Friday, April 05, 2013

Tales from China, a return journey

It's been a least 18 months since last having visited China. In that time there have been significant changes. The most notable change has been that of a reshuffling of leaders. But while this has been a major focus for news media in the West, inside China, Xi Jinping's new role of President is not the hottest topic falling from people's lips.

A less than 'Harmonious Society'

The up and coming middle-classes are far more interested in finding ways to increase their wealth and income than they are about the change in political leadership.

And further down the ladder China's poor are more concerned about keeping a roof over their head.

In the lead up to, and few years following the Beijing Olympics, authorities cleared the streets of what they considered to be undesirable elements. The strict enforcement has gradually relaxed however and in the last month beggars were once again a common sight in China's capital Beijing.

Outside subway stations and especially near to hotels near to tourist hotspots, such as Wangfujing, beggars, some with children, pestered foreigners for money.

In many ways China still remains far from the "Harmonious Society" envisioned by Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao.

Growing environmental concerns

For many visitors to the Chinese capital in the past few months, it is the extremely poor air quality that has been more noticeable than the rich poor divide. And it's not just Beijing. The thick soup of pollution seems almost inescapable. Several thousand kilometres south in Yunnan's capital Kunming and the air can feel just as bad. In more rural locations it may just be a matter of air being saturated with dust or sand, rather than the more usual mix of car exhaust, industrial pollution and emissions from power stations. Such conditions create a longing to breathe clean fresh air, something that is perhaps taken for granted in the West.

It is not just the air that is of concern. Polluted waterways are becoming an increasing concern too. Industry and individuals are all too willing to poor waste products into rivers, creating problems for those downstream as well as local government and environmental resources.

The recent dumping of thousands of pigs into a river near Shanghai has raised worries too that there may be a link to that and a recent outbreak of a SARS like virus. Although only 6 people have died after contracting the H7N9 virus, there are fears of an epidemic that could spread across the country [BBC / Xinhua]. There are particular concerns raised by the WHO that the virus could be transmissible between humans, which in a densely populated country such as China could have disastrous consequences [Business Insider].

It could all prove to be yet another storm in a teacup like the last worldwide concern over the H5N1 and various subtypes that rattled health authorities in 2009. That particular strain killed a little over 600 people worldwide significant in itself, but to put it into perspective seasonal flu kills many more every year. Nonetheless, it is perhaps best to keep an eye on such developments, especially whilst travelling around rural China!

Stifled Internet

This is perhaps a subject that has been done to death, and anyone familiar with China will know much about its restricted Internet. Nonetheless it is still worth mentioning since such factors are beginning to affect the way people do business with China - the other factor apparently driving away foreign talent is the bad pollution [SCMP].

There has been little if any improvement with China's Internet, since last having visited the country. Unless accessing locally based websites, pages may take an eternity to resolve. Censorship of the web is strictly enforced and many foreign sites still remain inaccessible.

Hardest hit are Google services. While Google search works, it is often slow and pages may not resolve on occasion. Picture or image search are seemingly worst affected. A simple search took several minutes without any result, yet after connecting to a VPN the search request appeared in seconds. Gmail is almost unusable at times, forcing many Chinese users to abandon their accounts for locally based Chinese email services.

Google Talk is almost completely blocked, while Drive, Google+ and most of Google's other cloud based tools are entirely inaccessible.

There are however some bizarre anomalies in that those using Android devices see their pictures being sent without hindrance to Google's 'Instant Upload' facility from where they could be shared, though of course not to any blocked services such as Google+, Facebook, Twitter et al!

GPS anomalies

For tech-heads perhaps one major annoyance is the Google Maps/GPS anomaly. The maps used by Google are supplied by Chinese firm AutoNavi, and for all intents and purposes they are highly accurate. However, in many parts of China the GPS icon on an Android device using Google Maps will often show the user as being in a location up to a kilometre from one's correct position.

The reason for this can only be guessed at. There have been accusations by Chinese authorities that western companies, such as Coca Cola in a recent case, as well as individuals have been using GPS devices to illegally log information. While only speculation, it could be that authorities are using GPS jammers. Such devices have been known to be used by North Korea who severely affected the workings of South Korea's Internal Airports in May last year [ArsTechnica]. In parts of Europe smaller devices have been used to circumvent GPS monitoring of stolen vehicles [Guardian]

It could be that maps supplied by AutoNavi are misaligned to the GPS coordinates, though this does not seem to tally with certain anomalies observed over the last few weeks. On arriving in Beijing the GPS showed a discrepancy putting the user some 200 metres to the west, yet the following day the discrepancy was much reduced to only a few metres. In Kunming, the discrepancy was far more obvious showing the user more than a kilometre from the actual location [see image above]. Yet some 100 km south of Yunnan's capital the GPS locator showed as being almost 100% correct. Coincidence? Anywhere else in the world perhaps. But this is China, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

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