Walking The Great Firewall Of China: Part II
"I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do."
Last time I visited China, I was able to gain some invaluable insights into the lives of those who live on the far side of the great firewall; this time I thought I was prepared for anything. I was wrong.
翻牆 – Over the Wall
China is infamous for censorship — most popular forms of social media in the West, Google, much of Wikipedia and many more sites, are all blocked over there. Prior to my last visit I spent a quick 10 minutes downloading the first several dozen results of a search for VPN in the Play Store, none worked. This time, I repeated the process but augmented it with the suggestions from the comments of my last feature on the issue. Huawei even provided a premium subscription to a VPN they had found to work well; however, by the time I had arrived this app to had been locked down. This time just one of the apps I had downloaded allowed me to pass through the wall, FlashVPN, a simple one-click VPN that does not allow torrenting (not something that matters to me) but did allow me to access my email, Google and hangouts with a speed that I considered acceptable considering the circumstances. Something that is worth noting is that, if you are on a carrier that provides reasonably priced roaming data, then you will not encounter the firewall at all. Use your SIM from home to browse the web and you can access any site that you could back home.
华强北 – Huaqiangbei
If you are reading this then I can only assume you to share my passion for smartphones. During my visit we took a trip across Shenzhen to an area called Huaqiangbei. This district is nothing short of magical, we exited the subway into a busy street lined on both sides with an uncountable number of shops each filled with glass cases of imitation phones. For miles in every direction, these shops continued only being broken by the occasional KFC or Burger King. Stalls in the street sold everything from drones to imitation Meccano sets all for obscenely low prices and each stall holder willing to barter. While there we picked up 3 great drones complete with mounted cameras, batteries and Android apps, and 2 toy helicopters for a grand total of 914 CNY (140 USD) from a street vendor who was more than happy to demonstrate that they were functional. Entering the brightly lit shops, due to the encouragement of numerous men stood outside with megaphones declaring that they sold all brands of smartphone, we discovered that what had appeared to be a small unit from the outside actually stretched back into a behemoth of a store on the inside. Filled with glass cabinets, each one had a member of staff eager to show you the display units of any model of phone you can imagine and many that you could not. Whether you wanted an “iPhone” running Android, a “Galaxy Note5” with no slot for the stylus or the brand new “Samsung W2016“, you could find it. Walking further into the store we came across booths filled with just the parts for these phones available to buy individually or by the thousand, rows of people repairing and assembling MacBooks and people carefully soldering PCBs. In the half hour we spent inside this store I saw more devices than I have before and likely ever will again and this was just inside the one. These stores filled the high street for miles in both directions each with a similar inventory and scale.
Google are planning on making their return to China and when they do they have a lot of catching up to do, to assuage the experience they have started raising awareness of the company through more than just a search engine campaign. Located within the grounds of Shenzhen Universiade Center where Honor were hosting their second birthday was a simple stand from the search giant allowing fans to Androidify themselves and print off the characters. Alongside this was a large notice that once translated read:
“Google makes many useful additions to our daily use of search, Maps, Android smartphone operating system, video platform YouTube, Gmail and other applications.
Google is also focusing on more long-term future plans with the hope that through continued exploration and innovation, we can benefit mankind, and bring about a better life. Through traveling more conveniently with the Google driverless car, through high-quality, low-cost Internet, through improving people’s living standards in remote areas with Google’s balloon project Loon, and with the “Wing” program (Project Wing) to achieve delivery of low-cost items.
Google is committed to technology to solve the complex human problems and explore more unknown territory, to help more people to obtain and use more and more in life”
This certainly implies that we can expect great things of Google in China. Once they have reinserted themselves into people’s lives over there, it will not be an easy transition without the additional services people have moved on and found other services in the mean time that suit their needs just as well as the Google counterparts.
星等 – Magnitude
It is easy to say that some Chinese companies have grown to vast sizes, but just how large can be hard to grasp. While traveling down a road in Shenzhen we came to a checkpoint, this was not a state-controlled checkpoint but instead marked the otherwise unremarkable entrance to Huawei HQ. I say unremarkable here, by which I mean visually; the area appeared to be an experiment in architecture spanning a variety of office complexes and could have comfortably resided inside any large city without gaining much notice. However this entire district was Huawei, spanning 2km² and being the workplace for over 70,000 members of staff. To put that into perspective the total population of Greenland is just 56,000. Inside the building designated F1, we walked past walls covered in patents from the floor to the ceiling about 14 feet above our heads, multiple restaurants and even the occasional games console connected to displays that were better measured in tens of meters as opposed to the usual inches. Walking down these halls was a humbling experience and certainly one that I look forward to repeating.
China is a country like no other, each day we use products made there, however rarely do we take time to consider the story behind the product or company. It was an amazing experience and I hope that many of you will one day be given the opportunity to attend events such as these. – 干杯