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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

China-chatting on my mind

Children outside fast food restaurant in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, July 2004

Blog conversations are limited in China

China is on my mind a good deal these days, in part because when my son leaves home in six weeks, more or less permanently, he heads for Beijing. Later he will go to Vancouver to study Chinese and film, but first he will spend three months studying and traveling in China, his third such summer there.

This year he has decided to write a blog about his travels. His Chinese wushu (martial arts) demo videos have now been viewed more than 66,000 times (since December 25), so chances are good that he will have a few readers for his blog.

The catch is how to post to the China travel blog. China doesn't allow Blogger blogs to be viewed, nor apparently other blogs hosted by blogging companies - we have tested the first but not the others by asking friends in China to visit URLs we've given them.

I just read Martin Varsafsky's blog on his firsthand attempt this week to check out blogging censorship in China; he didn't think it was too bad, and he puts it into perspective by looking at censorship of various sorts elsewhere. He points out, rightly, that he is looking in English and if he did the same thing in Chinese the results might well be more limited. Varsafsky is a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist whose latest venture is FON, connecting global wifi users.

There are ways to get around the posting dilemma but it does provoke reflections on China's struggle to manage (censor, if you prefer!) the flow of information and access to it. I think it is mistakenly seen too often as a primarily political issue, an effort to staunch all criticism of the Chinese government. There is clearly an element of this, but I think there is also an unhappy effort by the government to stay one step ahead of technology that is accessible to the population, for business reasons.

I fail to see how the government will succeed in the end. The task is simply too great, even for Mao's successors. I suspect the pressure for the government to change will come not from angry voices outside the country but from steady pushing within the country.

If, as the government has decreed, every taxi driver in Beijing should speak English by 2008, when the city hosts the Olympics, every taxi driver will be able to read Internet stories about the lives and charging methods of taxi drivers in New York and London. English makes it possible to get around some of the Internet censorship.

I have recently lectured MBA students from IIPM, an Indian business school, when they were visiting Switzerland. I talk about the impact of the rapid growth of the Internet in China, and the growth of cell phones in Asia but particularly in China. I show them this slide I took in July 2004 in Kunming, Yunnan Province, from my hotel room. At the time I wanted to show the construction of the new underground subway system that would tunnel under the old central part of the city.

I realized only afterwards that the photo showed something more significant: the massive growth in the use of cell phones. Ads show love and romance and success and consumerism all rolled together, a blend bound to appeal to young Chinese. The majority of cell phones sold in Asia now have cameras. Cell phones + cameras + Internet connections is a powerful tool for change, in the hands of millions whose view out the window is getting clearer and more interesting by the day. Curiosity is hard to keep in bounds, once it gets started.

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