Walking The Great Firewall Of China
An exploration of censorship, perceptions and technological uses in China
Frequent readers will be aware that as well as being a news writer for XDA, I am also the manager of our social media. Because of this when I was invited to attend a press conference in Shenzhen, China I had some concerns. Many of the websites and services we take for granted are inaccessible in the country including anything associated with Google, twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia to name but a few. Unwilling to miss out on the opportunity though I booked the flights, made my visa arrangements at the embassy, downloaded a handful of VPNs and a few days later flew out on the first leg of my 18,000 mile round trip.
Suspicious Apps And Censorship
Landing in Shenzhen I immediately checked for the airports network to report back to the office, and upon connecting an .APK started downloading without my consent or a prompt. Opening my browser I was greeted with a splash page directing me to log in through the app they had just sent me. Upon checking the app permissions I discovered it wanted far more than its fair share and so deleting the file I disconnected and left the airport. This was not the only time I observed this phenomenon, several places around the city that would usually be considered safe back home had the same practice. Needless to say, I relied on mobile data and the hotel Wi-Fi a lot. The Wi-Fi in the hotel just had a simple “click here to connect” splash screen and was capable of download speeds comparable to my fiber connection back home. That is of course when I was visiting an unblocked site or service. As expected attempting to send a message via Hangouts resulted in failure and my emails (All Google Inbox) wouldn’t refresh either. Choosing this as a perfect opportunity to test my VPNs, they had all worked back home but seemingly not here. Every one that I tried failed to connect. Speaking to Andi from Gizchina he recommended one that would work but cost $60 a year. Going to look it up, I discovered that as it utilized Google search, Chrome’s Omnibox did not work. It was at this point that I used Bing for the first time in my life.
Sim Cards And The Language Barrier
On the way to the hotel I received my new 中国联通 (China Unicom) sim card, popping it from its card the thought struck me that this sim seemed big, very big. Sliding open my card tray I realised that this was a mini sim, Something that I have not seen for many years and I certainly did not have a compatible phone. Having just travelled through 4 airports I did not have any scissors. Thankfully, the folks sponsoring my trip (Elephone) did have a sim cutting tool and using a dual sim Mi Note as my daily driver, I cut it down to micro size allowing me to still keep my British nano sim in place next to it. Over the coming minutes I received several SMS instructing me to set up my SIM, which were translated for me by the helpful people at the hotel. Normally I would have simply copied the SMS over to Google Translate but not in China. It was far quicker just to ask someone than to Bing an alternative that worked.
For the curious this translates to roughly “This is a 4G 20 month SIM and costs $2.19 a month, if you run out you can top-up for $1.54”
Jordan from XDA TV did not have the same luck, upon inserting his sim into his LG G4, his phone’s language changed automatically to Chinese, and changing your language back to English from one you don’t speak is quite arduous if you don’t know where language is in your settings by memory.
The Apple Obsession
I hadn’t even arrived at the hotel when I discovered the country’s opinion on iPhones. In Britain they are a popular choice but many other brands are viewed at the same level. Someone would never be looked at as superior to others for having an iPhone 6 over say a Galaxy S6 or any other OEM for that matter. In China they appear to be the epitome of class. Upon being handed the ZUK Z1 in the car, the owner of the device (an Elephone employee) stated, “I love the design, it looks like an iPhone 6+ or the Mi4.” (a device commonly stated as appearing similar to iDevices). The nearest Apple store to me in the UK probably averages at less than 50 members of the public in at any one time. Step inside the Apple store in Shenzhen however and you step into a crowd. Every device had a small gathering around it whether it was a Mac, a phone or a pair of headphones. There were live demonstrations occurring around the store that were also being shown on large screens for people who couldn’t get close enough to view. It was nothing short of manic. One event that confirmed this view happened whilst in the office of Elephone for a meeting. Upon exiting we were asked for a photograph with some of the team in front of the new ZUK sign they have in the lobby. The man in charge of the team asked that someone take the photo and when several people pulled an Elephone or ZUK Z1 out of their pocket, he without a second thought stopped them and stated:
“No this is an important occasion, we need a worthy camera, someone get me an iPhone!”
This left me stunned. I can’t imagine many companies willing to say this in front of their staff, never mind the press, however no one seemed phased by it. They just returned their phones to their pockets and pulled out their iPhones instead. This attitude appeared to be ingrained in everyone. OEMs appeared to believe that people were only using their phones whilst they saved for an iDevice, no matter how good their Android phones may be. I left thinking they were correct; this was certainly the impression people gave. The devices are by no means cheap either: the 128GB iPhone 6+ in China will cost you ¥7788 or $1216 USD, for those not familiar with the cost in the U.S. it will set you back $949 for the same unlocked model direct from the store.
Wherever You Go, There’s QR
A feature that I observed widespread usage of was QR, with every poster in the metro having a code – business cards and even receipts had them. I can go for months at home without seeing one, but there I rarely went minutes. Amusingly when I need to scan them over here, I use Google Goggles. Not an option there and neither was installing an alternative from the play store. I attribute the use of these codes to the language barrier, as most URLs are in Latin script even when leading to a website completely in a Chinese language. Consider having to type these URLs in a script you are not accustomed to, it would not be simple or easy, so QR codes for them do make sense. I would be interested to see if NFC could ever replace these in many mediums however currently usage over there appears to be minimal apart from in contactless payments. Of the two 2015 Chinese flagships I currently own, neither support the technology.
Spoken Word VS. Typing
It initially struck me as odd how many people were using voice recognition when sending messages. Whether it was Siri or just the voice tool in many android keyboards, many people were holding their phones briefly to their face repeatedly during conversations over SMS and IM. It was not until I had my epiphany regarding QR usage that I also realised that typing in Mandarin and the like could not be as easy as just saying what they wished to type. Despite Google’s best efforts with Pinyin Input, if people can’t get the app easily they will look for alternatives. This method certainly seems to work for them and they seem to not be bothered by a lack of alternate options. I have also since become aware that the app WeChat, which is incredibly popular in China, also uses voice messages which would certainly exacerbate the voice message situation.
Piracy seemed commonplace in China. I spotted this in the OEM app store of a phone I used briefly whilst over there, with an entire section of the store dedicated to pirated and/or modified versions of games and popular apps. Upon asking about it, I was given an answer that made it painfully obvious that they had no idea you were meant to pay for certain apps. It is entirely possible that this is down to a lack of Play Store and with so many different app stores available, most people would miss out on popular apps without developers wanting to offer their apps for free on a store without payment options or wanting to publish their app on more than one store.
All being said and done, the experience was an eye-opener. Simple tasks like checking my emails or sending a message became a chore and taught me an important lesson in taking my internet freedom for granted. Next time I visit I will be more prepared and will go with a VPN that I can confirm as working there prior to entering the country. For every service that was blocked for me, they have long since developed excellent alternatives and many people do not notice a huge lack of functionality. They have long been accustomed and it’s just the way the internet works for them.
Have you been to China? How was your experience? Leave a comment below!