Written on BA038 flying Beijing to London. Edited on the London to Ipswich train a week later and despatched to silicon.com via free wi-fi in Ipswich shortly thereafter
Before I departed for China I listened to and read the debates about the country's state of freedom of speech, communication and internet traffic voiced in the EU and US. My impression was therefore one of a country with limited freedoms and constrained access to information. However, my suspicion based on a much earlier visit was one of a society closer to the West than most might guess.
As soon as I arrived it was clear that much of the debate and worry voiced in the West was in fact bogus. At no time, in any location, did I find myself unable to communicate freely by any mode I chose. I never had an incoming or outgoing, fixed or mobile phone call refused, terminated or limited in any way. Moreover the quality and reliability of service was always excellent and certainly on a par with the West. In addition, there was plenty of unrestricted radio and TV news, with a lot of other programming out of the EU and US.
All voice, voice over IP, SMS, instant messaging and email just worked! So, what's the beef? Well, surfing the net I came across one or two websites and services I could not access. Typically these resulted in screen messages of the form:
I certainly wasn't used to this and became puzzled as to why it was occurring. None of the sites I was trying to access were political, historical or in any way provocative or indeed subversive toward the governing regime as far as I could see. And curiously I could see the ABC, BBC and NBC websites, and could freely download podcasts plus more.
Even more curious, my porn spam continued and I actually had one site pop-up, unwanted, on my browser. News, views, blogs, information from academia, corporations, government and on finance, healthcare, medicine, sport, technology - you name it, it all seemed to be available!
If a content filter was being applied it wasn't apparent what the rational was for the decision to allow access or not. Of course, I couldn't do a direct comparison without a direct line back into the West. But anything I couldn't access in China was easily fixed by emailing my PA in the UK. She would then email me the data I needed shortly afterwards!
So how do the local Chinese get by with all these restrictions? According to the young people I spoke with there really isn't a problem! Just about everything is available, and if it isn't, getting access to a tunnel into an ISP via friends in the West seemed the favoured route. No doubt there are a lot of people in China who right now do not have 100 per cent net freedom but if they just ask around, everything and anything seems possible. As ever, the young folks are ahead of the game, and if there is a will, there always seems to be a way.
Can we put this in perspective? In my experience the Chinese speak freely on any topic on an individual or small group basis. I really couldn't tell the difference between the West and China in that regard. But no doubt, directly attacking the governing regime would be an entirely different matter. Is this really so different to the West?
Let's see, today in the West we have countries with medieval drinking and shopping laws, archaic media publishing controls, internet gambling bans, porno hysteria, unacceptable clothing control and so on. In my own country I can remember in the recent past when commercial radio and the Citizens Band were outlawed, when the obscene publications act prevented the publication of Lady Chatterly's Lover, and so on. And it was all just a few decades back!
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Perhaps the West should look on China as a society that has seen more change in the past 25 years than any other. A country that has gone from one million fixed-line phones for one billion people just 25 years ago, to one with more than 400 million fixed and more than 400 million mobile phones for a 1.4 billion population today - and a nation that will be providing the dominant language on the net within the next couple of years. Politically, socially, technologically and economically, China has changed faster than any nation in history. Of course it isn't perfect, of course there are difficulties, of course it is different!
During this visit I have been in cities that dwarf London, New York and Paris. And in the entire trip I only heard three police sirens, never saw any road rage, violence, graffiti or even a single traffic accident. Yep, China is different...
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.