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The Living Cells of a Sheep Foetus Injection!

Monday, March 29th, 2010

IMG_2508-4Of all the amazing things that happen to me in China, the SMS messages I get in my cell phone are one of them.

When I first got to Shanghai 3 years ago I was young and my heart was full of ambition. Eager to make a name for myself in the local business circles, I handed out my name card liberally to all those smiling locals that pullulated in the networking events, actively introducing themselves and offering their cards in the lovely Asian two-handed fashion.

It took me a few weeks to understand how things work in Shanghai, and by then my card had already become a commodity in the IDs market, classified right up there under the header: First Class Expat Suckers.

The downside of this is that a good 75% of the text messages I receive since then are adverts. The good side is that these adverts are among the most extraordinary that I have ever seen, giving a good insight of the resourcefulness and creativity of the Shanghai underworld. Click to continue »

Google: Don’t Make that Mistake

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

evil_googleLooking back to what I wrote last week I realize that, in my effort to keep a cool head and analyze the events, I forgot to say a very important thing: I Respect Google. I have never had any doubt of the non-business nature of their decision, and, in spite of our poll’s results, I am convinced it was based on the personal, ethical and political convictions of the company’s leaders.

I do not like the way it has been done, but it sure takes some guts for a CEO to defy the World order, whatever the company’s IPO said. My own site has been victim of censorship, and I was quick to blame Google when they helped censor initiatives like Charter 08,  so it is only fair that I praise them now. Search Engine Manipulation (SEM) is the worst kind of censorship, because it leads the user to believe that the information contained in search results is a fair sample of the World’s views. It was very difficult for Google to justify that behaviour, and it is good news that they stop being part of it. Bravo.

And yet, there are important reasons why Google has been putting up with the Chinese system for 4 years, and as far as I can see, all of those reasons are still there today. By leaving China on a whim, Google sends the message that all that work was just a big mistake. Worse still, by slamming the door on the way out, Google creates trouble for itself, for the Chinese netizens, and for the World internet community.

By any standard, Google’s statement last week is a disaster. It has all the sins that a company announcement can have, not only from the PR perspective, but also from plain common sense. It is insultingly self-righteous, it fails to provide a clear reason for the decision, and it does not offer evidence for any of the accusations. Worse still, it sends an ultimatum to the government of China, revealing a thirst of political power that is very disturbing in a corporation.

Brazen cartoon on the China Daily

Brazen cartoon on China Daily (WSJ)

The primary colors in Google’s logo and its simple slogan “don’t be evil” suggest a world of fairy tales where Good and Evil are clearly defined, and one can live following the Google path, righteously pointing out to others that they are in the wrong. Life is unfortunately more complex, and only very simple people can believe that God is always on their side.

Intentions and Nature of Google

I liked yesterday’s article by Rebecca Mackinnon because it rejected the idiotic debate about the purity of motive of Google’s leaders. On the other hand, I found it a bit too optimistic regarding the role of Google and the World internet community today. 

Google is no more or less evil than most corporations. The difference is it has a developed a unique business model that requires large amounts of trust and goodwill, and it has done a great job of promoting it up to now. To the point that in the online community, it has managed to reverse the classic roles, turning the radical hacktivists into CEO-huggers. Click to continue »

Google vs. China: All the possible WHYs?

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

GmailI know, there are other news in the World, and I am probably not paying enough attention to them. But I can’t help it, I’ve been overclocking for the last 48h trying to understand Google’s decision, I have read every single article appeared on the internet since. And I still don’t get it.

I want to make this a collaborative page, I will keep it on top and I would appreciate comments with clues and POVs I might have missed. The objective is to come up with reasonable hypothesis and then cross out the wrong ones. I will also add interesting bits of info below as they come out:

Hypothesis: Why did Google stand up to the CCP? (UPDATES Below)

Business: We have seen that, with the info in hand, the decision doesn’t make sense from a pure business perspective. Who knows, you might say, perhaps the goodwill earned in the West will end up compensating for the loss of China, perhaps democracy will come soon. Yes, que sera sera. But that’s not how decisions are taken in business. There is a profit and a risk to consider, and when the gain is so uncertain and the loss so clear, it doesn’t make business sense. More on this below.

Ethical: Yes, “don’t do evil”, I know. Hello, all the corporations today have CSR and ethical codes, mine too, even if it is not as cool as Google. But really, a company doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t respond to notions like love or ethics. Only people do that. And, in the case of Google, only Page, Brin and Schmidt have that kind of power. Did they suddenly get pangs of conscience and decided to follow their own principles at any cost? Some already suggest this might have been a personal decision influenced by Sergey Brin. More on the personal hypothesis below.

Checkmate: Google has some information about the Chinese industrial espionage activities that is still undisclosed, with evidence that would compromise the CCP, and possibly push it against the wall in some WTO proceeding. The victims include dozens of Western companies, and the crime is so outrageous that all those countries would be forced to stand up to the CCP as well. This could be Google’s ace in the hole, and it would explain the style of their blog post. This is the only winning hypothesis for the G. It deserves strong consideration, based on the premise that the 3 leaders of Google are Very Intelligent Guys.

Legal: The muddled style of the message and the bad moment chosen (we should be speaking of Nexus One right now!) makes me think that there might have been some pressing matter that pushed Google to do this. Like we said, the same goodwill could have been obtained by simply uncensoring Google.cn without writing a public accusation to the CCP. Is this a move to deslegitimate the Chinese system and avert an upcoming Chinese lawsuit? Did some of the activists threaten to sue Google for the leaks, or was it the Chinese authorities that were getting dangerous? Google Books? Porn on Google Images?

Political: We saw as well that the most likely political outcome is an increase of censorship in China, a net loss for the employees of Google and the Chinese netizens, and perhaps even a rise of nationalism and protectionist policies. There is no way that this move is going to help the Chinese in the short term.  Even if there was: it is not and it can not be the role of a public company to actively engage in politics hand in hand with the US government. Need I remember anyone that the US government is today responsible for evil as severe as the CCP? More news here.

IP Protection: Google might have decided to force its way out of China because really it has detected some theft of IP so severe that it puts in danger the whole business. It is hard to believe that Google is unable to hide its own IP from the Chinese government. We are speaking of the same government that couldn’t even come up with a decent filtering software last year. Let’s just say this option is unlikely. Update: this hypothesis is stronger after rumour of a CCP mole, see Update 2 below.

Conspirational: Google has something to hide. It is something very big and very very weird, like E. Schmidt is an alien, or an irrecoverable bug has been found on Larry’s algorithm, or a Google databank in the US has been held by AlQaida and… and all this noise is just to distract our attention. This would be consistent with the quick messy post at the Google blog.

Personal: Larry Page and Sergey Brin are among the most admired persons in the universe, they are the Gods of the internet. They achieved that at a very young age, and they have spent the last decade sitting on the Google Search cash cow and freely recruiting the best intelligences in the World to conquer the internet and get more universal love than Jesus Christ. Their egos are shooting through the Googolplex roof, and they have decided to bring democracy back, coz them other CEOs don’t know how to act. Girl.

Macroeconomic: Google has obtained insider info on the financial position of some Chinese Banks and the superhuman brains of P and B have come up with a new algorithm predicting that the Chinese system is going to collapse tomorrow. They leave while they are still in time, collecting bonus World goodwill and defying a CCP that will not be there this time next year anyway…

Various/Spectacular: From Daily Beast via BoingBoing: “the reason they know it’s the Chinese government behind these attacks is because Google gave them the key”, “Your entire life, as stored on Google’s servers, may now be there for the taking.” and “Google is attempting to create a distraction.”  Also from Posner in Daily Beast: The Red Menace is back, Google thwarts China’s plan to control the World with an army of hackers.

UPDATE: Danwei has collected some informations regarding the low profit that Google is getting in China. This would give some weight to the Business option above. However, it still doesn’t make any sense. They could have just uncensored Google.cn, get sent away with all the PR hoopla, and all the while not cross the CCP too much with the public accusations of email hacking. Because there is ABSOLUTELY no business interest in Google forcing things in a way that even Google.com and all the G services will be blocked. China can do that easily with the GFW.

UPDATE 2: The moles theory. ESWN translates from anonymous Chinese blogger claiming insider info: Google trusts its employees and gives them access to all the codes, suddenly discovered one  of the employees is actually a CCP mole who’s been passing information, not only about activists but also Google’s own IP (actually from the initial G’s post it is not clear which of the two problems has moved Google).

Rings true to me, and explains why all employees in China are being sent on holidays. And yet, this doesn’t change much the situation. Wasn’t it pretty obvious that Google had CCP spies all along? Every company here has members of the CCP working in it, mine as well. And it is difficult to believe G was so naive as to not take precautions against this.

Moreover, the kind of people that work in Google are the best of the best universities, a high percentage of those people are members of the party here. The surprising thing would have been that there was NO moles in Google China.

I don’t think the big deal is the mole. Whether the hacks were done through moles or through other means is secondary, what is essential to the issue here is the Magnitude of  the IP theft, and the Evidence G has, and possibly the other Companies involved.  For the POLL, this theory is included in the IP Protection option above.

UPDATE 3: (h/t CDT) Newsweek interview Eric Schmidt: Decision based on values, not business. Mentions monitoring of dissidents, not technology  IP theft. Says Google’s IPO specified Google would be different, maximizing profits was not the objective of Google Inc, so no responsibility to the shareholders.

But why why why? Why such a bad form? They could have done it more smoothly, and avert the risk of being completely banished from China. And why now, when the treatment of dissidents is known in China for years? Does it make any difference if hacks are done through a mole in Gmail or through Baidumail once Google is gone? And wouldn’t the right thing be to fight, and encrypt the email better, and give those dissidents a much needed support to stay alive?

Feel free to suggest other hypothesis, or else just vote below: 

(POLL IS CLOSED)

Why do you think Google is leaving China?

  • Business (26%, 24 Votes)
  • Checkmate (26%, 24 Votes)
  • Personal (15%, 14 Votes)
  • Political (15%, 14 Votes)
  • IP protection (14%, 13 Votes)
  • Ethical (14%, 13 Votes)
  • Various/Spectacular (7%, 6 Votes)
  • Macroeconomic (5%, 5 Votes)
  • Conspirational (5%, 5 Votes)
  • Legal (1%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 91

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Google and China (3): Some updates

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

imageThere has been very little new information today and most of the media and the blogosphere is turning around the same ideas, many of them mentioned already in the previous 2 posts of the series.

Here are a few interesting new points I have gathered that I think are worth commenting:

  • There has been a call by H. Clinton to China to explain the hacking claims of Google. And in the same interesting article we read that Eric Schmidt participated last week in a dinner with her to discuss how technology can be used to promote democracy.
  • Google has now started taking measures, and already all the Gmail accounts are encrypted, as far as I know in the whole world, you can check your account and see the address bar now starts with https.
  • However, as of my own tests 5 minutes ago, there is no evidence that the search service in Google.cn has changed. I have a good point of comparison because I did similar searches in an experiment last year. You can look up things like 08宪章 (political document charter 08) and you will see the Manipulated Results, exactly like last year, with the FM message and all.
  • In the only article that Xinhua has published about this, there is one quotation by a professor Guo of a Shanghai university: “the Google case was a reminder to the government that Internet supervision could be more moderate and smarter”. Never thought I would read that in Xinhua. (thanks to kaplanpop for the tip)
  • The actions of Google have gathered a lot of support from Chinese netizens. However, this must not be taken at face value for a survey of Chinese opinion. The large majority of Chinese of course have not even heard about this, and if they have, they have no idea why it is a big deal that foreign company Google may leave China.
  • The stock market still has not decided if the PR points gained in the West are worth the business lost in China. The G shares are down  just 1.4% right now. On the other hand, investors have little doubts about Baidu who is up 13,5%. I bet some copycat in the B offices is already starting to plot how to offer an online BDocs, BMaps, BCalendar, Bmail, Bwave and even Bphone to the Chinese…

    What is going on with Google (2): consequences

    Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

    images_thumb[11]Following the previous post about Google and China, here are my reflections regarding the foreseeable consequences of all this. First of all, an important clarification: I don’t think fighting against censorship is bad. Censorship in China is very real, it is a disgrace not only for activists but for most honest Chinese, and it only serves the purpose of self-preservation of the CCP.

    Having said this, in the previous post I criticized Google for this decision because I think the form is wrong, and the method chosen for this fight is wrong, and more importantly: the Leader of this fight should not be a corporation, much less a Western corporation going solo into politics.

    On the other hand, if it was a pure business calculation I think it is wrong as well,  in the long term it does not make business sense, and the growing Chinese market is likely to live much longer than any goodwill earned for this.

    The more I look at the message, the more it looks like a mistake, a young idealist Googler that has escaped the supervision of his boss. What authority does this blog really have to speak for the company? the message is legit, as commentators have proven below.

    In any case, here are some consequences I foresee, again in fast bullet points:

    • The way the message has been drafted, chances for Google.cn to remain are slim. It will be very difficult for Google to step back from this, the whole tech World is going nuts about it. On the other hand, it is even more difficult for the Chinese authorities: even if they were willing to accept Google’s conditions (which they are not) they could never allow a Western company to publicly force their policies. Unless there is some kind of recanting, Google.cn is doomed.
    • The Chinese authorities can do more than forcing Google.cn out. If things go sour they are also very likely to GFW block* the whole Google.com, in which case the situation would be even worse than pre-Google.cn in 2006. Google could totally disappear from China and say goodbye to a fast growing 20% of the World’s internet users. This includes the phones and any other Google product.
    • I maintain that the decision is BAD in business because consumers have very bad memories, and the goodwill gained in one day, however massive, does not last. How many companies go bust for accusations of child labor? In a few months nobody will remember this move, and Google will find itself down 20% potential market and with nothing in exchange.
    • Baidu is going to go up even more, and some other Western opportunists as well.  The search service of Baidu is demonstrably worse than Google, and the Chinese internet users will be the first victims of an impoverished service. The already noted Divide between China and the West will be further increased, and this can only be bad for the Chinese, and bad for Human Rights, and bad for the World.
    • Regarding the bigger political picture, all this is unlikely to have any effect on American or Chinese policies unless there are many more Western companies that join Google. But no other company is going to join a crusade to bring goodwill to Google, and the move will just leave superficial scars in the CCPs internet reputation, which they will be able to heal in no time with some little doses of nationalist balm.
    • Regarding the stock market, the media has noted that Google is down 1.77%, but that is not significant in a day when the whole Nasdaq was down 1.35%. Note that Baidu fell 3.51% after my yesterday’s post, and probably the impact on Google will be seen today when the market opens. I am quite happy that I got rid of my Bs yesterday to buy some Gs, and today I am getting rid of the Gs again to get back the Bs. This has to be a winner move!

    *Note: Servers outside of China (google.com) get blocked by the GFW, servers within China get bullied by the Nanny. Two completely different processes with a similar result. More here.

    What is going on with Google in China?

    Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

    images First of all, read this article posted on the Google official blog. It is all you need to read for the moment because there is no more first hand info out there yet.

    It was published some 5 hours ago. What it says in a rather muddled way is essentially:

    1. That Google has detected attacks resulting in the theft of intellectual property, in particular on Gmail accounts in China, not through Google servers but just hacking users computers.
    2. That Google has evidence that similar attacks happened also to other major Western companies in various industries.
    3. That the information targeted was related to advocates of human rights in China.
    4. That because of all this, Google is not willing to continue censoring results on Google.cn and that “we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

    This is very surprising news and it is quickly making the rounds of the World Media. Here are some preliminary midday break thoughts. Excuse the Bullet points but I am too excited to do real prose:

    Regarding the message and intentions

    • The message sounds inconsistent, because it is complaining against 2 completely different problems. 1- The email hacks affects many companies and it is not necessarily done by the Chinese authorities, neither it is directly related to Google. 2- The Google.cn Search Engine manipulation or SEM that we already saw here.
    • By involving other Western companies Google is apparently sending a signal to them that either they support Google in its plight or else they will be mentioned by name and bear with the PR consequences of that (G is dreaming if it thinks they will follow, as if Chemical companies have much left to loose in this department already)
    • Nowhere in the message it says there is evidence that Chinese authorities are responsible for the email hacks. While this might seem obvious, in Western culture there is a presumption of innocence to apply. The normal sequence is first to seek justice, and only when the authorities refuse justice then complain.
    • You may believe or not in the “non evilness” of Google, but for a company that is handling so much of our personal information, this is not completely disinterested. Non-evilness is Gold for the G, and the minute the World stops trusting Google, the whole expansion plan of of Google apps+phones goes down the drain.
    • It is not impossible then that a calculation is involved: by standing up to China, Google can gain more credit points Worldwide than what it loses leaving China, where its operations are probably not very profitable today. With the new Google phone, the battle to rule the Tech World is at its peak, and goodwill is going to be an important weapon against Apple and Microsoft.
    • Is Google essentially Non-evil, or is it Non-evil just because it suits its business? Is a lion evil because it eats a gazelle, is an oil company evil because it gives you products you want to buy? Such philosophical questions people will be asking today, but I think there is no point in going down that way. Google is a corporation, not a charity, and we should judge its actions first from that perspective.
    • For a company to try to “change the World” on its own is completely out of scope, it is pointless, it leads to its ruin, and it amounts to pursuing political objectives for which it has no legitimacy. If Google doesn’t want to have Google.cn censored, then they are right to force this, but coming up now with a sort of “retaliation” to the Chinese government for hacking activist emails is a different thing altogether.
    • In conclusion, the message sounds inconsistent and improvised, it is difficult to believe that it comes from a careful calculation.  I wonder who really writes that blog, but if this really comes from Google executives it is scary, especially from the shareholders POV. Regardless of the real intentions of Google, my first assessment is that the post is a BAD decision.

    Some more thoughts on the consequences coming in my next post.

    Baidu: Page not Found

    Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

    Wow. Baidu.com has been hacked this morning around 9:30 and is just back on at 3pm. More than 5:30 hours downtime.

    Worst of all, they have no way to hide it was a hack, even the People’s Daily published the picture. Perhaps the party media does not consider websites as part of China’s glorious industry and it is not concerned with covering up. Not like they could have hidden it anyway, but I find it interesting that they didn’t try:

    P201001121023191407819851

    This reminds me of yesterday’s article on Caixin, coincidentally titled: Page Not Found. It explains the very unusual situation of a Chinese internet  industry that is averse to innovation.

    But in addition to the domestic environment’s impact, rottenness inside the industry deserves some blame for the crisis. Whirlwind development led to stories of overnight riches, which in turn attracted a significant number of unqualified entrepreneurs with questionable motives. The industry now looks at innovation as risky, while copycats seek instant success with online games, cheap content and plagiarism. They exploit regulatory loopholes or do business in the economy’s gray zone.

    I don’t want to read too much into a simple incident, but it is kind of a big deal in the first Chinese Nasdaq company, a website ranked N1 in China and N8 in the World. I can’t help feeling that Baidu have been too long sitting on their cozy market share and government protection, selling search results or luring in users with copyrighted mp3 for download. Instead of innovating and improving their security.

    To be sure, Baidu also brings out some new stuff once in a while, and I quite like the Baidupedia to look up Chinese things. But when you compare with Facebook, Twitter or Google, you see those companies are constantly taking risks to try out new ideas, while Chinese sites tend to sit around and copy. I mean, surely you can’t run an internet company like you are running a steel mill?

    Just a coincidence, probably, but the COO of Baidu stepped down yesterday “for personal reasons”.

    H/T Danwei and CDT.

    UPDATE: It is 7pm and baidu.com is still on and off. The rest of the services, baike, mp3, etc. all work properly and can be accessed through baidu.cn, but the main page is down at this moment.  Downtime close to 10 hours already.

    Low on EQ (2): Welcome to Kamp Krusty

    Monday, December 21st, 2009

    IMG_2428

    Look what I found in my letterbox today. An advert for the "Toothy Rabbit’s Children’s EQ Camp!"

    Those of you who are patient enough to stick to this blog might remember the last post I did about the popularity of self-help/business books in China, and in particular those related to Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Not surprising at all, we said, in a society where the education system is ruthless, that the alternative concept of R.Goleman’s EQ is welcome by millions of Chinese with almost religious faith.

    But somehow, I think they got it all wrong.

    The program in the camp includes courses on leadership,controlling emotions,competitiveness, determination and social networking, among other scary items. The minimum age to access the camp is 3 years old, and the booklet is not exactly describing games, but rather hardcore EQ training from the start. It looks pretty successful too, with some 10 centers already open in China, as you can see in the map below.

    IMG_2430

    Little girls learn to lift hands like Hu Jin Tao

    Now I don’t mean to be more snarky than is strictly necessary on this blog, and I am afraid I might be looking at this from a very European angle. I am told in the US  as well as in China people believe in these things, and I respect you if you do.

    But parents: please let the children play, meet new friends, prowl about the nongtang forming bands of little outlaws, ride the bikes around the compound like nutty Shanghai taxis and come back home every other week with a bruised knee and one tooth in the pocket. That will give them loads of EQ. I did that as a kid, and look where I am now, single handedly running Chinayouren.

    And I just can’t wait to get the next pamphlet for a "Wacky Mouse Moving your Cheese Summer Camp for toddlers"

    China and the World Map of the Internet

    Friday, December 4th, 2009

    I was tinkering with some statistics last night, considering that strange idea of the Insularity of the Chinese Internet that we’ve been discussing lately. The expression itself is odd, because “internet” and “insularity” form an oxymoron, but you hardly notice these things when you live here. It’s normal routine in the land of socialist market economy.

    Whatever we make of the phrase, the fact is that it comes up every time, whether we are speaking of language, media or politics,  all seems to point in that direction.  The pictures below are my attempt to draw a World Map of the Internet to illustrate this insularity, using the data from the site Internet World Stats.

    Here is the first idea I had: I got the statistics of all countries with more than 10 Million internet users, that makes 32 in total, from China to Morocco. Then I did an Excel chart where each bubble has an area proportional to the internet users of the country, and crucially, I filled the bubbles with code from the Matrix. Result: the World Map of the Matrix:

    SP32-20091204-143947

    The World Map of the Internet Matrix

    One interesting thing in the map above is that Asia is already the largest internet area in the World. Amazing—but not really, after all, it has by far the largest population. And this is nothing compared to what is coming: with the growth of India and China the internet is going to be an Asian joint in the next few years. No hit will be really global on the net without them. Up to now, most people on the net were from developed countries, from now on the majority will be from developing ones. The close contact between our societies will have important consequences online and off. That is, supposing we really manage to connect.

    But when we speak of the internet, it doesn’t make much sense to look at political boundaries. There is no such a thing as border controls online, what really unites or divides the peoples is culture. An in particular, the most important parameter is language: regardless of your national origin, what defines you as an user is the language you surf in. That is the reason why my browsing habits look more like this blogger’s than like anyone in my country: ESWN and I have completely different backgrounds, but we have in common our surfing languages.

    So I looked up the statistics of the 10 most used languages on the internet, from English to Korean. This time I coloured the bubbles with flags, and I placed them roughly on the center of gravity of their community of speakers. The result is the map of Surfing Languages:

    SP32-20091204-151433

    The World Map of the Surfing Languages

    Still, the map is not great. Many of the speakers in the massive English bubble are actually Indians, Spanish should be both in America and in Europe, and Australia is completely out of the picture. Physical distance has no meaning on the net, even less than political boundaries. It becomes clear that geography is of little use for my purpose, so we might as well dump  Gmaps and stick to the bubbles.

    My new diagram looks like this, where all the major internet communities are represented together in a Cloud. We are all interconnected, and the only solid differentiator is language. Two people might share a hobby, like soccer , but they don’t go to the same websites if they surf in different languages. Most of the media and resources on the internet are not translated into other languages, but rather re-written and re-interpreted by native bloggers/journalists, who function as border control among the communities.

    image022

    Improved World Map of the Internet: the Cloud

    One of the things we see on the Cloud is that all the communities are touching each other. But I’m afraid this is not a very precise picture. Normally Russians don’t translate Japanese content, neither do Portuguese translate Arabic. The English language has a crucial role on the internet today, because in most cases it is through English that the rest of the languages communicate: Most content is translated first to English and from there to the other communities. The English bubble, including users from all over the World, is the Center of the Internet.

    Another problem with the Cloud is that it shows all the communities equally interconnected, which is not very realistic. Users who speak European languages are much more likely to read English. The Spanish community, for example, includes many Americans who surf English sites as much as their own language. Actually, most of the language bubbles share a significant part of their pixels with the English bubble, so we can represent the Map as a sort of Venn diagram:

    SP32-20091204-184148

    Second Iteration: the Venn Diagram Map

    We see the new Map is very different from the previous one. Now there is a cluster of Western languages that share a lot of content with English, two more languages that share a bit, Russian and Arabic, and then the three languages that form the core of the Asian internet today: Chinese, Korean and Japanese. And you may have noticed that I have drawn Chinese at a distance from the rest.

    For various reasons that we will see, Chinese don’t use Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube, or MySpace, or eBay. They don’t read Boing Boing or the Huffington post, and they chat in their own QQ chatrooms. They rarely receive the viral emails that we receive, and instead they get others like this one. They have all the things that we have and some more, but they built them in parallel in their separate parcel of the internet.

    Whereas the sizes of the bubbles above are based on quantitative data collected by a respected source, the positions are only decided by semi-informed feeling. Any reader could argue that China should not be so far right. There is Hong Kong,  Chinese-Americans, even mainland Chinese who do surf in English. And I will be forced to admit that the Venn Map is flawed, because it fails to show this.

    But in such a fast changing World like the Internet, position really means nothing. What holds today may be different tomorrow. What is really significant is the dynamics: which direction is China going, and how will the internet look in 10 years? Everybody agrees that China’s internet community is growing very fast, and that is natural. The worrying part is that it might also be moving away from the rest.

    image3

    Third iteration: The Dynamic Map

    Because in Western countries internet penetration is already very high and India is still lagging behind, in the next 10 years the Chinese internet will become almost as big as all the rest together. If it continues to diverge, it may grow into a parallel network, like a dark side of the moon, a vast, self-sufficient island that the government can cut out at any moment and most people inside it don’t even notice the difference. This defeats the whole idea of the www.

    Whatever the real magnitude of the problem, it is clear to most observers that there is a disconnect between China and the rest of the Internet, and there are powerful forces pulling them further apart. Fortunately, there are also forces working to balance this, and the results in the coming years will very much depend on how those factors play against each other. Here is how my new map looks now:image4

    The Forces of the Internet

    As we saw before in this blog,  some of the main factors that keep China separate from the World are the following, shown in red in the chart:

    • Linguistic, as we saw in this post, where we proved that Chinese language is beautiful and unique in many ways, but it makes it very difficult for Chinese and foreigners to connect.
    • Cultural, in the broad sense of the word, meaning that the communities have so different views and values that they cannot understand each other. This includes the problems with the Media.
    • Political, the deliberate actions of the CCP in  multiple forms, including Nannies, the Great Firewall of China (GFW) and directly arresting people, as we saw here.

    And in green the main factors that go in the opposite direction. Here they are in detail, for the optimists to rejoice:

    • The growing number of bridge bloggers and other internet uses that work to connect the two communities. These include not only the English language Chinablogs, but mainly Chinese people who translate foreign media and other content on the Chinese internet. From this humble blog I also did my bit against the GFW.
    • The post 90s and 80s generations that already dominate the Chinese internet. Their personal tastes in arts, music or cinema will probably be more international, and push them to connect with the World. This point is object of debate though, and some Westerners are very skeptical of the post 80s.
    • Business is one of most important factors that link China to the World. Since the construction of the EU, it is no secret that commerce can achieve the most ambitious goals in World Peace, so whatever your take is on those business minded Chinese, they are probably the main force that is still keeping the Chinese Island connected and holding the World Wide Web together.

    What do you think? 你有什么想法?

    Do you think I am exaggerating? Or is the problem even worse than this? Any factor I missed in the Internet Maps? Internet friends: you are the pixels inside the coloured bubbles, you know all about this World because it is your home: comment and help me improve my Map!

    你觉得这很夸张吗?还是认为问题写得还不够严重?你知道我在互联网地图里忽略了哪些元素吗?网友们:你们是小圈里面的像素,那里就是你们家,帮助我改进我的地图!  U5KMU63NGPP2

    The “Demise of the Media” seen from China

    Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

    There’s been a lot of things coming up lately in the field of “demise of the media“. In particular in China we have seen the spectacular series of posts by James Fallows and others, casting some light on the results of Obama’s visit to China. For the Old vs. New media debate this cannot count as a hit, because both sides in the discussion were newspaper people. But China has a way of making things more interesting, and here we see the whole thing from a different perspective.

    Nobody really cares about the “demise of the media” in the country of People’s Daily, instead the media debate here is framed in terms of pro-China vs. anti-China. Obama’s visit is a great case for analysis, because this time the controversy is too obscure to excite the masses, and we can look at it without the polarizing effects of the West-nut and Fenqing friends.

    In all the discussions about the bias of Western Media, I have always stood in an uncomfortable middle ground: I do not agree that there is a World conspiracy to damage China’s image, but I see there is some serious bias in many of the news items, and I try to understand the reasons for this. This is my attempt to offer an explanation: it has to do with the three main powers that, in different proportions, influence all mass media: The States, Business and the Readers.

    • Media predominantly controlled by The State. This includes some of the main Western players like BBC or NPR, together with the bulk of the Chinese media. The key for them to work is the existence of credible mechanisms to ensure their independence from the governing party, which is impossible in countries where party and State are not distinct. In some cases, like the BBC, they can produce quality results, but the system is not scalable: if ALL media was controlled by States, credibility would be seriously compromised.
    • Media predominantly controlled by Business, whether it is the media corporations themselves or their major advertisers. This can include papers like the WSJ and News Corp, and also many local newspapers whose readership is (was) secured for geographical reasons, and whose main challenge was not really to get more readers (the population in their territory was limited) but to obtain the best advertising deals with the local business establishment.
    • Media predominantly controlled by Readers is the one that strives to please as many readers as possible to increase its circulation. Examples include the British tabloids and a large part of the Internet Media. The fight to obtain more Readers has always been important from the times of Pulitzer, but with the  new technologies and the crisis of the newspapers, it has become vital. On the internet, nobody cares for Corporate opinions, or even for the laws of a State. The only valid parameter is clicks-per-month, and as long as you deliver, advertisers don’t ask questions.

    All these three powers affect all media in different degrees, and none of them is conductive to unbiased reporting. But little is written about this, because most of us have come to terms with the harsh reality: whether good or bad, these influences are inevitable. Therefore, the debate is not about how to obtain a completely impartial newspaper, but rather how to preserve the many imperfect ones that already exist, whose bias go in different directions and impose “checks and balances” on each other, allowing the critical reader to draw some conclusions.

    This diversity is essential, and what we are seeing nowadays in the West is a growing uniformity that comes from the eagerness to please readers. Ironically, by freeing itself from the first two powers, the media is falling prisoner of the third one. The internet has turned information into a perfect competition market where the consumer is king, but as we saw here, the invisible hand is not all that good at objective reporting.

    When readers demand independence of the press, they rarely mean independence from themselves. But in fact they can be the most damaging influence: not only they are apt to delude themselves in droves, but also they lack a counterbalancing view to put the information in perspective. When the Media tells the readers what they want to hear, it closes a feedback loop of partisanship and preconceived ideas that it is difficult to escape, and the investigation of an outside truth becomes secondary. This is one of the main dangers of the media today, old and new alike.

    Conclusion Seen from China

    I don’t know to what extent this Reader factor is responsible for the bad quality of the Media, but I am convinced it plays a main role in the perceived anti-China bias. As we saw in Xinjiang, many Western journalists were there to witness The Cruelties of the Chinese system, just like Washington journalists followed Obama to witness The Censorship and Emerging Power of China. In both cases the stories were pre-written by the expectations of Western readers, and most media Old and New followed the script obediently.

    I am convinced Reader bias is at the root of the problem because I simply can’t find any other explanation. It cannot be the interests of Big Business, when most corporations have big stakes in China, and a rise of nationalism or trade wars can only bring them losses. It cannot be the interests of governments like the US, which would have nothing to gain from a rise in Chinese nationalism and militarization. It has to be that Media bias is just a reflection of the image of China in Western societies, and that both Image and Reflection are constantly feeding each other.

    The World needs well grounded, reasoned critiques of the CPP policies, and particularly of its disastrous records in Human Rights. But sadly, by focusing on wrong targets and wrong timing (for example, when hundreds of Chinese were being murdered in Urumqi) the Western media only manages to alienate itself from its Chinese followers, and create even more misunderstandings between China and the West. By doing this, they are are unwittingly providing the nationalist fuel that the CPP needs to survive, and further delaying the freedom that most of us honestly wish for the Chinese.

    Supposing the Media really cared about fair reporting, they could try to get more PRC journalists and readers, and listen to their opinions to introduce a counterbalance in their closed loop with Western Readers.  Supposing the CCP really cared about the image of China, they could go a long way to improve it without necessarily giving up their authoritarian power.

    But let’s not dream too much, neither the CCP’s nor the mainstream media have such priorities. They are old structures coming from a different World, and they share a single common objective: to survive in times of fast change.

    Stab in my back: TV Serials and Communist Ethics

    Friday, November 13th, 2009

    I have realized lately that, due to a certain unbalance in my training methods, my Chinese reading skills might be running ahead of my speech, and I have been forced to take severe corrective measures. At the risk of turning this into an SM blog, I am going to speak today of the terrible penance I imposed on myself to make up for that error. Brace yourself: I watched a whole 22+ hours communist TV serial on CCTV, all in a single week and pausing to understand every word and chengyu.

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    It is the latest super production of the “Red Army against Capitalists” kind, called 冷箭, or “Stab in the back”. The first chapter was launched the day of the 60th Anniversary, on CCTV 1 prime time, proving that it was born to be big. Even if it didn’t live up to expectations (it was switched later to CCTV 8 nights), I am guessing that more people have watched this than the “Foundation of the Republic” film that so excited Western minds. Admittedly, there is little buzz on the internet about 冷箭, but that is just because the target audience is a different (and much larger) group than the internet community. My own investigations with taxi drivers indicate that it had a very strong following, at least in the first weeks.

    For all those who complained about political propaganda in the “Foundation of the Republic” (or in Independence Day, for that matter), those are just amateur efforts next to this “Stab in the Back”. Because the Stab is not concerned with distorting facts, but with edifying and providing a complete moral system for the people. And like most of these widely watched Chinese TV serials, it still follows loyally in the spirit of the first moralizing plays organized by the 1930s partisans in Shaanxi.

    A Little Critique

    Regarding artistic merit, I will just briefly say that, although this looks like one of the highest budget “Red Army” serials to date, an improvement in quality does not follow. The main problem is the visible incompetence of its producers and actors almost without exception. Knowing that Chinese are very well capable of doing good films when they are given some freedom, I can only suppose this is the result of dead imaginations bureaucratically selected and nurtured by CCTV mummy-cadres.

    In this case the main story is about — surprise- a Long March towards the West, where the Captain discovers that there is a Capitalist enemy spy infiltrated in the team. In fact not only one, but two, and three, and more are found in every chapter, until by the end of the serial the largest part of the brigade are actually undercover agents. This gives the poor captain played by borderline Huang Zhizhong countless occasions to run his fits of histrionic paranoia, apparently a main selling point. One can’t help wondering why all those spies don’t just get together to kill their clownish captain, rename their brigade with the KMT star, and get on with their counter-revolutionary business.

    I don’t know if you have experienced this before when watching a film, but it is one of those instances when deplorable script and performance manage to kill the suspension of disbelief right from the first sequence. Then, suddenly, you find yourself watching a bunch of adult people walking around in funny clothes and uttering pointless nonsense. The result is embarrassing.

    I have never been much of a TV watcher, but I do understand that TV films are substandard anywhere in the World, and nonsensical plots or braindead dialogs are by no means exclusive of China. Even the fixation with the deeds of the Red Army marching West is not necessarily more ridiculous than, say, the fixation with illiterate cow herders during the golden age of Westerns. But there is something in these Chinese serials that makes them unique beyond the obvious propaganda and quality issues, and that is the complete set of values that they embody for the edification of the masses.

    Edifying the Masses: A Communist Catechism

    This is the first time, (and most surely the last) that I watch a complete Chinese propaganda serial, but I believe that the effort is not wasted. Because only getting inside these long works one can appreciate that deeper level that flows underneath, the construction of  a public moral system that is very much akin to Religious Instruction.

    Here are a few of the points I noted while watching the Stab, for the benefit of those who want to understand these works without throwing 22+ hours of their life down the drain:

    • Love: The scenes of love are tacky to nauseate an armored brigade, with perhaps the best example in this scene in minute 40 chapter 4, when the captain “falls in love”. In general, love among the communists is virtuous and innocent, and always secondary to the interests of the organization. There is not the slightest romantic indulgence, no concessions to passion other than for the party. When the communist lover is told that her beloved is a Capitalist spy, she abandons him on the spot, and volunteers to kill him if necessary.
    • Sex: Of course, this puritanism does not stop the young lieutenant from having proper sex (under the sheets) starting chapter 25, in a clear effort by the authors to attract more audience. “乱搞男女关系!” (disorderly do man-woman relations!!) chastely exclaims the captain when he gets the news through a disgustingly virtuous informer. But worry not, the ethical purity is safeguarded. These two sinners have betrayed the higher cause, and they receive their deserved punishment without further delay: death at the hands of some brigands.
    • Violence: We have  seen enough of the likes of Eastwood in Alcatraz to have some expectations about the frightful fate of new prison inmates (especially if they are male!). I don’t know to what extent this violence is consistent with reality, but what I am pretty sure is that prison wardens do not tell off the inmates screaming “don’t be naughty”, and major disputes in the common cells are not settled through pillow fights. This is exactly how things are done in 冷箭, making the whole experience for the high level KMT prisoners like a children’s Summer Camp. This is one of the most puzzling parts of the communist ethics, and the most difficult to grasp in a movement that was imposed largely through violent revolution. It seems to come from a belief in molding mentalities through peaceful labour, but, as we will see below, it has little to do with the Christian notion of “turning your other cheek”.
    • Class virtue: Virtue is presented as a characteristic of the proletarian class, and salvation must necessarily follow. Like the ancient Christians looking for consolation in the Bible before they were thrown to the lions, so the Chinese Laobaixing today seem to find solace in these serials, while they wait for the next corrupt CCP cadre to come and tear their homes to serve a rich developer. The notion of a Final Judgment that accompanies this kind of teaching is represented through the iconic verses of the Internationale, sung at several points in the serial, with the main theme conspicuously inspired in the melody of the first verse.
    • Forgiveness and Revenge: There is an appalling scene of revenge (ch 31 38:00) when the main spies are apprehended, that completely shocked me after 20 hours of mellow bloodless harmony. The righteous blows of the officers are completely devoid of mercy, enjoying the raw pleasure of revenge. In my observation of the Chinese, this represents very well the paradox of their ethical system: Chinese are by nature far more tolerant than any Western people, but –perhaps as a necessary consequence – once a certain level of crime is attained, this sets off a mechanism of ruthless punishment where the object ceases to be seen as human. This is perhaps the most important difference with Christian influenced ethics, where our less tolerant natures were softened by the love doctrines of the New Testament. The whole discussion of death penalty in China vs. Europe is an interesting modern development of this difference in outlooks.

    Some Conclusions

    There are many ideas here worth commenting further, perhaps one of the most interesting would be to see how this communist system of ethics is working (or failing) to keep the always delicate balance between 道德 (virtue) and Deng Xiaoping’s 致富 (getting rich).

    Clearly, Chinese are not the only ones to introduce ethics into their TV serials. Popular Western serials have long been educating us with teachings as varied as respect for minorities, tolerance of homosexuality, patriotism or democracy. But crucially, while the Western system of moral instruction has evolved with the times and deals with problems facing today’s society, the Chinese system has remained stuck in the 1930s, with the characteristic rigidity of Religious ethics. As a consequence, there is a growing, insurmountable gap in China between the ideas preached and the real needs of the ordinary citizens. This may be having the catastrophic effect of eliminating all ethics from mainland Chinese life.

    When we speak of problems like perceived racism, corruption, lack of respect for the public goods or environment, how much of these are related to a lack of a realistic, up-to-date moral support, or to the hijacking of ethics to serve the single interests of the CCP power elite?

    I would like to say more about this, but unfortunately this post has got out of control already, and I know nobody reads past the first 1000 words. Write your ideas below about any particular point and if we get some interesting discussion going on we can try to expand the subject in a new post.

    A Visit to the River Town

    Thursday, November 12th, 2009

    This business trip in Sichuan is really full of surprises. Today we went to visit the Project, a giant industrial complex which will be, upon completion, the largest factory in the World to produce X. A typically Chinese megaproject on the bank of the Yangtze.

    But the surprise came when we went to town for lunch, and I found out that the river that flowed into the Yangtze at that point was called the Wu. I hadn’t realized before, because the industrial park takes a different name, but sure enough, our client confirmed this point: we were in the riverside town of Fuling.

    If you have read the classic China book “River Town”, you know why I was so thrilled. If you have not, then go and get it now. Since you are reading my blog, chances are you are one of those crazy Westerners that seek to understand the Chinese. This books explains them all for you, and in the process it gives you a rare glimpse into the life of inland China. It is fascinating, especially if you don’t live in the country already.

    The Book

    I am taking this chance to do a little review of River Town, so I can start to catch up with my old plans of running a book reviews section. Considering this book is relatively old and already well known, I will just stick to the main points and try to keep this post reasonable.

    The story is very simple, it tells the experiences and feelings of the author during his 2 year stay as Peace Corps in Fuling, a third tier town on the Yangtze.  Nothing really happens, except that it is inland China in the 90s, and everything happens. The book is enjoyable from the beginning, almost every page right to the end.

    Here are the key points as promised:

    - Very enjoyable natural writing, with vivid descriptions of the places and the people. One of the best examples I know of literature meeting anthropology. Memorable is the description of the Fuling streets and their “stick-stick soldiers” in the initial chapters.

    - The author is a fine observer, and he has the advantage of direct access to his students, who write down for him their opinions about a variety of subjects. One of the main highlights of the book is the contrast between the Fuling and the Western mentality, expressed on the background of the classics of English literature.

    - For the sake of balance, some points I liked less: towards the end the  book looses some strength (not surprising, after the great first half). The scientific detachment of the author can become a bit exasperating, and sometimes it feels like the anthropologist has taken over the writer. The last dramatic scene with the mob doesn’t help to fix this, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was an unnecessary addition. But then, that is only my opinion, and I was never in Fuling in the 90s.

    The River Town

    From what I have seen today, the town of Fuling is doing pretty well, changing so fast that it is almost impossible to recognize it in the descriptions of the book. For one thing, it took us less than an hour to get there from the center of Chongqing, which qualifies it as a close suburb. This is in great contrast with the backwater river town of the 90s.

    Now the Fulingers are going to have some World class production facilities, and a good part of the population will be working there, with thousands more coming from all over China. It feels strange to realize suddenly that I have become myself one of the characters (although a very secondary one) in the story of the transformation of Fuling.

    There seems to be only one thing eternal in China, and that is the masses of the working people, the “laobaixing”. Sure enough, the stick-stick soldiers are still there and in good shape, running up and down the stairs with massive loads hanging from their bamboo poles. For them, nothing has changed.

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