Monday, February 25, 2008

Prison Break

The management invited a senior executive from an international market research firm to talk about Internet usage in China. The executive told many interesting anecdotes after his formal presentation. He said when I first came back to China in 2004 from years studying and working in the US, my firm had big ambition to make it in this vast market. Then in January 2005 Zhao Ziyang died. His firm’s automatic measurement tool recorded a huge spike in online BBS discussions on the former party leader. How could the automatic tool have automatically recorded and reported the politically sensitive data? The authorities demanded to know. He and his team apologized, removed the data and promised not to make the same mistake again.

Then a few months later, in April 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away. Once again the tool recorded a huge spike in BBS discussions on the former Pope. How could I have known there were many Christians in China? The executive grinned. He and his team had to apologize again to the authorities, removed the data and promised to do the right thing next time.

Unfortunately for them, neither they nor their automatic tool knew what data should be deleted before public consumption. The third strike came after the BBS went abuzz in late 2005—this time over public protests against Japan and Japanese businesses in China. After this last apology and data removal, they merged with a government-controlled media entity.

Finally they became politically correct—their Chinese partner is surely kept up to date with the inside insight regarding what data to show and not to show. The only concession they had to make—besides giving up 51% ownership—is that the Chinese partner has the right to remove undesirable data, though it promised not to tamper with the accuracy of the remaining data.

I felt the same chill listening to his anecdotes as watching the vicious Secret Service agents chasing and killing innocent people in the first season of Prison Break. Governments are all alike in their preference for conspiracies. When they manipulate the data and hide the facts, how could we know what is real? How could we conclude about our peers, our society and what ought to be done to our surroundings? If we think few cared for Zhao Ziyang or the Pope in China, we could end up brushing them aside as irrelevant historical vestige, even if we had cared for them ourselves in the first place.

As I pondered, the executive continued. Very soon we’ll publish a report on the present Internet usage in China, he said. You know why the government is nervous? Because the data showed that more people are reading BBS and blogs and watching peer-uploaded video than those visiting more traditional portal sites. The authorities can censor the portals easily, but how could they monitor every BBS and blog post and remove the unsavory ones in time? (So there is hope?)

But of course this time we had to delete some data again, he chuckled. We could not show that the most consumed content online is porn.

I was incensed—how could the government take away my right to know that my peer Internet users care for porn more than politics! All governments want to keep people in the dark, if possible. But at least in American TV series, there are beautiful lawyers and prisonbreakers attempting to keep the government at bay.

We ought to have our own version of that show in China.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Holidays and Lies

Holiday time is the time for lies. Everyone wishes each other lots of money in the new year (despite the fact that the average salary raise for Beijing’s IT industry is only 10% and that is to accommodate the recent high inflation) and every dream coming true (when do they ever?). Since the zodiac sign for 2008 is rat, a synonym of the verb “count” in Chinese, half of the group-sent sms greeting messages that I’ve received include the phrase “count (rat) your money until your hands grew weak in the new year!”

Yeah right!

For me, on top of all that, I had to make up a story to innocent friends and relatives that I could not join my family in Hong Kong this time because I could not get my paperwork in place (how could I, a well-organized operations person, have missed his paperwork!). My grandpa yelled over the phone: “What do you mean you are not in Hong Kong? Why don’t you come back to Chengdu then? Next time you have to bring your girlfriend back. No, I don’t want a girlfriend anymore. I want your spouse. Yes, spouse. Girlfriends can disappear the next day, but a spouse will keep you company for a long time. Yes, you have to bring a spouse back next time, before I go visit Buddha.”

Ok ok grandpa, a spouse from me to you next time.

Still, when the fireworks lit up in the sky, all I saw was this beautiful crassness of tradition—a showoff to see which family’s firework shoots up the highest and the noisiest, a trigger of children’s shrill laughter, and the picture frame to preserve many fond memories.

Holidays, despite their wastefulness, are worth the lies.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Day After Tomorrow

A rare snowstorm has hit Southern China and paralyzed the train system, leaving millions of passengers going home for Chinese New year stranded. Air travel has been affected less. Still, it took us three trips to the airport and two days' waiting before we got our boarding pass.

The airport is a mess--people sleeping on the floor, crowds pushing and shouting "We want to go home!", armed police in green uniform standing expressionlessly, and hoards after hoards of special police commando units in black uniform arriving at the scene to keep order. The communication system has totally broken down. No one knew which flight is coming and when. Passengers have to search counter by counter to find the agents issuing boarding passes for a particular flight. Agents refuse to admit if any flight has been cancelled depsite being shouted at. Last night, the jam-packed KFC ran out of food at midnight, and some say that there were 20-30k passengers stranded at the airport. Many commented that real life has finally caught up with Hollywood's imagination in the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.

Surprisingly, the chaos has conducted itself rather orderly. People pushed and shouted in unision only in short bursts. A few were arrested for disorderly behavior. A rather timid-looking armed police guard said: "Can't blame them. They've been waiting for a flight for over 30 hours now."

Perhaps a harmononious society is possible after all.