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China & Japan

I kinda missed the boat with the whole Google in China (it was during the blog gap whilst we entertained Sofia’s relatives who were visiting from Sweden).

In short my view of the whole affair is that Google was buggered either way – to pull out of China would have not only lost them a vital advertising market but also left the Chinese population with a selection of poor alternatives for search. And to pander to the Chinese government, which is what they are doing, was always going to cost them badly in terms of PR and sentiment.

But in an interesting piece in today’s WSJ, Andy Kessler writes:

Google could have kept their cool and trusted image if they’d just worked with someone else in China, someone they could smash. Perhaps Eggroll.com – powered by Google.

(Hat-tip to Om, btw – thanks).

He’s right – and I’m disapointed to have not thought of that myself.

I’m sure Google had thought of it, however. And the cynic in me wonders whether it’s because there would be a far reduced benefit from advertising revenue if they had used a ‘middle man’ provider. Don’t forget, in their tie-up with AOL Search, Google only get 20% of the advertising revenue produced from AOL-branded results of their search.

Andy K goes on to say:

Someone else to blame for those unsearchable keywords. Users in the West may not desert them, but a billion soon-to-be-online Chinese will forever associate Google with lame and censored search results – tools of the state.

My only point on this, having spent some time in China recently, is that I don’t believe the Chinese people are aware of the extent their media is censored. And those that do don’t seem to be so forthcoming with the detail as to do so would be speaking out against the government.

So from this perspective, the fact that Google alerts Chinese netizens that their search results have been censored is a good thing. Otherwise they would potentially never know.

For me, this is the most important aspect of the Google-in-China saga. Knowledge is power, and off the back of this we might get further towards a China that is as happy to be a free-market of ideas as it is happy to be a free-market of goods.

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Well, all good things come to an end.

Sofia and I are back in Shanghai – we’re here for a total of about 12 hours (an overnight stop over). We’re off in about an hour to check in to our Virgin Atlantic flight.

I’m currently typing away in our cramped yet comfortable (hey, it was cheap) Ramada hotel room here at Shanghai airport.

A very random things on my mind:

  • Which did I prefer – Shanghai or Tokyo? (Sofia says Tokyo, but she liked the Grand Prix)
  • Will I get into trouble for using http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk (over http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is blocked) to access BBC News in China?
  • Why is it that the cheap-ass hotels give you free internet access and the expensive ones charge you an arm and a leg for it? (Well, I know why – they reckon you’ll expense it. But why do they shaft you like that?)

Looking forward to seeing you all…

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(This is a retrospective post, it never got finished until now)

Sorry for the lack of updates to the blog recently. We’ve been out, well, enjoying ourselves (like one does on holiday) and I’ve totally neglected to blog. I have been Flickr’ing, for those who are subscribed.

I’ve got some bigger posts in the pipeline, but here are a couple of shorts to keep you going:

Shibuya
We’ve been staying in Shibuya, a great part of Tokyo. Think Piccadilly Circus/Leicester Square – busy, iconically touristy and full of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs.

Our home-from-home for the past 6 days has a room on the 32nd floor of The Cerulean Tower Hotel. Not cheap, but the luxury certainly helps us relax in an otherwise chaotic city. The panoramic views from this high up are spectacular, with an unbelievable view of Mount Fuji on a clear day.

The height also helps with finding open wifi!

Bay Area
The Tokyo Bay area is very similar to London’s Docklands – light railway system, lots of space, modern buildings, no atmosphere. Why would anyone want to live or work here?

Akhiabara
The largest IT and technology retail area in the world, apparently. It is pretty cool, but if I’m totally honest the whole “oooh Akhiabara is the place to see tomorrow’s technology” thing doesn’t exist (at least not anymore). My guess is it did, but the Internet has changed all that.

Sure, technically maybe some of those nice Sony Vaio laptops are the latest models, and are only available in Japan. But I saw then on the Internet already and if I really want one I could get it on eBay (like I did with my Sony Vaio).

Nevertheless, if you come to Tokyo and are a geek like me, then it’s worth checking out. What Akhiabara is good for is cheap unbranded peripherals (I got a nice optical mini laptop mouse for £3 and a 512MB USB drive for £10) and I guess it is the place to actually buy those “only available in Japan” laptops if you want to avoid having to pay import duties when you buy on eBay (of course, you would still declare your purchase at UK customs, right?).

The neon signs at night are amazing, too.

Tokyo Tower
Not quite as spectacular as the Shanghai tower (The Oriental Peral), but still worth a visit. Don’t bother visiting any of the sideshow amusement crap there like “hall of mirrors” and “wax works”.

Zojo-ji Temple
The Buddhist temple of Zojo-ji is located across the road from Tokyo Tower, and is an amazingly spiritual place. Sitting in the temple for a few minutes was very calming, and definitely worth visiting if you are into that kind of thing.

Food
The food in Tokyo has been superb. Shibuya has a ton of restaurants, and we’ve eaten everything from Sushi and teppanyaki to noodle soup. I might write a post about food if I have time.

The food was better in Tokyo than in Shanghai – perhaps because they have so many more resturants than in Shanghai. Also the Japanese attention to hygeine doesn’t go unnoticed either!

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The metro and train system in Tokyo is fantastic – you can set your watch by it (I did, after I lost a bet with Sofia as to when a train would arrive. My watch was wrong, the train arrival was right!). Trains simply arrive on time (to the minute) and if they don’t then the train company gives you a note to show your boss to explain why you are late (otherwise they won’t believe you!).

Unlike Shanghai, taxis in Tokyo are expensive but the metro system is enormous. That’s a complete reverse from Shanghai where taxis are cheap and the metro barely covers major parts of the city.

The metro in Tokyo was particularly cheap, even more so when you consider how expensive Tokyo is generally. I don’t think we ever paid more than about £1.50 to get from one side of the city to the other. You can’t even pay that to go a couple of stops in Zone 1 in London!

Perhaps one of the most confusing things about the Tokyo metro (other than the Japanese writing) is that three different companies run different lines. Two companies run the metro lines and another runs the popular Yamonote Line the circles the city.

In-carriage facilities

The coolest feature of the Tokyo metro system is the in-carriage displays above the doors. Between stations they display the forthcoming stations on the lines, along with the number of minutes it will take to get there. When the train is about to pull into a station, the screen changes to reflect the locations of the exits on the platform compared to where you are on the train.

The other cool thing about Tokyo’s metro system is that they have mobile coverage underground, yet it’s frowned upon to talk on your phone on the train. There still aren’t plans to get mobile coverage on the London Underground, although the July 7 bombings will probably mean it will never happen anyway (remote detonation by SMS, etc).

But the most striking difference between the Tokyo metro and the London Underground is the optimism and trust displayed in the ticketing and barrier system. In Tokyo, the entry/exit barriers remain open unless you insert an invalid ticket. On the London Underground the barriers are always closed by default unless you insert a valid ticket.

On the Tokyo metro, if you aren’t carrying a ticket of the appropriate value to complete your journey, you can simply visit the “fair adjustment machine” next to the barriers to ‘upgrade’ your ticket. On the London Underground, you must visit the ticket window on the platform side of the barrier where you are generally treated like a criminal for not carrying the appropriate ticket at the start of your journey.

Travelling on the Tokyo metro was such a pleasant and inexpensive experience (and I still haven’t mentioned the air conditioning) that I would recommend it to anyone visiting the city. Forget cabs, take the train!

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We arrived in Tokyo yesterday, after a slightly draining 2.5 flight from Shanghai on NWA airlines (which we were kind of hoping was run by Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, but that theory now seems unlikely).

Tokyo Narita airport, like so many airports is no where near Tokyo – and so a 40 minute wait followed by a 2hr coach ride to our hotel in Shibuya ensued before we got to take a nap in a warm, cosy bed.

The tropical storm that’s occurring to the East of Japan has meant the weather here is rather wet. On the way to hotel I couldn’t help noticing how reminiscent the grey and overcast sky, the damp air and the left-hand traffic was to Britain. Even the country side foliage seemed similar.

Our room at the hotel (which I will name after the trip) is simply superb. We have a corner room on the 32nd floor of the hotel. Ok, it’s not quite as high as the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai but the views of Tokyo are amazing.

We took a short trip out to local Shibuya to enjoy our now frighteningly frequent habit of enjoying a Starbucks immediately upon arrival at a new place (however foreign, exotic or remote). Hey – I need the caffeine!

Fortunately the main Starbucks in Shibuya overlooks the famous view of the crossing, and so as we sipped our soya cappuccinos (me) and iced chocolates (Sofia) we were able to watch the world go by and take in a little bit of our surroundings.

We also had a walk around the place, checking out the shops along the way. We were also pleasantly pleased to discover the enormous wealth of restaurants and choice on offer (a far cry from where we were staying in Shanghai).

So far Tokyo is cool, and we are pleasantly surprised by the amount of English people do speak. Having been warned “no one speaks English in Tokyo”, I’m of the opinion that even fewer people spoke English in Shanghai – yet we still managed to get on and around just fine.

More soon.

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I just want to give a quick plug to the Magnificent Plaza Hotel, in Shanghai – which is where we stayed during our trip to China.

The hotel was absolutely brilliant – the staff were so friendly and helpful. And genuinely helpful – not because they wanted to get a tip (tipping is not common in China) – but because they wanted to help their guests have the best stay they could.

The Magnificient Plaza Hotel is what is known as a “business class hotel” – a type of hotel I’ve only really seen in Asia. Traditionally there used to be just two types of hotel in Asia: local domestic hotels (which are usually aimed at domestic travellers and are often poor quality by western standards) and the big Western chains (which charge big bucks for offering Western familiarity in foreign climes).

The “business hotel” genre (if there can be such a thing) offers a near-Western level of quality for far less per night than Western (and usually American) chain brands. These types of hotels are usually owned by domestic countries – so you also know your money is staying within the country you are visiting, not heading of to America.

The Magnificent Plaza Hotel was clean and modern to a degree that met my Western level of expectations yet still retained a local Shanghainese feel to it. The use of traditional dark woods in the rooms was particularly memorable – both modern and Chinese. They even had Internet access in the room, although of course like every other Internet connection in the country, it was piped via the Chinese government proxy.

The breakfast was simple but more than adequate: traditional Chinese food (noodles, pickled eggs, rice) plus there was fried eggs, omelettes, toast and fruit for the Westerners.

The location of the Magnificent Plaza is slightly off the beaten track – Tibet Street south of Huaihai Road is not a particularly “touristy” area although still very centrally located. It’s a slightly deprived area – which offers an excellent insight into day-to-day life for normal people although one downside we found was that eating in the immediate vicinity to the hotel was difficult. Most local Shanghainese (particularly working class) simply can’t afford to eat from restaurants so there aren’t many about. Hawker stalls are available, although the hygiene is non-existent and probably best to be avoided if remaining well is an important factor to the enjoyment of your holiday.

We found a selection of adequate eateries about 10 minutes walk away on the Huaihai Road although it wasn’t until later into our stay did we realise far better opportunities existed a short taxi ride away (and taxi rides within central Shanghai rarely cost more than 10RMB/70p each way).

So, all in all, I would definitely recommend the Magnificient Plaza Hotlel if you are ever looking for somewhere to stay in Shanghai. The hotel has far more character and offers much better value than Western chains yet is clean and modern. The eating issue can be overcome by using taxis to eat in better parts of the city.

Booking a room at the hotel can be arranged via the website or through Expedia.

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As our time in China draws to a close (bar an overnight stay at the airport hotel on the way home) my mind turns towards the future.

One of the biggest things that has caught my attention here in China is its race with technology. It wants to become the next centre of technical innovation – but there seems to be a concerning flip side.

China appears to be reluctant to adopt industry standards if those standards are based around a royalty based licensed specification.

Linux is the official operating system of choice of the government and government agencies here in China. The main reason for this, of course, is that it means China avoids paying licences to Microsoft.

However recent news suggests that China has it’s eye on the ongoing next-generation DVD format war. Rather than electing to favour either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, China is looking to produce it’s own Gen II DVD standard in order to avoid paying royalties to the rights owners of whichever format ‘wins’. It will be based on HD-DVD, but not compatible with HD-DVD.

China is also looking to create it’s own 3G mobile phone technology, TD-SCDMA, for exactly the same reason. Nokia has even stepped in to help create it, clearly wanting to be a part of any major mobile-phone standards creation.

With over a billion people, China is big enough that it can leverage this kind of positioning in the world market. But what’s concerning of course is that this breaks global ubiquity. You want that disk purchased in China to work in the UK, and you don’t want to have to buy a different phone to get 3G access just in China.

But perhaps crucially China has the opportunity to take this all one step further. Rather than just decide to adopt it’s own standards domestically, it also has the position to persuade (passively or perhaps aggressively) for the rest of the world to adopt it’s standards. How? Why? Well, China is the worlds factory and if it’s making the phones and DVD players you own then clearly it has the opportunity to have a ‘good say’ in the technologies that are used within them.

Sure, companies such as Nokia can try to get their products made elsewhere, but inevitably most of the worlds electronic goods will still be made in China. Their massive manufacturing capacity is unrivalled which in turn leads to better economies of scale.

China is also moving into product R&D, with many companies using China as a base for innovation. China is even buying previously Western-run brands, such as Lenovo’s purchase of the ThinkPad brand and intellectual property from IBM.

BBC News has written a fantastic article about this, which I highly recommend.

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The Chinese Grand Prix was fantastic. We had some excellent seats, towards the end of the grandstand, which afforded us excellent views of both the main straight and also the first/second/third corner complex.

The facilities at the circuit were generally good – better than Malaysia at least – with a range of eating facilities, clean toilets and things to do before the event. In Malaysia there were only 6 portaloos for 4 stands worth of people, and one dodgy food vendor.

Like most circuits, Shanghai International GP Circuit is actually no where near Shanghai. In order to move the maximum capacity crowd of 200,000 people to the circuit, the organisers laid on complimentary coaches from Shanghai city centre to the track.

It took a good hour’s coach journey to get there. On the way we passed some of the most baron and desolate areas I’ve ever seen. The highway skirted through a number of rural and industrial towns, often passing for no apparent reason immediately behind or in front of houses, despite the abundance of available land. We passed some evidently poor farming communities, with dilapidated housing and few amenities. Life appeared hard for the people living in these areas, a stark contrast to the glitzy and affluent event we were about to attend.

Along the route a number of things caught my attention:

  • Watchtowers – even in the most remote areas, there appeared to be what looked like watch towers looking over the communities. They were reminiscent of the ones found in Northern Ireland, although curiously they tended to be located in the distance away from the highway (which explains the poor photography of them, sorry)
  • Apartment blocks – the rapid development of China was evident even in the rural areas. In the middle of no-where, large apartment complexes consisting of maybe 6-8 apartment blocks were being built. Presumably this is to tackle poor traditional housing that we witnessed along the way. However I couldn’t help thinking about the destruction of rural community cohesion that will occur when you move these people into high-rise housing (similar issues will no doubt occur to those that occurred in the UK in the 60’s and 70’s when similar type housing was in vogue)
  • Electricity pylons – everywhere you looked there were huge swathes of pylons sweeping through the countryside. Presumably to fuel Shanghai’s ever growing electricity requirements, although their density and frequency made the environment depressing – particularly in the smoggy mist that hung low in the air on the morning of race day.

Travelling by coach on China’s highways was a real experience, I can tell you! The coach drivers thought nothing of using the hard shoulder to overtake, despite the availability of the inner overtaking lane (presumably it was easier to steer the coach one lane into the hard shoulder rather than two lanes over to the overtaking lane). Overtaking (and ‘undertaking’) occurred on every other lane too. “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre” was replaced with “honk horn a few times, begin to steer coach into desired lane, honk horn again if other driver hasn’t moved out of your way yet, steer coach into lane).

The only real annoying aspect of the coach system was that the circuit organisers had designated car parks at the bottom of the circuit as the terminus. This was at the opposite side the circuit to the grandstand where the lowest priced seating was located. I guess I’m being a bit snobby but it seemed a little backwards to locate the bus terminal the furthest distance from where people with the most expensive tickets would be sitting.

Shanghai boasts the longest straight in F1, at over 1km long. Great if you’re doing 220mph in an F1 car, but not so great if you’re travelling 5mph by foot. It took a good 30 minutes to walk around the parameter of the track to get to our seats.

China is world renowned for the amount of counterfeit goods (or “genuine copies” as they are often more politely referred to) that are produced there. I was quite surprised that the authorities and circuit organisers were allowing people to hawk knock-off F1 caps outside the event (although a few were removed).

It soon became quite clear that most of the sellers had no clue about Formula 1, with many of them trying to persuade me to buy a Ferrari or McLaren cap despite me wearing already wearing BAR/Jenson Button cap and showing support for the British driver.

Nevertheless, during our ‘stroll’ to and from the grandstand, Sofia and I did check out some of the merchandise on offer – not because we wanted to buy any but because some of the mistakes were just plain comical.

Their misunderstanding of the sport, it seemed, didn’t just stop with their selling technique. The people producing the counterfeit caps had obviously decided to take it upon themselves to “improve” the propositions they were making by changing the colours, numbers and other details of the merchandise.

Fancy a Team McLaren Mercedes cap (which should normally be grey/black) in Ferrari red? What about a Fernando Alonso cap (who drove the number 5 car this year) sporting lucky number 7 instead? Perhaps the best knock-off of all was a McLaren Mercedes flag that had “Go Alonso” printed on it (Alonso driving for Renault this year and next year of course – unless the counterfeiters know some insider information the rest of us hardcore fans have missed)?

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all was that people were buying this crap. Sure, the caps were going for 50 – 100RMB (£3.50 – 7) instead of the usual 300RMB (£21) for the “official version” inside the track. But having paid as much as £300 for a race ticket (plus the expense of getting to China), it seems mad to purchase some second-rate knock off cap in the hope of saving a few pounds.

The grand prix itself was exciting, with two safety car incidents that really shook things up a bit. If you’re an F1 fan you probably watched the race already, otherwise you probably aren’t that interested so I won’t go into the detail.

The one thing which made the race for us was my radio scanner. Most of the teams (other than Ferrari and McLaren) transmit both pit-car and engineering radio traffic ‘in the clear’ – meaning anyone with a radio scanner that works on the correct frequencies can listen in. Hey, I’m a techie – what do you expect? :)

We were also able to tune into the ITV commentary which was useful as otherwise the amount of information available to you in the stand is limited (other than what you can see).

The moment that will stay with me the most from the day is the absolutely deafening sound of 20 cars screaming away from the start line towards the first corner. It is so loud, I can’t tell you how exhilarating the experience is. You can feel the vibrations in your chest and your ears begin to hurt yet the excitement is so great you don’t care.

I realise that for many, flying almost halfway around the world to attending a 2 hour sporting event seems like a mad thing to do. However the atmosphere, excitement and anticipation of an F1 race is like nothing else you can imagine.

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Although our hotel is technically located within the Nanshi (“Southern City”) region of Shanghai, it’s actually a few blocks over towards the Huangpu River where the “picture-postcard Old City” begins.

Nevertheless, the short walk through the winding lanes and alleys of local poor housing to get there reminds you of what it’s really like to be poor in Shanghai in 2005. Certainly not part of the “tourist trail”, the area comprises of shabby, densely packed housing. People sit outside their homes and watch the world goes by whilst others hawk their wares from dilapidated shop fronts and even just open suitcases on the ground.

Having passed by the simple wood and brick houses, we arrived at the start of the aptly named “Shanghai Old Street“. Here the buildings have a much more traditional feel to them – dark wood fronts and pointy Chinese roofs. Initially it almost appears too perfect, verging on the cheesy, as clearly everything is kept as it is to attract the tourists. However, this is actually a conservation area – the cheesiness can be found in the Yu Garden Bazaar later on.

Shanghai Old Street is the place to buy your Yixing tea pot – a simple, maroon-brown unglazed teapot whose porous qualities are said to make the perfect cup of tea. Many shops along the street sell them, both individually and in sets comprising of 4 or 6 cups.

Prices here are always up for negotiation, and we were able to haggle the price down to 90RMB (£7) a set, although later on I witnessed one western couple who spoke Mandarin get the price down to 65RMB (£5) – still a good deal compared to the 180RMB (£14) originally being asked for.

Bargaining over prices requires a clear head, and emotion can’t come into it. Even the opening prices are trivial for Westerners, and so it’s easy to decide the hassle of negotiating isn’t worthwhile. However when you are able to knock off 70% of the original asking price (and the trader must still be making a profit) you soon realise that most of these people are more than happy to rip off a Westerner where possible. I emphasise ‘Westerner’ and not ‘tourist’ because most of the tourists here are still domestic Chinese and I got the distinct impression that their starting prices were a lot more ‘reasonable’ than the ones we were being quoted.

Other items on sale in Nanshi that make nice souvenirs include mahogany chopsticks, traditional paintbrushes and jade jewellery. “Antiques” are also available, although the guidebook warns the authenticity of many of these items is often questionable.

A number of shops sell traditional Chinese Quan long swords (think straight Samurai swords) which are beautifully engraved both on their holster and on the blade itself. Most of the ones we saw were blunt “ceremonial” swords, although one dubious character in a slightly seedier “off-street” market took me out to the back of his stall where he proudly handed me one of the razor sharp examples he had for sale. Suffice to say pleasantries were exchanged and we made a quick exit – although not before noticing the range of flick knives, ninja stars and other similar paraphernalia displayed on the opposite wall.

A trip to China is not complete without purchasing some silk, although sadly we have still not been able to locate an allusive silk bed spread that Sofia has got her heart on. I, however, purchased a beautiful black traditional Chinese style silk shirt with dragon stitching and toggle buttons for 200RMB (£14), negotiated down from 380RMB (£30).

Like the rest of Shanghai, and the rest of the world I guess, McDonalds has managed to locate itself in the otherwise picturesque street of Jiujiaochang Road. Starbucks also manages to make two appearances, including one branch directly opposite the world famous Yu Garden Mid-Lake tea house (not by coincidence, I’m sure).

Yu Garden Bazaar is touted as the main shopping area of Nanshi, although in reality it consists of traditional looking buildings that have been converted into small department stores and tacky tourist souvenir shops. We found the prices and quality of the shopping here disappointing compared to Shanghai Old Street, although the experience is a lot more civilised, especially for those who don’t want the hassle of haggling over prices.

Looking back on it, I wish I had purchased a traditional Chinese chopping knife from the only knife store in The Bazaar. 100RMB (£7) got you a very high quality cooking knife which had a slight curve in the blade to facilitate fast chopping. There was probably even some level of negotiation available there.

The jewel in the crown of the Nanshi district is the Yu Garden itself, which dates back to the 16th Century. It was built by Ming dynasty official Pan Yunduan in 1577. Yu means peace and comfort, which is exactly the vibe I felt was we wondered around it.

It’s a classical Suzhou-style garden consisting of 30 pavilions connected by bridges, walkways and rocky passages. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, in that it consists of spectacular gardens joined by open-air rooms. However, at just 5 acres in size it’s a lot smaller than the Alhambra.

A visit to the Yu Garden is definitely a must, although it’s worth planning your trip to Nanshi so that you take it in first before shopping – otherwise you risk damaging your purchases as you traipse around the grounds with your heavy shopping!

Finally, whilst visiting the Bazaar we saw our most apparent manifestation of the Chinese regime at large. Three soldiers, dressed in khaki-green uniforms briskly marched past us in formation on what looked like a very deliberate pace towards a shop or restaurant. From the looks of their faces, they were clearly engaged with some kind of task. The most chilling memory for me will be their menacing looking machine guns which looked as though they had come out of a Vietnam movie – wide and bulky looking unlike the sleek western ones you are ever-more used to seeing slung around the shoulders of police officers on the streets of London.

The trip to Nanshi, Shanghai Old Street and the Yu Garden has definitely been my favourite day out so far in Shanghai. The ultra-modern, almost futuristic, district of Pudong appeals to my high-tech mentality. But realistically it could be located in any city in the world. Nanshi, despite being a little on the cheesy side at times, is the closest reminder left as to what Shanghai was like in yester-year. That coupled with the neighbouring local housing acts as a stark reminder of what life is like in China for the majority of the population who are not part of the economic revolution that’s sweeping through this amazing country.

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Accessing the Internet in China has been an experience.

Knowing that all Internet traffic is routed through a state-controlled proxy, I was dubious as to whether I would be able to VPN into the BBC’s London-based Point of Presence to gain access to the network and my work emails.

Like any other standard VPN setup, the connection between my laptop and the VPN sever in London is secure and encrypted, meaning that no-one can (in theory) monitor the sites that I visit or the data that is being transmitted.

It was for this reason that I wondered whether the Chinese would allow the connection to pass out of the country.

The government Internet proxy is there to ensure that Chinese citizens don’t access material that could be ‘damaging’ the integrity of the state. To that end sites such as BBC News are blocked and keyword searches sent to search engines are monitored for suspect behaviour.

Internet café’s are now licensed and regulated, which led to a vast decrease in their numbers a few years ago when enforcement came into place. I have only seen one Internet café whilst walking around Shanghai. Having said this, most hotels have Internet access available in their rooms along with CNN TV – both I believe are a concession to attract Western business travellers (I don’t believe CNN is available to domestic Chinese satellite customers). Nevertheless Internet access even from hotel rooms is piped via the proxy.

Reading up on Chinese Internet law before I flew out was tricky at best – with conflicting reports of what was possible and not possible. By the time I had read a few different sources on the matter I came to the conclusion that what was and wasn’t allowed didn’t match up with what was and wasn’t technically possible.

I’m still not clear even now whether accessing via VPN is considered a circumvention of the proxy security measure, however I’m acting in good faith and I don’t consider my use to be harmful or detrimental to the country.

On my personal laptop (yes, I always have to carry at least two laptops away with me on holiday), which doesn’t connect via the BBC’s VNP, I have managed to access BBC News via http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk rather than http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is a dummy hostname that is normally used to switch the serving of images and other server-intensive assets over to Akamai in the event of heavy load to the BBC News servers.

Again, I’m not clear whether using an alternative means to accessed an otherwise blocked website is against the law or not.

Despite all of the restrictions around Internet access within China, sites such as Alibaba.com remain popular (Yahoo! recently purchased Alibarba, a Chinese b2b website, for US$4bn). Internet in China is certainly a growth area, and anyone interested in the Internet – from infrastructure through to implantation of social software – would be wise to get acquainted with what’s going on here. Like other areas of technology, China is definitely looking to overtake the West on these frontiers. I do wonder how long it will be before the two Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese statistically become the most popular spoken language on the Internet.

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