China and global social media

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Hi The business man here.

Last week I came back from a business trip to China where I visited two cities, Yantai and Shanghai. I have been to various countries in Asia many times before and always been amazed by what is going on there but China takes the price for me.

I’m not quiet sure what I expected from China but what I saw impressed me. Many of us have two different stories about China. One is that they refuse to adopt to UN’s human rights and that the government is sometimes ruthless and has a very old fashion governance model. The other thing we hear about is their economical growth, which has been nothing but unprecedented on planet earth. The later is something I can confirm when I arrived in Shanghai. The city is simply amazing and it is way more modern then anything you can find in Europe. You can buy just about anything you want, from any brand you want and there are some pretty fantastic places to visit. There is no way you can see that you are in a communist state.

Since I’m a tech nerd and was in China to work on a IT system I was very interested to see how well Internet and other connected technologies had evolved there. I found that Shanghai is a very connected city where the 3G access and wifi is to be found everywhere and everyone seems to have a mobile phone. I was therefore a little surprised to find that Facebook, Twitter and surprisingly Google Apps were blocked.

The reason for this, I found out, is because of the riots in Xinjiang, back in July 2009.  Originally, they only blocked it in the area where the riots were taking place, because they said they were being organised via Facebook and other social networking sites, but after the fact people across China found they could not get any access to Twitter and Facebook anywhere. This is still the case today and the Arab spring has just made things worse.

I’m amazed by this narrow minded perspective by the Chinese government. First of all they acknowledge that their own people are not satisfied with them, why otherwise remove the possibilities to collaborate without central control and surveillance and what signals does that send to the rest of the world? Secondly the block is not that well implemented. I quickly found out that it was possible to update my Facebook status by sending an email to my Facebook account without any problems at all. I then later realised that I could use a virtual private network to reach any site I wanted. I doubt these “holes” are available because of ignorance and lack of knowledge.

Most big news sites in the west are available so there were no problem to get the same news as I get when I’m in Europe. The connected people in China are very well informed about what the rest of the world think of them, which again makes the blocking of Facebook, Twitter and Google Apps look very strange.

China is dependent on the export business they have with Europe and USA and need to build relationships across their borders. Social media is an excellent tool for this and I would love to hook up with my colleagues I have in China on Facebook and Twitter as it would bring us closer and make our day to day work easier and more fun. The blocking does therefore have negative consequences for their economy, if not directly then in-directly.

China do have their own version of Twitter and Facebook called Weibo, with over 140 million users (update: it is over 300 million) which is used by both companies and private people so the social media culture does not only exist, it is flourishing.

China does not live in a parallel universe when it comes to the grounded reality therefore they cannot have a parallel universe in the virtual reality. Simply because there is only ONE reality so what the Chinese government is doing around social media blocking is just not a sustainable way forward and cause problems for all parities involved.

Some colleagues I have in China told me that many parents in Shanghai make sure their kids start to study English at the age of 6 today. This is a clear sign of how they see the world in the future and it does not include a parallel Chinese universe.

Shanghai is a fantastic city that in many ways show us what the future of city living will look like. I hope the Chinese government also realise that they have to get the online reality to keep up with the the grounded reality if they want to stay in the game of global business. The Chinese people want it, the global business world want it and it will make the world a better and safer place. I predict it will happen within two years, simply because it have to happen when the consciousness of their leaders has evolved to a level where they can see it.