As I walk the streets and roam the web of China, I share snapshots from my fieldwork on Bytes of China. My list of longer thought pieces can be found on my Writing Page

I am currently living in China, following students and migrants as they process information and desire, remaking cities and rural areas. I investigate media and memes in their collisions with markets, governments, and local thugs.   [More about Bytes of China.]

Here's a video of the most recent talk I gave about my research at LIFT in Geneva, Switzerland, "Dancing with Handcuffs: The Geography of Trust in Social Networks". In this talk, I analyze the changing conceptions of trust through the story of a college student who threw shoes and eggs at the government official who oversees internet censorship in China. 

Read more about my research. My analysis of culture and technology can be found on Cultural Bytes. And my personal blog is Hi Tricia.

The views expressed on this blog do not in any way reflect the position of any of my funders, past employers, the Chinese government, the US government or the Fulbright program. 


My research is generously funded though a mix of university grant programs, state initiatives, or industry research.

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Some initial thoughts about the popularity of QQ's Wechat (aka Weixin)

shake it function (摇一摇)A few weeks ago, a conversation about the popularity of Wechat emerged on a tech mailing lists. Someone posted several reasons why they thought Wechat was more usable than skype. They listed several technical reasons, such as ease of use, great mobile interface, and more efficient battery conservation. The person also proposed that Wechat depersonalized communication. 

I wrote a response agreeing with the person but also adding that there are more than just technical reasons. My reply is below:

I would agree with most of your points about why WeChat is more usable than skype.

Time and time again, we see that the reasons why specific apps are more popular can be explained in terms of usability. 

But it's also important to see that user features are deeply embedded in existing cultural norms. 

So in the case of WeChat, my findings confirm many of the reasons you've mentioned  - in particular technical benefits of battery life conservation, personal, persistent, realtime, and brand familiarity. 

But there are several other reasons that are more deeply intertwined with the social norms of Chinese society - I won't go into the social norms but I'll just briefly list several reasons why Chinese youth love WeChat

  1. curiosity - Shake it Function (摇一摇),  the Drifting Bottle in the Sea (漂流瓶)  function, and look around  (附近) feature makes it easy for users to chat with strangers
  2. meeting strangers offline -   the near by (附近) function allows you to see who is physically around you and then message the people you want to meet in person 
  3. emotional exploration - many youth use it to meet strangers and talk about their emotions. 
  4. sexual - youth use it to flirt with other youth, some use it to find other youth for one-night stands [1] Translation of "How to find a One Night Stand on Weixin below
  5. small groups - users can easily create a chat group
  6. visual language - any asian mobile app always has a wide range of emoticons - this is a MUST! 
  7. updates from friends - Moments is a built in social network that looks a lot like twitter or facebook, users can post photos and updates and see their friends updates also
The first three points are the interesting reasons for why We Chat is so popular -- they all revolve around meeting strangers. 

One of the most important things to understand about Chinese apps is that the successful ones make serendipitous communication with strangers really easy.  

In a society with very restrictive social norms around permissive interaction and self-expression, Chinese youth don't have a lot of opportunity to meet new people outside of formal contexts or to express themselves. 

So the quasi-anonymity of the internet provides a space for youth to explore emotions with strangers - emotions that they don't feel that they can share offline with people they know like friends and family. There's a bunch of social structural reasons for this that I won't get into here. But the important thing I realized was the extent to which youth spend time online interacting with what we would call strangers - and really strangers is not an appropriate word because some of these relationships become very meaningful.

I don't see user practices around We Chat as an example of communication becoming less personal.
Rather I see youth trying to find ways to personalize communication. Texting is more personal than talking for Chinese youth - it's easier for them to share emotions over words than voice (also less expensive and more accessible) 

What is interesting is that they are trying to fulfill a desire for a more personal connection in what seems to be a very impersonal way (i.e. talking to strangers). But for them, a more impersonal connection with a stranger presents the greatest chance for personal connection. %hese apps allow a more continuous connection and in the case of We Chat - it's not just connections with personal ties, but also strangers!

The analogy I use is a bar - and that some apps are a lot of like third spaces, spaces outside of home (first space) and work (second space). The informality of a bar widens what is considered permissive behavior. When you walk into a bar, you can be anyone - you have no institutional or personal ties attached to you. We go to bars to meet strangers but also to be a stranger. We all need informal third spaces where we can chill in the company of unknown others.  And in the same way, we also need similar spaces online. 

Some software environments are very formal (prescriptive behavior, primarily personal ties), but some software environments are more informal - and it is in these informal online spaces that people gravitate towards when they want to explore a self outside of prescriptive ties. In Chinese society where there are VERY limited options for self expression, online third spaces like We Chat are a place where self-exploration feels safe for Chinese youth.

Also as an aside, the discovery of "why X Chinese app is surprisingly better than X Western app" is something I am hearing more often lately. 

Some of the conversations echo similar reactions a few years ago when Google was kicked out of China. 

I wrote about a piece about why Chinese users weren't infuriated with Google's exist because they preferred to use Baidu over Google - and was quite a shock for people in the West - a censored web browser preferred over a non-censored web browser?  OMG NOT TRUE! But it was true and still is true. 

When building tools for users outside the West, one of the thing we're always figuring out is how to leverage existing cultural understandings into insights for features that will compel users to adopt the unfamiliar app over their homegrown app. I think those of us who are in this space have a lot of work cut out for us, so it's a good thing that we're sharing these insights!

[1] One Stand Tips is a popular message being passed around on Weixin. It's written under the guise of a male giving other males tips on how to find one night stands with women on Weixin using the Drifting Bottle in the Sea (漂流瓶) feature. 

微信约炮须知:Tips for finding a One Night Stand on Weixin.

1. 摇一摇功能看似是最靠谱的功能,传说中的郎有情、妾有意,其实却和Q的巧遇卡一样,是个骗子横行的功能,因此须格外谨慎判断。
The “Shake it” function is the most useful function. It's a mutual feeling. In fact, the “shake it” function is similar to the Qiao Yu card (巧遇卡, coincidence card) on QQ which that liars use, so you should judge carefully.

2. 附近人功能需要勤劳致富,广种薄收,一般来说第一步是看个人签名,第二步是看人的长相。最好上手又最不花钱的,是长相一般或年龄30以上的好奇妇女。
The function of “Nearby” needs hardworking to make ONS comes to true. In general, the first step is to look at the personal status and the second step is to look at the appearance. The ones who have ordinary appearance or who are curious women 30 years up are easy to hook ups.  

3. 漂流瓶看似最不靠谱,其实是成功率最高的,一旦捡到女同志迷惘、纠结、郁闷的瓶子,要立即以轻松的玩笑话予以安慰,一旦真成功,还真就有坐火车来陪你战斗一下,然后在坐火车回去的极品。

The floating bottle (漂流瓶, Piao Liu Ping, which is one of the fuctions of Weixin) may appear to be unreliabe but in fact gives you the highest hook up success rate.  Once you pick a bottle from women who feel lost or blue, you should comfort her with jokes. As long as you succeeed, there are some who will take a train to see you.

4. 无论何种方式锁定目标,都不要轻易以“你好”这样的词汇让别人加你,最好的办法是直接说“加我!”,这样被加的概率远远高于你好。
No matter how you set your goal, never write “hello” to ask people to add you. The best way is to write “add me” directly. This gives you a higher chance to be added than a "hello."

5. 微信开始聊天后,不要问那么清楚情况,因为我们的目的不是了解他的人生,而是了解他的人体,所以他多大你要靠照片判断,什么性格你要看签名和相册,频繁更新签名的,神志不清,很容易上手,频繁拍照的一半都需要大量花钱还不一定搞到,因此不予考虑;连性别都不会改的,多半是刚玩,一旦聊上对你产生依赖的心里,你就发达了!
When you begin to chat with a girl on Weixin, do not ask too much about her. This is because our goal is to know about her body instead of her life. So you need to tell how old she is through pictures, and get o know her personality through her personal status and photos in her folder. The ones who often change personal statuses are usually easy to hook up with. The ones who often take pictures can be expensive to court and you may fail. So we do not consider them. The ones who do not change  their gender are usually rookies. Once you hook up with her. make her feel like she relies on you. You earned it!

6. 聊天的基本原则是寻找话题,然后让她说,你听,而不要你说让她听,他说啥对于我们来说一点不重要,因为我们的原则就是了解他的人体,而不了解他的人生;不管他的观点对错与否,你都要保证八分赞同,两分否定,这样他会觉得和你有共同语言,而且还会感觉你很有个性。
The basic chatting principle is to find topics that will get her to talk, then you listen. It's never the other way around.  It is not important what she says. This is because our principle is to know her body instead of her life. No matter if her view is right or wrong, you should agree 80% and disagree 20%. This way she will feel that you two have a common topic of interest and that you are special.

7. 要在不经意间炫耀一下自己的一技之长,没有一技之长不要紧,你要守着电脑用搜索引擎,反正就是忽悠,让他觉得你很厉害。
Show off your talents. It doens't matter if you don't have any. Have a computer with you and use the search engine, just brag. Try to make her feels that you are the greatest.

8. 见面之前一定要先聊十天八天,见面一定要喝点小酒,见面时候要有意无意地与他进行一些类似情侣的接触,不一定非要碰触,但一定要给他一个浪漫的感觉。
You need to chat with her for 8-10 days before you two meet. Drink some wine and interact the way lovers do. You do not have to touch her but you need to make it romantic.

9. 酒店一定要团购,团购的酒店价格基本和旅馆差不多,很便宜;千万别把女人带回自己家,除非你是癫痫病发作。
You need to reserve hotel through group buying. The prices will be similar to a motel which is also cheap. Never bring a woman home, unless you are crazy.

10. 完事之后电话立即换号,不要有过多纠缠,因为第二次开始,你就得花钱了……
Change your cellphone instantly after you finish. Do not have any more contact. Because seeing her a second time will cost you money.

The last principle is based on my experience: the ones who are married are easier to succeed with than the ones who are not. The one who are in love (in long term relationship) are easier to hook up than singles. Do not look for beauties. Those ones do not belong to you. 

I hope that my internet pals will success in hooking up and becoming a groom every night.




A talk about my shoe-throwing participant on twitter @hanunyi 

I gave a talk back in Feburary of 2012 about one of my partiicpants (@hanunyi) who made global news for throwing shoes at the man known for architecting internet censorship in China. I didn't get a chance to post my notes about it until last week on my updates page. Here's the vide of the talk - it's essentially condensed fieldnotes with analysis in one.  For more details read my additional notes about the talk. Here is the Chinese version: 中文版 - 带着镣铐跳舞



mapping the city, first stop: sex workers

When doing fieldwork in a new city, one of the first things I do is try to bond with taxi drivers. They make the best informants and have such a rich sense of the city's informal and formal layers. They help me create what I call "consumption maps of the city. I buy a big street map and hang it up on my wall. Then I try to map the following onto it:


  • formal business mapping -  location of business districts
  • wholesale markets (import and export of clothing, food, and etc) - usually you find a lot of informal economy stuff around any import/export area
  • popular shopping areas - high-end to low-end
  • food areas for locals and tourists
  • music - where people go to listen to music, esp sub-culture/alternative music
  • where peopel  have sex 


One of the ways I map the city is to quickly figure out where people go to pay for sex and have sex.  In China, the sex worker industry encompasses all economic levels. It's a bit complex to figure out which hotels and karoke bars are for high-end clients to which ones are for every day citizens. 

There are several levels where people pay for sex in most first to second tier Chinese cities (conversion $1=6RMB)

  1. super high end brothel (10,000RMB and up)
  2. the mayor's brothel ( based off of conversations I estimate it to be around several thousand RMB)
  3. the policeman's brothel ( based off of conversations I estimate it  to be around 200-1000RMB)
  4. the business person (200-1000RMB)
  5. the citizen's brothels (5-100RMB) - the sex worker rents the hotel room 
  6. street walkers who charge aound 20-50RMB - client pays for hotel

When the police do sweeps and arrest sex workers, only those who work in what I call the "citizen's brothels" get arrested. Street walkers can be easily arrested anytime and they are the most vulnerable because most of the time they don't work with the protection of an overseer. 

All the other brothels pay off the police or some other department to protect themselves. The police only go to the police-protected brothels and of course the mayor's brothel is only accessible to higher up government officials. The super high end brothels are accessible for anyone who has money. Here are some fieldnotes from one of my earlier attempts to map out sex in Wuhan last year around October. 

Field notes - October 11, 2011

My research assistant and I spent the night driving around with a taxi driver who knew where all the sex workers were located. He picked us up at another bar where the owners was telling us that many of the brothels in Wuhan have moved to another city 1 hour away called Xiao Gan where the police and local government have welcomes the new industry to establish it self. 

Once I realized my driver has this knowledge and was open to sharing it, my goal was to have him drive us around so that I could do some participant observation like walking around on the street, talking to business owners, and then try out some breaching experiments.

But when we arrived at the locations, the streets were empty. The first place we went to, there was only one car parked on the street and no sex workers walking around.  My driver then realized that Hu JinTao was coming into town the next day so there must have been warnings to all the local police to do a sweep and to warn everyone to stay inside until Mr. Hu leaves town. This made sense since October was the Anniversary of The Revolution of 1911 that created the Republic of China on October 10, 2011. The military uprising against the Qing Dynasty started in Wuchang, Wuhan, so the city (Wuhan) is always a special place during the anniversary. But this year China celebrating the 100 year anniversary, so even Hu Jin Tao was coming in to Wuhan.  

But before my driver told me why the streets were dark and empty, I was actually getting worried that I was getting ourselves into a dangerous situation and may have mis-read him. I had only met him 20 minutes before he agreed to take us around looking for sex workers. When I got worried, I immediately took out my phone and called a friend who lives in the city and who I knew would still be awake at 2am. I told my friend where I was exactly and what I was doing all under the pretenses that I was really excited to share my experience him. The driver heard the entire converstaion. My friend didn't even know I was worried, he just was happy that I called.

But eventually we found a street where some restuarants were still opened. The karoke bars were all closed.

There were only two people on the steet, two males who appeared to be students. They definitely don't look like undercover cops and plus undercover cops wouldn't work that hard to arrest sex workers. If they go undercover, they go directly to the brothels because they know where they are all located. The brothels pay the police station off to leave them alone. But I don't think these two males knew that they weren't going to find any workers tonight to sleep with.

This restaurant was open but my guess is that it also doubles as a front for a brothel. I asked the driver to stop and asked my assistant to buy some oranges and water at a small store. They cashier asked her when she arrived, which is code langauge for trying to get information from my assisstant on when she started working as a sex worker. I stayed in the car to chat with the driver to find out more information about the city. 

We tried another location and still the street was empty despite being located next to a construction site, which usually is a place where sex workers can easily find clients. The only people on the street were the garbage cleaners. I told the driver to just park the car on a corner near the site. After 10 minutes, we spotted a woman. My notes for that moment:

woman on street with heels, short skirt, tight top with dangling tassels from the sleeves, light white-tish top with black skirt, hair down to back, carried purse and held cellphone in her hand and kept looking at it. she looks around and then at her cellphone. holding it with her right hand while hands are crossed, purse hanging off of her left hand. The street is totally empty, no one is walking around and not many cars, no honking. I wonder if she is new to this work. Doesn't she think it's odd that no one else is on the street working. Maybe she needs to make money really badly. Sounds of construction machinery in background. Garbage truck approaching on other side of the street. 5 minutes later, man in construction outfit walks up to her. He is wearing yellow hard hat, blue top and bottoms, he approaches her, he says something, she looks around when she is answering his questions.  Then they walk away together. Negotiations took less then 1 minute. 

After they left, I told my driver to show us around the other areas of the city known for having lots of sex workers. We drove to expensive hotels and karaoke bars.

Taxi drivers really are some of the best sources of information. I will be calling him in for fieldwork at night trips and overall help with navigating the underground life of the city. 


Risque ads line the streets

Advertisement in Hankou on  江汉路, female in bra & underwear.. China

This lingerie advertisement in Hankou on  江汉路 shows a female in bra & underwear squatting with her legs spread open. The image reflects changing norms among public display of skin. There are more lingerie stores in a Chinese city than anywhere else in the world. 


A magazine just for dog lovers

There is now a magazine for dog owners. Beijing, China

There is now a magazine for dog owners. My dream job is still to to research on dog ownership and culture. I put it out to the websphere two years ago and it still hasn't come true. Do you sell canine products? Hire me! 

Spotted in Beijing, China. 


Luxury is in the eye of the beholder

VC and Farmer

When I was in Beijing, I met with a well known VC. She retired from her work in the US and now lives in China managing a fund. During our conversation about investing in start ups, she said something that really stood out to me. She said,

“I live in luxury now. I don’t have to spend time with people i don’t like. I have complete freedom to chose who I spend my time with.”

Then I went to rural western Hunan. I was chatting with a farmer in a super rural and economically poor village in the mountains. We were in the middle of a conversation about how much money her kids (who are migrants in shenzhen) send to her every month and how she spends the money. I asked her if she had plans to move to the city when she’s older. She replied,

“I have complete freedom here to spend my time as I wish. If i want to farm, I farm, If i want to see my neighbors, i see them. I dont have to be around people i don’t like. I’m so free here, I will never move.”

I thought it was incredible how both the VC and farmer defined luxury. What’s your definition of luxury? 

(Side note - just earlier during the convo the farmer— a 50 yr old female—has to cook 2 meals a day for husband & others. She was complaining how the males won’t even stand up to get chopsticks - she has to deliver it to them!). 


Learning Heterosexuality at breakfast 

Learning heterosexuality

The woman asks the boy, 

“who do you like at school?”

The boy gives the names of several girls. She asks if he’s talked to them, he says the play together. The woman then asks her son who he likes. He gives the names of several boys. The mom says,

“tell me which girls you like.”

The son says,“

"I don’t like girls”

and goes on to repeat the names of the boys. She responds,

“when someone asks who you like at school, you are supposed to tell them which girls you like. Your friend here like girls, so do you.”

I overheard this while eating breakfast in Wuhan, China 


gender play - paisley is not just for girls

Male wearing blue paisley pants with white Adidas sneakers, girlfriend has blue toenail polish. Fashion, consumer. Wuhan, China

I've seen paisley ties and paisley button up shirts in the West, but I've spotted two males wearing paisley pants in the last month in China. The male in this picture is wearing blue paisley pants with white Adidas sneakers. His girlfriend's toenials are painted blue. We are at a train station in Wuhan, China


Off the train and onto a shower and internet!

Yahh finally off the train, I can't wait to shower! Then will finally have wifi access! Internet Internet Internet! Wuhan, china #goruck gr2

Yahh finally off the train, I can't wait to shower! Then will finally have wifi access! Internet Internet Internet! I just returned from a week in Xin Huang studying Free Lunch.  Wuhan, china 


Non-weibo conversations of real name registration

A man walks by on the train offering 1 hour of DVD player rentals for 10rmb. The man sitting on the chairs says, “what if I run off with the DVD player?” The vendor replies, “where will you run to? We’re on a train. Plus now you train tickers require real name registration.”

The vendor leaves and all the men discuss how it’s possible that people don’t steal the DVD players when they rent them.

Background: Over Chinese New Years in 2012, the government implemented real name registration for train tickets. Technically, all tickets must be bought with an identification card and all tickets and identification cards are checked when entering into the train station. The identification card number is printed onto the train ticket. One can easily get around this rule. I've been testing the policy. First, I tell ticket sellers that I don't have my ID card on me but I know my number. They have always sold me a ticket. My assistant buys tickets for me by just giving them my passport number. He has always been able to buy my tickets.


gender + banking team up: Barbie loves going to the bank

I was waiting for the teller to call me up when I spotted the Barbie credit card advertisement at China Construction Bank. 

"To be self confidant & beautiful; the beautiful Barbie credit card. 因自信而美丽, 芭比美丽信用卡"

background: In March 2009, Barbie countered falling sales by opening their first mega-brand store in Shanghai. Then Barbie teamed up with China Construction Bank for the first ever, Barbie credit card. They marketed it as the "first female exclusive credit card."

pondering: I wonder if any gay males have challenged this envisioned use behavior. i would love to interview any these card users. If only I could get my hands on thier database of users. Hello sympathetic water army? anyone want to help out? Who are the users of this card? Guilty fathers? Well-meamning and super rich parents? Parents of college students?  I would imagine that one of the largest groups of users are mistress. 


Memories of fieldwork with women getting abortions

Oh what memories this military hospital brings back.

Just 3 years ago i did participant observation with women getting abortions and on the day we came here in May 2009, there was a big red banner:

“Mother’s Day Special - discounts on abortions.”

We found out that only the least bloody abortions were discounted. The bloodier the abortion, the less expensive and more affordable, but those are also the most invasive.

The participant I was with chose a less expensive package so she didn’t advantage of the Mother’s Day discount. After they performed the procedure, they gave her the option of buying food, like milk and bread, all of which were pre-packaged. The nurses tried to get her to buy the more expensive food products, telling her that it would help her heal. 

I’ll dig up that picture and my field notes to give everyone a glimpse  of abortion practices and culture. I have a whole folder of abortion advertisements and magazines that I need to sift through. Since I spend so much time with students, abortion ads are thrown into your face every where you go. 


Talking with a female massage worker in Changsha, Hunan

I tried to take a break from writing field notes by getting a massage, but as usual the stories find me.

27 year old female, grew up in a town in the mountains 5 hours outside of Guilin, Guizhou.

She went to a vocational school near Wuhan with an older cousin to learn construction management but the school lied to them & didn't teach them anything. But she was too afraid to tell her parents that their money was being wasted so she stayed silent and finished the program and got her certificate.

7 years ago, she visited her friend's village and she met her cousin. She ended up marrying him, his village is 7 hours from her town. Her husband gave her family only 10,000rmb, which is considered a low marriage payment,  but her dad approved of the their wedding because he "was not in the business of selling his daughter, as long as he was good to her he approved."

Her husband works as a miner in Guizhou, she works as a masseuse in Changsha, Hunan. They see each other 1 time a year and have a 1 and half year old daughter who they have seen once since she was born. Her husband's mom takes care of her. When they went home during Chinese New Years, her mother-in-law  told her daughter to call her, "mommy." Though, when her baby cried or smiled, she looked to her mother-in-law, and not her or her husband.  I asked if this made her feel sad, she said,

"what does it matter? sure I feel sad, but back in our town this is normal. Everyone has their parents raise their baby. We all work in cities far away."

She uses a feature Nokia phone & only texts on it. She bought a laptop so that she could chat with her husband when he goes to the Internet cafe. She uses wifi from another office downstairs. The massage boss has wifi but put a password on it when he saw workers streaming movies when they were resting. During breaks, everyone does their laptop out and they joke that they could open up an internet cafe. She locks her computer up downstairs when working and sleeps with it next to her in the dorms because things get stolen all the time.

She could make more money working as a masseuse Guangzhou but then she would have to sleep or do other "stuff" with her clients. She chose to work in Changsha because she says it is a stable place to "get my next meal for a conservative person like me who doesn't want to do stuff with men." She has been working here for 1 year and found the job through a friend. She likes is here because her boss supports his workers when customers ask for sex services.  Every time men try to sleep with her or asks for a penis massage, she says no and if they insist she stops.

One time, a customer got really mad and refused to pay the bill when she walked out mid-way through the 1 hour massage after he wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He went to the counter and told them that she was a bad masseuse and he would not pay for such horrible service. Her night manager called her out to understad the situation. After the customer yelled at her for again, she got really frustrated and screamed, "I wanted to finish your massage, but you wanted me to do stuff that we don't do here. You are dog shit," and walked away.

I asked her how it was resolved, and she sighed, "I came back out to said sorry and then he paid and left." I was shocked and aksed why she apologized when he clearly was in the wrong. She explained,

"Oh you know, it's just how it goes, I called him a very dirty word so I had to apologize. Sometimes, you have to give people some face to get what you want. He paid, and that is all that matters. We didn't want to make it a bigger deal, our boss wasn't there, and we didn't want him to find out." 

She tells me that it's only the young males try to sleep with the workers. We both started laughing and said almost at the same time, "that's because the older ones know where to get sex." She then added, "the young guys just want to save money and try to sneak a service in."

I asked her what her plans were next. She said

"I don't know, I can only do this until I'm 30 years old and then I'll see when the time comes. It's just good to not starve, so we take it one day at a time." 

She then told me that her parents told her that when they were young, they were always looking for food and hungry. Their story always stays with her and reminds her to work hard before her body is too old. She said,

"all I can do is work, I don't know how to do anything else, but the jobs I know of all require us to look young, and one day, I'll be too old for anyone to hire."



the bar as the ever evolving third space


I was hanging out the bar pictured above. After a rock band performed, the stage became a tattoo station. 

I love doing fieldwork in third places. Not only do I get to see all the different ways a space is used throughout a day, it's really easy to find people to talk to. 

Plus at a bar, a few drinks into the night, everyone is willing to talk. Good thing that I have high alcohol tolerance, not that that really matters considering that Chinese beers are the equivalent to water. I don't feel the alcohol but all the people I hang out with do. Makes my work a lot easier! It's more easy to watch who talks to who, who hits on who, and who goes to sleep with who. 


Cooks bonding over a cellphone

Lunch time is sleeping time for some and bonding time for others. The male cooks bond over games and/or pictures of “pretty girls” on their cellphonesThe waiters and waitresses nap before the doors open at 4pm. 

Lunch with one of my participants went longer than expected, which is always a good thing because that means they get to share a lot and I get to learn a lot. By the time we finished chatting, the entire staff had settled down on the second floor. I was so tired after the 3 hour lunch that I wanted to nap with the waiters and waitresses. But I gathered the energy to walk over to the chefs. They were quite squirmish about their cellphone; they immediately put the screen face down on the table, which usually means they were looking at "pretty girls."  

My participant was waiting downstairs, otherwise I would've tried to find out what kind of porn they were looking at and on what type of connection, whether it was downloaded by one of them or pre-installed by the vendor.

Sigh, there is only so much time in one day to do fielwork and there is only one of me. 


You can trust what you buy

I saw this sign at a TESCO grocery store in Dalian, Liaoning Province. Trust in products is a big topic offline and online.

"You can trust what you buy。"



Gossip from the trenches of China’s telecommunications market

(I originally wrote this post on 88 Bar.)

China telecommunications expert, Marc Laperrouza, tips us off to an unconfirmed bit a of juicy news about the Chinese telecommunication market: China Telecom is being investigated for anti-monopoly infringement! You don’t hear of state-owned enterprises the stature of China Telecom being investigated for monopoly infringement very often so this is pretty big news. Mark explains the charges:

Its sin(s)? Abuse of dominance in the broadband market or more specifically charging other broadband service operators discriminatory network access fees. For those not versed in competition law jargon it means that the company is taking advantage of its position in the market to squeeze out competitors (usually by forcing them to resell services to the final customer under the cost of production).

But like Mark, I am very curious why China Telecom? Is just doesn’t make sense.

The real question is why China Telecom’s counterpart (China Unicom) does not incur a similar investigation, given that both companies have nicely divided the country in two – the South for China Telecom and the North for China Unicom

While both China Telecom and China Unicom have divided the country in two, China Telecom was probably singled out first because they have the most subscribers – 73.7 million subscribers, compared with 779,000 users at China Unicom.

But it appears that in more recent news, China Telecom and China Unicom have been pressured by the anti-monoplogy probe to release statements admitting that they were improperly charging customers and would increase broadband speed. We have an explanation from, Li Qing, China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s  deputy director of the commission price supervision and anti-monopoly department:

These two companies clearly occupy a dominant position in the market…They use this dominant position to charge their rivals higher fees while offering favorable prices to companies that are not competing with them. According to antitrust law, we call such behavior price discrimination.”

And as with most monopolies, companies do not have incentives to offer optimal services. China has some of the slowest broadband speeds in the world despite having the most internet users out of any country. Anyone who has lived in China has become accustomed to slow internet speed.

But even governments needs incentives to break monopolies. The question is, why now? Is is possible that the government now sees the economic incentives to speed up service? Star Chang at Micgadget seems to think so:

An investment banker who cannot send an e-mail to his client or a supplier who cannot reach his buyers are a few examples of potential money loss that occurs on a daily basis. China Internet business will constantly need to deal with internet speed problems, a situation which is a loss for China and for the world. A huge population with fast internet connection speed will help drive innovation and will put China on the map as one of the most attractive business locations in the world. China must provide with faster and freer internet connection, making easier for people in China to engage in global business and to connect with the rest of the world.

But anything that involves faster access to any types of information comes with strings in China. I’m wondering how information will be filtered in an era of faster and more accessible internet? Earlier this year, Kaiser Kuo and others joked that we should all move to Chongqing  for the first International Cloud Computing Special Zone:

The special zone, covering about 10 square kilometers, is the only area in China that is directly connected to the outside Internet through optical fibers without being filtered, according to the Southern Weekend.

Kaiser’s joke points to something that would be good for all of us to keep an eye on – that is the future of cloud computing in China. Faster and more affordable internet can only get so fast if China’s internet infrastructure does not switch to cloud computing. But Jin Ge and I have been discussing the viability of home-grown cloud computing when Chinese netizens have low trust in cloud services from Chinese providers. When it’s already known that your information online is surveilled in China, who will be willing to save even more personal information online? According to Jin Ge’s latest article on China Bubble Watch, Cloud Computing Turned into Real Estate Business in China, no one is putting any information on the cloud servers. He points out that that the popularity of cloud servers are actually part of the real estate machine in China:

The first thing people should know about cloud computing in China is that it is again driven by state capitalism. Once the technocratic officials of China become aware of the concept of cloud computing, they immediately see the potential of applying their magic formula of “fixed asset investment+government subsidy+cheap loan” on it, because after all cloud computing does involve some large physical infrastructure. The story is quite similar to what happened to the concept of “Internet of Things”.

In April 2011, the government of Chongqing became the first to annouce its plan to invest 40 billion yuan on a cloud computing center that will be the largest in Asia. The plan is called “Yun Duan” (Top of Cloud). Then Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou all followed suit. Shanghai plans to build a “Asia Pacific Cloud Computing Center”,  its plan is called “Yun Hai” (Ocean of Cloud), Beijing has a plan called “Xiang Yun” (Cloud of Blessing), Shenzhen has a plan called “Kun Yun” (Cloud of Flying Fish), Guangzhou has a plan called “Tian Yun” (Cloud of Sky), Ningbo has “Xing Yun” (Galaxy Cloud), Wuxi has “Yun Gu” (Cloud Valley), Hangzhou has “Yun Chao Shi” (Cloud Supermarket) ……

If Jin Ge is right, then we will see a cloud-computing bubble accompanying the yet-to-come real estate bubble.

From the clouds to the ground, 2012 looks like it’s going to be an exciting year for mobile  industry. China Telecom is going abroad to offer mobile services for the transnational elite who travel between China and North America. China Unicom just launched a new mobile internet platform, the Wo-plus Opening System. Let’s see how long China Mobile 600 million 2G users can wait for 3G before switching to Unicom or Telecom. Now that China is the world’s largest smartphone market, how will the future of hardware and software evolve? We already have a glimpse from HTC of their new Sina Weibo smartphone. And then to top if off, both China Telecom and China Unicom may lower broadband prices!

With all these technical and market changes, one of the big questions for 2012 is will Chinese citizens will be relieved of telecommunications costs? Or will 2012 could be the equivalent to the 1996 Telecommunications Act in the United States where institutions benefited more from telecommunication reforms than individuals? [1] We’ll have to see who benefits from thee anti-monopoly investigation.

With the stable divisions of China Unicom, China Mobile, & China Telecom, we don’t hear of potential industry shake ups like this very often. I imagine that Chinese Telcom scholar, Eric Harwitt, is giddy with news. But luckily we have  Marc Laperrouzag, so we won’t have to wait a few years for a book or paper to be published to stay up to date on the details.

Let’s hope for faster and more equitable broadband access in 2012! 新年快乐!


[1] In my analysis of the US 1996 Telecommunication Act, I argued that the act did little to democratize communication for individual citizens. It failed to add Internet access to the scope of communication mediums covered by the Act; placed additional economic burdens on individual telephone subscribers; and auctioned off the spectrum of bandwidth for wireless services to the most wealthy telecommunications companies, who in turn charged high rates for wireless services to recoup costs. The act established the Universal Service Fund (USF) which mandated companies to create affordable telephone access, not information access, for individuals. While the USF was aimed at telephony services for  individuals,  E-rate, a sub-programof the USF, subsidized Internet access for schools and libraries, not individuals.


Street Vendor Life in China

UPDATE February 2012: I turned this blogpost into a longer piece for That's Shanghai, Dumplings for Sale. As with any publisher in mainland China, the censors have final say. In the end, most of what of wrote was approved, expect for the paragraph that I wrote on the chengguan. If you want to see what was cut, click here. Thanks for Leslie Jones, editor of That's Shanghai, for inviting me to write this piece! 

 (I conducted this fieldwork during the summer of 2011.)

I was living with migrants and working as a food vendor for the last few days. I want to give you an idea what everyday life is like for street vendors.


The family I am living with received a tip from a friend about a construction site in the northern part of the city where vendors have been selling food during lunch and dinner without encountering any chengguan. When the family heard of a chengguan free-site, they were excited to check it out.

Officially know as City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau (城市管理行政执法局), it's not really clear what they're supposed to do in practice. But what they're known for doing is making migrants' live miserable in cities across China. There are many stories online of chengguan beating vendors, smashing their products or food, and taking bribes. It's also common to hear about chengguan killing street vendors. A recent incident in Guizhou led to a riot when a chengguan killed a disabled migrant. Stories of chengguan exploitation of power are so pervasive that appeasing them with bribes becomes the key to a street vendor's success. Giving bribes is a matter of life or death.

But for migrants who do not have enough money to bribe, they have to constantly be on the run. Constant running means that a street vendor cannot establish a business long term. So for a street seller, like this family I am with, finding a place to set up a cart to sell food in a chengguan-free site is super important. A place to do stable business would give them a stable income to expand their business or go into another line of work.

After spending a a few days observing the site, they didn't see any chengguan officials amid the crowds of construction workers buying food and products from street vendors. They decided it was a safe and stable place to set up business. The family debated about what kind of food to sell. In the end they agreed to sell dumplings, noodles, and chaobing (炒饼) for 4RMB a serving. The family spent 6000RMB ($1000) of their savings to buy 2 battery-powered bicycles, 2 batteries, 1 freezer, 1 stove, 1 gas, 2 umbrellas, 2 large pots, 20 plastic orange bowls, 2 bags of disposable chopsticks, and 16 stools. Other than the chopsticks, everything was second hand. All 3 working adults agreed to participate in this work full-time. They moved to an an urban village slum near the work site.


We live in a city village slum (城种村) 20 minutes by bike from the construction site. Migrants from all around China live in this village, like any other urban village. 1 to 6 people rent out one room. Many parents live here with their child. Each room has a satellite dish attached to roof. The landlord lives at the end of the block and his floor is tiled. His job is to keep an eye on what happens in the area, but he appears to be gambling all day.

I sleep in a room with a four people: a mother and father with a 4 year old son, and the mother's little brother. The father and the little brother sleep on the bunk bed, I sleep with the mother and child on the floor. Rent is 300RMB/month ($50). Electricity costs around 450RMB/month at 1.5RMB/watt to keep the refrigerator on so that the food doesn't spoil. Electricity costs more than the rent. Charging the bike batteries also increases electricity costs. There is a television and a fan in the room.

This has been my schedule for the last 3 days:

4am     wake up and prepare bikes, put battery in
5am     head to market to buy fresh food for lunch
8am     return home, clean and wash vegetables
10am   cook food, load up bicycles, eat breakfast/lunch
11am   bike to the construction site and sell food
2pm     bike back to home, unload bicycles, clean pots & bowls, put stools & stuff back inside home
3pm     head to market to buy fresh food
5pm     return from market, wash vegetables, cook food
6pm     bike to construction site, sell food
8pm     bike back to home, unload car, clean bowls and pots
9pm     eat dinner
10pm   go to sleep


But our schedule has not been this precise because we encounter many unpredictable problems.

The first few days have been disasterous in terms of making money.

Their bike keeps running out of battery so we have to push it 3 miles home each time this happens. The bike and the battery are second hand, so it's not clear if the problem is with the battery or the bike. The picture at the top of this post shows me pushing the cart after lunch in mid-day 99+ degree heat.

I found out that the refrigerator is only a freezer. But the family still puts everything that needs to be kept cold inside from beers to water to watermelon and to noodles. Sometimes the freezer works really well so there are a few beer explosions. But most of the time it doesn't work well so the dumplings become sticky and uncookable. We already have had to throw away 4 bags of dumplings.

The entire family is now exhausted after 3 days of working. Even the husband, who was really excited to do this new job because he's a really great cook, is now wanting to back out of this plan. In this picture below, he is preparing the lunch food outside the room. This is what their kitchen looks like. When he finishes chopping the meat, the flies come over to stake out their places as he prepares the noodles. No one swats the flies away or tries to keep the meat under some cover where flies can't reach. You would think it was a black stone if you didn't know it was hundreds of flies on top of the meat.

The soybeans are soaked (not washed) one time in a large aluminum bowl. This same bowl is used for washing hair, washing clothes, and bathing the 4 year old child. Food is cooked in a big pot on the ground using gas to power the cooker.

But the husband discovered that he didn't enjoy this type of mass-cooking and selling. Offering dumplings in 100+ degree weather has not been easy, not because there isn't a demand for dumplings, but because the dumplings are difficult to transport and they would become too mushy by the time we bike to the site. The bike ride from the urban village to the construction site is rocky. The road is not paved most of the way. By the time we arrive at the site, most of the soup has already spilled out of the large pot onto the cart. Keeping the soup hot with gas softens the dumplings.

The husband also found out that he has not been able to make food that pleases customers. Many workers complain after ordering the food. They often get angry and yell at them, demanding their money back. In this picture below, these workers want a beer to compensate for the overcooked dumplings. The husband, I could tell, is losing patience for this work. I hear him and his wife fighting about it. He wants to return to selling clothes on the street, even if it means dodging the chengguan everyday.

The family's electricity expenses are getting out of hand just to keep the freezer running. Electricity is more expensive at this particular urban village than their previous place they lived (1.5RMB/watt to 1.2RMB/watt respectively).

I can hear the husband and wife fighting about this every night. It puts a lot of stress on the family. The mother is getting nervous that they are not even close to turning a profit. Everyday around dinner time, she says, "we have to start making at least some money so that we can buy food.We need to buy meat." She needs cash to buy food for dinner. The most they have brought in so far was 200RMB on a good day. But most days only make 100RMB. The friend who told them about this place was supposedly making 500-600RMB a day. The younger brother keeps reminding the family of the friend's situation. Then the husband says that his friend makes a lot of money because sells good food. He pointed out that they didn't have return customers. All the other street vendors' carts had regular workers but no one ever came back to their cart.

Everyday activity has begun to wear on all of our bodies. Trips to the supermarkets, washing clothes, and going to the bathroom seemed to be a big ordeal.

Unloading and loading takes a total of 3 hours a day (4 rounds in total per day). Each bike ride to the market involves a total of 1 hour of loading and unloading items back into the room. Someone had to unload the cart, put everything inside the room, and then hide the valuable stuff (e.g. batteries) with a blanket. The reason why they have to go to the market in the morning and after lunch is because the freezer doesn't work properly. As a result, they could only buy food that can be cooked immediately. Not unloading is not an option because they need the free space in the cart to bring groceries back and they can't leave their belongings outside and not have it stolen.

Anything involving water takes ten times longer because there is only 1 faucet for every 4 homes. And there is only 1 pipe for every 5 faucets. So if any of the 20 families use a faucet, none of the other 19 families have access to a working faucet. Someone is always washing vegetables, dishes, hair, or clothes unless it is 3am in the morning. A few times we were not able to get arrive at the construction site in time to sell food because we were waiting to use the faucet. Water costs 10RMB/person/month. As a result, most of the food is not washed well or at all; it is soaked, and the same water is then used to soak other vegetables.

It is hard to even find a faucet just to get water to wipe the dust and sweat off of my body. And even when I do find faucet time, I am shy about wiping my body down in front of everyone. Since it is summer, families sit outside, eat outside, and gamble outside. There is no privacy. I can't wet the towel and walk inside the room because there is always someone there. No one else is shy about this. The mother wipes down her armpits, breasts, legs, stomach, and butt cheeks in the open.

There is no physical privacy in an urban village. None. At all. Even when you are going to the bathroom, not that it is an ideal place anyone wants to spend too much time in.

When I approach the bathroom, I can hear a faint buzzing sound. When my feet wade through the piles of trash blocking the bathroom entrance, I realize the buzzing sound  are flies. The swarm of flies that is so concentrated that it could lift me up into the air if I stay too long in the bathroom. The odor is nothing that I have ever experienced in my life. I have no words for it. All of these conditions make me avoid the bathroom as much as possible. In my past fieldwork with migrants, I am usually with street vendors who sell products in more urban areas where I could easily pop into a KFC or McDonalds to do a wipe-down shower. But this construction site is not located near any restaurants. So it is my only option.

I try to not use the bathroom as much as possible. But doing hard labor in 100+ degree weather makes the body thirsty. I am now very calculating everytime I drink water. I ask myself, do I really need this water?  Is it worth going to that bathroom? I now sip as little as possible, just enough to moisten my tongue so that it is not sticking to the top roof of my mouth. Yesterday was super hot, but I only used the bathroom twice in 24 hours. Imagining the conditions are enough to hold me back from quenching down a bottle of cold water.

The pit inside is filled to the top with feces, female pads, and trash. There is a rotting dog foot (body missing) in the female bathroom. No one has removed it. I want it removed, but I don't know how to remove it.  Even though I want to get rid the dog paw, I don't even know who to call. There is no such thing as animal control. I don't even know what tools I could use to remove it. I feel bad that other bathroom users have to see it and I feel horrible seeing it everytime I come here. Then I start wondering how this dog paw ended up here. There are many dogs in the village. Maybe a  car ran over a dog. But how did the paw end up in the bathroom? After some wondering, I realize it's time for me to return back home and help the family.  Little things like this, paralyze me because I realize how much I am unable to do here and how this is a reality for people living in these kind of areas. There is simply no time and no means to do anything to make this place cleaner.

With a schedule that requires us to wake up at 4am every morning, there is simply no time to do anything but prepare for the next meal or anticipate sleep. This is exhausting work and everyone collapses at the end of the night. Every night I bike home thinking, I cannot wait to sleep. Before I get home, I pray that the battery doesn't stop. I just want to make these 3 miles home on the electric bike.

I cannot even imagine how anyone working this kind of schedule has time to read a book, follow world news, or browse the internet.


The Future of Computing in China: Stories that Bind

The future of computing in China is a frequent topic in the tech community.

Most recently, NY Times published an article by John Markoff and David Barboza that discusses a near future where China's computing industry could close in on the US. The authors provided many examples, such as China's successful super computing industry and the number of programmers coming out of universities and being sent abroad.

James Landay wrote a response that countered Markoff's and Barboza's optimism. Landay explained that while China has made great strides reforming its academic system to produce top programmers, there are systematic issues (such as power structure within universities, the education system, and patent incentives) that prevent creativity among programmers from being rewarded. 

I'd like to extend upon Landay's comment on the cultural barriers to China's computing industry and offer my ideas of the primary challenges for the future of computing in China.

The three things holding China's computing industry from creating disruptive innovation is the 1.) lack of trust between individuals, groups, and institutions, 2.) lack of organizations that foster creativity and community, and 3.) lack of common myth among technologists, engineers, and programmers.

1. Trust matters

China's computing industry lacks trust between individuals and institutions. Both articles from Landay and Markoff and Barboza touch upon trust issues around patent protection. But when I talk about trust, I am referring to two types of trust, 1.) trust between individuals that leads (or doesn't) to collaborations, and 2.) social trust between individuals and institutions.

Markoff's and Barboza's article pointed to collaborations between universities as indicators of China's growing computer industry. But these collaborations are still far and few between and more importantly, they operate independently from each other. Industrial social structures matter in how industries form, as demonstrated by AnnaLee Saxenian's research on the emergence of Silicon Valley in California. Her analysis revealed that tech companies in Boston, Massachusetts Route 128 operated in a decentralized and independent fashion, while companies in California's Silicon Valley adopted a more decentralized but cooperative system. She argued that Silicon Valley was able to generate more innovation because its unique industrial structure encouraged collaboration between companies.

Trust is an essential factor for collaboration. The missing ingredient in Route 128 wasn't investment or human capital, it was trust. Without the underlying social bond of trust, companies were largely isolated from each other, which prevented collaboration. Lack of collaboration hindered healthy levels of sharing and competition.

The Chinese tech industry is set up more like Route 128 than Silicon Valley. There are pockets of innovation in China, but the innovators are not networked, nor are they collaborating. A common question that Chinese people ask is why China does not have a Steve Jobs. Whenever I hear this question, I ask myself, could Steve Jobs have created Apple in Route 128, instead of Silicon Valley? I'll leave that question for the experts to ponder.

Another type of trust that is missing is social trust of institutions. Aside from the major educational barriers that Landay pointed out and the legal intellectual property barriers that Markoff and Barboza highlighted, the general distrust in bureaucratic institutions is holding back the Chinese computing industry. In a country were information is explicitly filtered and monitored, how can people develop trust in large-scale computing systems? Sure, China has gotten this far by creating the fastest super-computers (at one point). But super-computing does not require high levels of trust, whereas cloud-computing does.

Cloud-computing is user-centric. One of the most important points in Landay's article is that cloud-computing is where innovations matter the most:

"people seem to see much more important innovation going on in the cloud computing clusters that literally combine thousands of commercial processors together in standard racks connected with traditional networks in huge data centers around the world. This is the technology that powers Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and the many other web computing giants of the world and is then resold inexpensively to every little web site or mobile phone application that needs to do computing in the cloud. This type of architecture supports a far wider range of applications than supercomputing."

If cloud-computing is a better indicator of where the Chinese computing industry is at, then it would appear from the recent burst of cloud-computing projects in China that its computing industry is doing quite well. Jin Ge reports on China Bubble Watch:

"In April 2011, the government of Chongqing became the first to announce its plan to invest 40 billion yuan on a cloud computing center that will be the largest in Asia. The plan is called “Yun Duan” (Top of Cloud). Then Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou all followed suit. Shanghai plans to build a “Asia Pacific Cloud Computing Center”,  its plan is called “Yun Hai” (Ocean of Cloud), Beijing has a plan called “Xiang Yun” (Cloud of Blessing), Shenzhen has a plan called “Kun Yun” (Cloud of Flying Fish), Guangzhou has a plan called “Tian Yun” (Cloud of Sky), Ningbo has “Xing Yun” (Galaxy Cloud), Wuxi has “Yun Gu” (Cloud Valley), Hangzhou has “Yun Chao Shi” (Cloud Supermarket) ……

According to a report from China High Tech Herald, even poor cities like Lanzhou and Langfang joined the “cloud making carnival”. Langfang, a third tier city in Hebei province  announced its plan for a cloud storage center that is at least two times the size of the largest existing cloud storage center in the world, which is in Chicago."

But in China, anything that happens this quickly is suspect. Ge Jin reveals that cloud-computing is part of larger real-estate schemes.

"The first thing people should know about cloud computing in china is that it is again driven by state capitalism. Once the technocratic officials of China become aware of the concept of cloud computing, they immediately see the potential of applying their magic formula of “fixed asset investment+government subsidy+cheap loan” on it, because after all cloud computing does involve some large physical infrastructure."

Chinese efforts at cloud-computing are largely government subsidized projects built on shady relationships where it is not clear where money is coming from and where it is going. 

Jin Ge's article reveals the fundamental problem with cloud-computing in China - there is little trust in it. A common response from Chinese internet users is that they trust foreign internet companies more than Chinese internet companies with their information. Most users tell me that they don't trust putting their information up in the Chinese clouds because there is no guarantee that the company will be around next year. In addition, distrust of the government is also a common response. Having become accustomed to explicit information filtering from the largest cyber police force in the world, users have low trust in putting their information up in the clouds, thus another barrier to cloud-computing.


2. Organizational hubs of creativity matter.

China needs organizations that will foster creativity across software, hardware, and social boundaries.

Markoff and Barboza pointed to the rise of collaborations between institutions in China as indicators of China's burgeoning computer industry. I would be cautious of interpreting these indicators as measures of creativity, which is a critical element of disruptive innovation.

In Michele Hoyman's and Christopher Faricy's research, "It Takes a Village: A Test of the Creative Class, Social Capital and Human Capital Theories," they counter Richard Florida's work by arguing that creativity and economic growth can be mutually exclusive. Their work tells us that China can continue to experience great economic growth and computing progress without becoming a hub of creativity. So contrary to what Florida argues, creativity and economic development are not always positively correlated.

This is not to say that I don't see bubbles of amazing creativity in China. One only has to look to Silvia Lindtner's research on co-working and collaborative spaces like Xindanwei and Xinchejian for proof that China is not lacking in creative minds. But will these communities of creativity reach the tech industry at large? Will Chinese companies lead in creating shared value (Kevin Lee has a great post about this topic)? My experience so far tells me that in the Chinese computing industry, the answer is no, at least for now.

In research that I conducted (with Jofish Kaye) on hacker spaces in the Bay Area, I witnessed great fluidity between various creative spaces. People who worked at facebook could be found hacking away at Hacker Dojo or people who worked at a start-up would teach a class at Noisebridge. So far, I don't see any of that happening in China's co-working spaces. Even those these spaces are quite new, it's hard to imagine engineers at Tencent QQ taking time out of their grueling schedule to build an arduino board for fun. I see lots of Chinese artists and designers, and international techies at these new co-working spaces, but the missing group are the computer programmers from industry and academia.

I don't want to underestimate the importance of these new co-working communities, but a few of these sites scattered throughout the country is not enough for massive cultural change. What China needs is an organization that will cut through horizontal and vertical layers of bureaucracy, regional differences, software and hardware industries, and institutions, to bring together people to share.

The US has organizations whose sole mission is to build up the community between techies (the social science kind and programming kind) across industry and academia. Conferences organized by O'Reilly from Web 2.0 to Foo Camp bring together thousands of people in the computer industry to network, share, and play. Existing organizations are hardware and service specific. For example, organizations such as China Great Wall Club plays an important role in bringing together mobile internet service providers, but their audience does not expand beyond mobile, at least for now. And there are a few others organizations here and there, but they don't meet enough and often care more about membership fees than community development. China needs an organization, like O'Reilly, that will bring together academics, researchers, programmers, social scientists, hackers, artists, designers, and writers. Global research centers proposed by Landay would be a start.


3. Stories matter.

For China to become a disruptive innovator in computing, it needs a common myth to unifiy players from different social backgrounds. The lack of a common story prevents the emergence of a cohesive computing culture in China.

In Morgan Ames's research on One Lap Per Child, she looks at the kind of stories that technologists and programmers tell about themselves and how these stories are designed into technologies. She argues that the largely male culture of computer programming draws upon a mythologized childhood of independence from adults and freedom to explore computers. In their stories, programmers tend to ignore all the social and demographic factors that makes their story possible, such as being Caucasian, male, middle- to upper class, and having parents who encouraged them to use the computers, and going to schools that had access to computers. Regardless of how accurate these "pull yourself up by your own bootstrap" narratives are, it is a common one that binds computer programmers together.[2] Narratives can be powerful because they allow people to establish trust across time, social distance, and space. So what kinds of stories are circulating among Chinese programmers? I have yet to be able to identity a strong one yet.

Though I would like to point out an interesting story that comes from the mobile industry, the story of shanzai. What started out as a response from a few rogue mobile hardware producers in Southern China who wanted to avoid paying the government taxes on handset producers, has now spawned a whole industry of shanzai products that goes beyond the original definition of being cheap copies of existing products. Shanzai mobile makers did what Nokia, HTC, Samsung, and Motorola could not do - they met the user needs of millions of new cell[phone users (more on this topic from me). By working outside of the dominant infrastructure of mobile producers, shanzai makers went wild with producing mobile phones with new features that were relevant for low-end users. Shanzai mobiles has give the low-end market, that was once dominated by Nokia, a greater number of choices in mobiles at a lower cost. Shanzai is still in the process of moving beyond the perception of being a copy culture to a bottom-up innovation culture, so it is not a story that is embraced by the programming community at large right now.

All stories need a good enemy. For shanzai makers in China, it was the government that levied oppressive taxes. For hackers in the West, is was the education system that tried to prevent them from exploring self-directed learning. So who are the bad guys in the eyes of Chinese programmers?


Although I have named several barriers to China's computing industry, trust, creativity, and stories, I don't think that the Chinese computing industry will not be successful if it doesn't achieve all these factors, but whether it will be a Route 128 or Silicon Valley is still to be seen. Creativity and economic growth are not necessarily correlated.

Like Landay and many others, I'm not so optimistic about the actual system changing anytime soon. But here's the thing, I don't expect it to. Because systems take lots of time to change, and the bigger they are, the more change resistant they are. For example, compulsory public education in the US began in the early 1900s. In China, it only began in 1986. The US has had over 100 years to experiment with liberal education. China has only had a litte more than 20 years, and they have a lot more people.

My own research so far tells me that tech innovation in China will not model the West. For example, in the West, following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities and companies arrange mutually beneficial partnerships to facilitate the ease of IP transfer. This does not have to be a model elsewhere. Research from David Mowery and Bhaven Sampat (The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and University-Industry Technology Transfer: A Model for Other OECD Governments) cautions us from extending the US model of university-corporate partnerships globally because the success of the Bayh-Dole Act is heavily dependent on the history of education and tech industry in the US. And a recent paper from Paul M. Swamidass and Venubabu Vulasa, Why university inventions rarely produce income? Bottlenecks in university technology transfer, questions whether univeristy research is even producing marketable innovations. Both these studies bring up important points, innovation will look different in different contexts. [3]

The future of computing lies in individuals and groups who will collaborate across social and industry boundaries, and know  how to handle the unique constraints of technology usage in China as welcomed challenges. And this is why Lindtner's work on XindanWei and Xinchejian is so fascinating, because her research suggests that innovation in China may not come from the computer industry as we know it, it may come from these loose forms of transnational Chinese who breathe design, art, and tech. And my research on non-elite users and shanzai culture suggests that disruptions from the bottom up can contribute to the innovations in the field at large. Both of our research point to different dynamics of innovation than seen in the West.

In the meantime, we need more coverage of the Chinese tech scene from writers like Markoff and Barboza who avoid Western-centrism and more writing from experts like James Landay who can provide a nuanced insiders perspective. It's an exciting time to be a witness to how processes of trust building, creative development, and storytelling are being worked through in China as its economy is challenging the existing global order.

In Neil Stephenson's cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, he writes that in an era of American economic decline where inflation is high and inequality is great,

"There's only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), and high-speed pizza delivery”

According to the prophet of the tech industry, despite economic decline in America, it will continue to provide good stories, software, and service.


UPDATE Dec. 16, 2011: James Fallow refers to this article in What's Up in China: Hint, It's Not War With the U.S., The Atlantic


[1] This is not to say that users' distrust will lead to more distrust in Chinese cloud-computing. Carol Heimer's research shows that strategies of distrust are not iterative, rather they can lead to the necessary groundwork for establishing trust.  For example, as suspect as US and Europeans are of companies' handling of individual's private data, it is this very suspicion that creates a healthy level of check and balances between companies and individuals.

[2] This mythologized childhood story of computer programming is shared by so many male techies that is often works in exclusionary ways, such as alienating females and minority programmers who do not share a similar childhood, as evidenced by research on gender biases in computing from Jane Margolis and Allen Fisher.

[3] Landay explained that the field of Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp) as lacking in Chinese scholars. But Ubicomp is not a field that the industry looks to for innovation. Students and researchers of Ubicomp and other similar fields are often times more concerned with producing papers than creating innovative contributions that will leave the lab.


Advertisement for No-fee ATM withdrawals anywhere in the world

There are signs everywhere that the expanding middle-class Chinese are globally mobile. Brands are noticing and catering to this new consumer. You can see it in the advertisements where companies are selling a specific lifestyle, such as this Toyota Highlander ad I saw a few months ago.

Even more interesting are ATM and credit card advertisements from Western companies. HSBC and American Express have long been marketing to global consumer. Their ads are more or less duplicated for each market with minor changes, such as translating a phrase or hiring ethnic models to represent the target market. But other than translation and localization, there is not much that differentiates an HSBC ad at London Heathrow from the one in Shanghai Pudong.

I saw this Citibank ATM ad as I was running through the doors of Hongqiao Train station in Shanghai to catch my flight back to Wuhan. In what looks to be a Chinese couple in a European city, the wife has happily returned from her shopping spree to a husband who was drinking an espresso. He appears to be quite happy seeing all her colorful shopping bags. With their no-fee withdrawal ATM card, both the husband and wife can enjoy their vacation without the worry of running out of cash.

Citibank reminds the viewer that these types of shopping experiences are possible because with an ATM card, shopping is now possible anywhere in the world.:

"you can withdraw money without paying fee [with Citibank ATM card], regardless if you are in this country or abroad, or withdrawing from Citibank or other banks."

This picture reflects the primary reason Chinese tourists travel: shopping. Chinese tourists overall prefer material experiences instead of relaxing or spiritual excursions. The The Economist tells us that they the Chinese tourist's ideal material experiences are not "in luxurious hotels and lavish meals. Coming from a newly affluent, increasingly unequal society, they have a strong preference for the accumulation of material goods.’” 

China Mike has compiled a list of statistics that show you just how much Chinese outbound travel has changed global tourism. For example, here are a few stats and graphs:

  • In 2008, Chinese tourists passed all other nationalities as the biggest shoppers in France, according to a survey by the French government. [The Financial Times, “Chinese travellers change the face of tourism” June 8, 2010]
  • The number of Chinese traveling outside the country rose to 54% from 2005 to 2009 (to 47.7 million)…and “they spent more than French, Japanese or Canadian travelers.” [U.N. World Tourism Organization; Time Mag. “Your Next Job: Made in India or China” March 17, 2011]

I've been seeing more ATM and credit cards from Western companies creating content specifically for Chinese middle- to upper-class tourists. If you spot any other ads like this one from Citibank ATM, please share!