonium can be absorbed by other plants and has also been found in the wider food chain, especially in seafood [ACSA].

Long term effects

Any effects from the radioactive leaks at Fukushima will only be seen over time. It has taken years to assess the impact of Chernobyl on people and the environment, and there is still much argument amongst researchers over how many were affected directly and indirectly. One study suggests that nearly one million died from cancers induced by the radioactive releases, while others put the death toll at only a few hundred [Chernobyl: Consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment].

There are still restrictions in place concerning animals affected from Chernobyl. In Britain, more than 2,000 km from the reactor, radioactive caesium was still considered high 20 years after the Russian nuclear disaster [Guardian].

As recently as 2009 the British government admitted nearly 370 farms in the country were still restricted in the way sheep are reared and land is used because of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl [Guardian]. And today there are still restrictions in place.

Difficult decisions exist for consumers and residents close to Japan. Restaurants selling seafood, especially Japanese outlets, have seen a fall in trade in China and other Asian countries []. There have been instances of stockpiling of some foods and panic buying of salt under the misguided belief its use would protect from radioactive iodine. Some restaurants in the US are attempting to reassure customers by using Geiger counters to test fish [CBS], but this is not yet a widespread practice.

Whether the risk from radioactive particles has increased or not, the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident is something Earth's inhabitants will have to live with. Since nuclides have been detected worldwide, there is really nowhere to run.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, April 08, 2011

China may shut down Google Maps

Google, as well as a number of other Internet companies (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare etc), have had a fraught time promoting their services in China, but it looks as though the situation may become far worse. New regulations issued by the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping require all companies providing online mapping in China to submit for a licence to operate. Those that fail to do so or do not adhere to the stipulations set out in the licence would be forced to shut down.

Many of Google's services are already blocked or severely restricted in China. YouTube, Picasa Web and Blogger have been inaccessible for some time while Google Sites and Google Docs were blocked last year. After a dispute with Chinese authorities last year over alleged hacking attempts on its GMail servers, Google decided to relocate its Chinese oriented search engine to Hong Kong after it said it was unwilling to self-censor Internet searches. While this freed Google from being forced to self censor search results it has made the site less accessible for many people in mainland China. More recently Google accused China of interfering with its GMail service making it exceeding slow or entirely inaccessible, something which the Chinese authorities denied. The blocks on GMail came shortly after calls for a Jasmine Revolution in China and also after Google was accused by the People's Daily of being like an American version of the British East India Company, which during the Opium Wars, "forced open the doors of China with its own gunships, sending China into a century of chaos and leaving Chinese with a bitter history of humiliation." This is something China will not allow to happen again, the paper says. "China will not stand by and let a new British East India Company repeat the events of history."

Threat to Google Maps

China's war against Google seems likely to spread to Google Maps. The People's Daily has reported that Google has failed to apply for the appropriate licence and may be shut down. The deadline for the licence application passed on 31st March and a shutdown could be seen as early as July.

An official from the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping no application had been received from Google and that administrative departments would adopt measures on 1st July "to firmly punish the serious delinquent behaviors of enterprises that do not submit the application".

After passing the regulations in 2010, the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping issued Internet mapping licenses to 105 websites, including China's domestic enterprises, such as Baidu, Sina and China Mobile, as well as the Nokia joint venture company in China in mid-February. Google suffered a further setback last month after Sina dropped its mapping service.

Should China block Google Maps it will be a blow not only to the Internet giant but to millions of users in China. The site is widely used on mobile devices and computers by expats and visitors. Its built in travel directions and GPS integration has made it an indispensable tool for travellers trying to find their way around.

Many websites inside China still use Google Maps, especially entertainment websites such as City Weekend which targets tourists and expats.

No real alternative

While there are Chinese based alternatives, they do not offer the same functionality as Google Maps. Baidu's map service does not offer an English version and only provides mapping for China. The detail offered is not as comprehensive as that provided by Google Maps and the facility to obtain directions from one location to another is more tricky given the interface is entirely based in Chinese.

Analysts speculate that Google might not pass the next Internet Content Provider annual inspection, a necessary permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to permit China-based websites to operate in China.

Google has a meagre market share in China and although local Chinese Internet companies may benefit from Google's complete ousting in the short term, due to less competition, it may not be good for the healthy development of the nation's Internet industry in the long term.

Servers outside China

For Google providing a separate mapping service for China may prove tricky. Just as with its GMail service, the data for its Maps service is hosted outside of China. Making a China specific product, satisfying the requirements of Chinese authorities, might prove logistically impossible, or at the very least extremely costly.

As the Chinese Internet closes in on itself and further tightens regulations, it may soon become the Intranet that it is often jokingly referred to by some.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, April 07, 2011

7.1 quake strikes of coast of Japan

A large earthquake has again struck off the coast of Japan less than a month after a massive magnitude 9 tremor triggered a destructive tsunami. The USGS initially measured today's quake at 7.4 but later downgraded it to 7.1. The epicentre of the earthquake was located only 66 km off the coast of Sendai close to the Onagawa nuclear plant [38.253N, 141.639E] at a depth of 25 km. The tremor occurred at 23:32:41 local time [14:32:41 UTC]. 

There were no immediate reports of damage although those living along the coast were advised to move to higher ground in case of a possible tsunami. Meanwhile workers at the stricken Fukushima plant have been evacuated according to the operator TEPCO.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Bob Dylan plays Beijing

Bob Dylan received a rapturous reception during his debut performance at the Workers' Gymnasium in Beijing on Wednesday. Thousands a mix of foreign expats and local Chinese attended the concert and gave a warm welcome to the 69 year old legend.

A creaky start

Wearing a black suit and donning a grey panama hat, Dylan started off a little croaky as he opened with Gonna Change My Way of Thinking taken from his 1979 album Slow Train Coming. He followed with It's All Over Now Baby Blue from the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home and Beyond Here Lies Nothing, a lesser known song from his 33rd album Together Through Life which was released in 2009.

Dylan's performance of the classic Tangled Up in Blue from his 1975 hit LP Blood on the Tracks drew a huge applause, though his aged showed and he struggled through the five minute piece.

Around half the set was taken from his later albums and although well performed did not draw the same enthusiasm as his well known hits from the 1960s and 70s.

Later recordings included Honest With Me and Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum from his 2001 album Love and Theft. Love Sick taken from his 30th studio album Time Out of Mind dated back to 1997 while Thunder on the Mountain, Spirit on the Water and Rollin' and Tumblin' were from his more recent 2006 album Modern Times.

A better second half

But it was his older songs that made the night. Simple Twist of Fate from Blood on the Tracks was well received and A Hard Rain's Gonnna Fall from the 1963 LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited, from the album of the same name, drew great cheers and applause.

The final songs were all oldies. Bob took to centre stage with his harmonica as his gave a superb performance of Ballad Of A Thin Man from Highway 61 Revisited. During his first encore he played a roaring rendition of Like a Rolling Stone from the aforementioned LP. All Along the Watchtower, from the 1967 album John Wesley Harding, was not so sharp and seemed to end somewhat abruptly. Dylan ended with a second encore of Forever Young, taken from his 1974 album Planet Waves.

The sound production was not the best, and seemed a little quiet during the first few numbers but as the concert went on this improved. The band did seem a little wooden as took a little time to warm up. There was no banter between songs making it all a little artificial. Between each track the stage was plunged into darkness and only towards the end did Dylan introduce his band.

Nonetheless it appeared most people had enjoyed this historic event. Many expats were beaming as they exited the arena, though there were a few puzzled faces amongst the many young Chinese who had attended.

Closely monitored

The event had been carefully controlled with Dylan forced to accept a strict adherence to playing an agreed set. This may have also extended to preventing him engaging the audience directly. Authorities were on edge given recent calls for protests in China and the arrest of prominent activists such as the artist Ai Weiwei who has not been seen since his detention on Sunday [BBC].

Bob Dylan's historic live concert avoided controversy and was closely monitored by Chinese authorities. He was not allowed to play what might be considered to be politically sensitive material. "I was a little disappointed that he didn't sing many of his songs because of the politics," said Zhang Tian, 30, a Beijing lawyer after seeing Bob Dylan. It would have been a mistake if he had deviated from his agreed repertoire some people suggested.

"It would have been a total disaster if he had said anything, this was a really high-profile event," Archie Hamilton, a music promoter in China, told the Daily Telegraph.

In China such events are strictly controlled and there are swift and draconian repercussions if rules are broken. The Communist Party imposed a two-year ban on foreign acts after the Icelandic singer Bjork made a plea for Tibet at the end of a concert in Shanghai in 2008.

Many Chinese had attended the concert out of curiosity and to experience something different. Foreign acts rarely play in Beijing or elsewhere in China, and although Dylan is not that well known he attracted a large crowd. One 24 year old advertising executive Yin Yang told the Telegraph that he only knew a few of Dylan's songs from karaoke and was not greatly familiar with the artist. However he was still happy at having seen the aged singer songwriter. "I think this was a historic concert and I'm glad I've seen him," Yin said.

The young concert goers from Beijing were not the only ones who were less than familiar with the Folk-Rock icon. When the Xinmin Evening News, one of Shanghai's most-read newspapers, wrote a story previewing his concert, they inadvertently used a picture of Willie Nelson! [xiaokang2020 / PDF].

Photographic restrictions

There were other controls in place as professional photographers were excluded from the event. Even those from Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, were kept out. Many speculated that the reason was to do with an image rights management issue by Bob Dylan's management company. However there were many people dotted around the auditorium with professional camera equipment and despite tight security including metal detectors and X-ray machines at the entrance, there appeared to be no restriction on people entering with cameras.

At the beginning of the performance there was an announcement saying that the taking of pictures was prohibited, which was later changed to the prohibition of the use of a flash. Many seemed to ignore this however though security personnel targeted those using flash by pointing a green laser pointer at the offenders.

In China the times may not be a-changin' and the answer does not seem to be blowin' in the wind. But in recent years Dylan is more about entertainment than raising political ideas. This concert was perhaps no real concession for Dylan himself who would prefer to play his later material anyway. But as entertainment goes, it was great. Dylan is set to play Shanghai on the 8th April followed by dates in Hong Kong and Vietnam.

other reports: BBC / BBC (video)/ Guardian / Reuters / Xinhua

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China