Archive for the tag “Technology”

25 Essential China Survival Apps

We loved the list of tips and tricks for living in Beijing that Kaiser Kuo wrote on Quora.  We agree with them all (especially the last one).  Not being able to top such comprehensive and impassioned advice, we thought we’d go a different route.  Since we (YJ excluded) confess to occasionally both whining AND bitching, we’ve come to rely on a few simple hacks to avoid unnecessary bad China days.  

Which ones did we miss? Leave us a comment and let us know your top survival apps!

Language Skills

The indispensable dictionary app. The free included dictionary is pretty good, while for more heavy-duty purposes, serious language learners (or “grownups,” as Brendan calls them) can purchase add-ons including dictionaries, optical character recognition, flashcards, and more. The ABC Chinese-English dictionary is particularly useful, and more advanced users will find the Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (现代汉语规范词典) indispensable.
Homepage Android iOS

Waygo Visual Translator
Too lazy and/or stupid to learn Chinese? Or perhaps you just want to be able to order a meal without having to learn the world’s dumbest writing system first? Waygo Visual Translator has got your back: the free app offers remarkably good OCR for menus and street signs. Point your iPhone at a menu and get an instantaneous (and mostly pretty accurate) translation of dish names. Brendan used to recommend that anyone coming to China pick up a copy of James D. McCawley’s The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters; Waygo renders that excellent book more or less obsolete. So this is what living in the future is going to be like!
Homepage iOS

Xiaoma Hanzi (小马词典)
A nice little character study app that lets you quiz yourself on the pronunciation and meaning of random characters and search by stroke order, though not as comprehensive as Pleco.
Homepage Android

Sogou Pinyin Input (搜狗手机输入法)
China’s most ubiquitous pinyin input software, developed by internet giant Sohu (also good for watching American TV shows, see below), Sogou Pinyin keeps up with the latest memes, brands and names, so when you enter a pinyin string more often than not the first one is the right one. Also not bad: Google Pinyin.
Homepage Android iOS

Shopping & Eating

Taobao (淘宝)
Russian MIGs and everything else made by the hand of man, plus rent-a-boyfriends.
Homepage Android iOS

Etao (一淘)
Great for comparison shopping across e-commerce sites in China and abroad (including
Homepage Android iOS

Alipay (支付宝钱包)
Want that MIG? This is how you pay for it.
Homepage Android iOS

Dazhong Dianping (大众点评)
Find restaurants by location, cuisine, price, or user reviews.
Homepage Android iOS

MTime (时光电影)
Find movie theaters and showtimes in your area.
Homepage Android iOS

Wochacha (我查查)
Scan barcodes on books, food, or other stuff and compare prices at supermarkets in your area and e-commerce sites.
Homepage Android iOS


Sina Weibo (新浪微博)
Keep your finger on the pulse of China’s netizens, follow the latest celebrity gossip, and if you’re really lucky, become popular enough that people notice when you’re banned. There’s also Tencent Weibo, but we’ve never met someone who intentionally posts anything there.
Homepage Android iOS

WeChat (微信)
Hot on the heels of Weibo, Tencent’s annointed successor to the omnipresent QQ Instant Messenger features an impressive array of ways to waste time chatting with your friends.
Homepage Android iOS


xiamiXiami (虾米)
Streaming music service, keeps up with China, UK, Billboard charts and searchable for that song you’ve got to hear right now. Also lets you save 50 songs on your phone for offline playback. Click the album cover and follow along on the lyrics (they’re not available for every song though, its hit or miss).
Homepage Android iOS

doubanfmDouban FM (豆瓣FM)
Internet radio station like Pandora. Develops a personalized station based on your favorites, also saves your latest favorites to the phone for offline playback. Particularly interesting are theme stations like those tailor for 80后 and 90后 generation listeners, playing nostalgic classics from their childhoods as well as new music popular with their peers.
Homepage Android iOS


Youku (优酷)
Youku devoured their rival Tudou last year and has an impressive collection of legal, HD films and TV shows from around the world, plus a whole lot of other films and TV shows that may not be quite as legal or high-quality.
Homepage Android iOS

Sohu Video (搜狐视频)
Need to see Mad Men, Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Big Bang Theory? Sohu licenses some of the US megahits that Chinese viewers really dig.
Homepage Android iOS

iQiyi (爱奇艺)
Baidu’s online video platform offers a number of films and TV shows not available on Sohu or Youku.
Homepage Android iOS

funshionFunshion (风行)
I’ve not used Funshion yet, but I hear good things, and they have Downton Abbey – good start.
Homepage Android iOS

Kascend (开迅视频)
Great for searching across multiple video platforms.
Homepage Android iOS

Flvshow (视频飞搜)
A good rule of thumb is to never download Android apps from outside the Android app store unless its directly from the official company website (like the Xiami links above), but this app came pre-installed on a nano PC I bought and its a pretty good aggregator of all the video sites, like Kascend. Download at your own risk – the link below is from phone manufacturer Meizu’s app store:

CNTV CBox (国网络电视台Cbox)
CNTV is CCTV’s online arm, and the CBox app lets you watch CCTV stations live – good for catching that NBA game on CCTV-5.
Homepage Android iOS


Find and reserve air and rail tickets, hotel rooms, and travel packages.
Homepage Android iOS

UMeTrip (航旅纵横)
Track flight departures, arrivals and delays at mainland China airports.
Homepage Android iOS

Yidao Yongche (易到用车)
Stuck in Guomao and have dinner plans near Sanlitun? Fees average about 2-3 times the cost of a cab, but this GPS-based pay-as-you-go car service is great for those times when you really need to get somewhere but can’t count on a taxi being available.
Homepage Android iOS


全国空气污染指数 (National Air Pollution Index)
Check the PM 2.5 levels before you leave the house so you know whether to pack your filter mask/gas mask/stay in and cry.
Homepage Android iOS

Conversion Apps
Americans in particular need help learning to think about distance and weight the way most humans do, so an app like ConvertPad for Android or Converter Plus for iOS.

Helpful Tips

  • Want 3G but don’t know which Chinese carrier to use? If you use AT&T or T-Mobile (WCDMA), you need China Unicom. If you use Verizon (EV-DO), you need China Telecom. You can only use China Mobile’s local flavor of 3G if you buy a phone from China Mobile, because its a homegrown standard that hasn’t caught on globally. 4G? Not here yet.
  • Don’t use HiMarket or other Chinese app store versions of apps on an Android device with a SIM card or your personal info.
  • Guess what? English names of apps, movies, TV shows, companies, etc. are either translated or phoneticized, so if you want to find Hobo with a Shotgun, pop the English into Baidu (Android and iOS apps available) and usually it’ll spit back the Chinese name (持枪流浪汉), and maybe even links to watch.


Chinese IT Startups: Get Rectified!

In my time following China’s IT sector, I’ve a lot of unfortunate English names for Chinese IT start-ups. TechInAsia a while back reported on a new carpooling site called, which is fine in Pinyin but given this list of real businesses I’ve seen over the years, I end up reading it with a jaundiced eye:

Thankfully, we here at are ready to help. With  our combined 15+ years in China IT, 20+ years in PR and marketing, and 50+ years in China, we can help you choose an English name for your company that won’t make your foreign investors snicker like third graders and then awkwardly try to avoid explaining the joke. Operators are standing by.

Coverup? Huawei Should Send Its PR Bill to ZTE

I’ve never been much for conspiracy theories. Not that I don’t like a touch of the fantastic in my daily life (I live in China, after all). But when you think about the sheer logistics involved in most of the major conspiracy theories things start to break down pretty quickly.

Consider that old favorite of the tinfoil hat brigade, that NASA faked the American moon landings, and think about what it would have required. It’s not just the fakery of the photographs and video, but also that everyone who worked on all the aspects of the fakery, from the astronauts to the guys who would have had to doctor the photos and fake the moon rocks and telemetry (depending upon whether you think mission control was in on it or not) would have had to keep their mouths shut. For going on 45 years. For six successful lunar landings involving eighteen astronauts, twelve of whom have allegedly walked on the moon. Not only does everyone who knows about the fraud have to keep his mouth shut, but everyone who has a public face has to keep his story aligned. Especially that attention-junkie Aldrin. It only takes one person to blow the lid off, intentionally or accidentally. Frankly, it’s just easier to go to the goddamned moon.

I’m not particularly interested in getting into a pissing match with conspiracy theorists (like thermonuclear war, it’s not “winnable” in the conventional sense of the word), so much as I am in setting up a problem. Coverups pose similar problems to conspiracies in that, like a big pile of sweaty dynamite, they are unstable by nature and easily detonated, sometimes by the tiniest of disturbances. That’s why they don’t tend to make good PR strategy.

Of course, by definition no one knows when a coverup succeeds. Small ones involving one or two people? Probably a fair number. Big ones involving lots of people and big stakes? Not so many, I’d guess. “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, perhaps optimistically. In most cases, the participants aren’t Navy Seals or the CIA or other kinds of people who are indoctrinated and trained into cultures of secrecy (and yet still sometimes blow it). We’re talking about just folks who are easily pressured by law enforcement, or who just get drunk on lychee martinis at Centro and shoot off their mouths. Sooner or later someone is going to slip up and the dynamite is going to blow.

Then everyone in serious trouble because, as the old truism goes, the coverup is worse than the crime. Technically, it’s more accurate to say that the coverup significantly aggravates the crime. Coverups turn mistakes into crimes and crimes into enormities. Think of the devastation inflicted on Penn State by the recently published Freeh inquiry, which was most damning for revealing the efforts taken to protect the institution over the victims. Or think of your own toddler, if you have one. If he uses a sharpie to draw all over the wallpaper, you’re angry. If he lies about it, well, then you’re disappointed. Anger is over in minutes. Disappointment leads to years of therapy and careers in bitter standup comedy.

A big pile of sweaty dynamite might be blowing up in the face of Chinese telecoms equipment company ZTE right now. The fuse was lit by a Reuters report back in March (blocked in China), which showed how ZTE was acting as a middleman for relaying restricted American technology to Iran for use in a national Internet monitoring system. The explosion may have started last week when the aptly named website The Smoking Gun reported that the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the sale. The FBI has not confirmed the investigation, but The Smoking Gun has posted an affidavit that makes fun reading because it includes grubby details of the alleged covering-up. Much of it has the desperate, furtive feel of the third reel of an Abel Ferrara film (or, apropros of the lunar landing discussion above, a Peter Hyams film). You can feel the options narrowing as they talk through them. I don’t know how this situation will turn out, but I do know this: As bad as ZTE looked for shipping US surveillance gear to Iran, they look worse for the discussion of the coverup.

Two other thoughts about this case. First, the FBI case is apparently based on the deposition of a young, American lawyer who was in ZTE’s employ. I find myself reminded of something I heard from a relative who was once highly placed in the empire of a wealthy Hong Konger: White people don’t handle the money. One wonders how much trust ZTE will invest in its white people after this.

Second, the organization that should be most annoyed about this alleged coverup isn’t the US government, the FBI or Internet-freedom activists; it’s ZTE’s Chinese competitor and Shenzhen neighbor, Huawei. Huawei has been busting its ass through an extensive lobbying and PR campaign to impress US politicians and regulators with its trustworthiness and thus extend its limited access to the huge American market. So far it has met with conspicuously limited success not least because US politicians stubbornly refuse to trust it due to its, well, Chineseness.

Huawei and ZTE are different companies, and illegal shipments to Iran aren’t spy-friendly backdoors in routers, but it will be very easy for American politicians and lobbyists to conflate the two Chinese companies and use this situation against Huawei as well. After all, they’re both giant, state-linked Chinese telecoms equipment companies. From an American political point of view, both carry all the reputation baggage that comes with the pedigree. They’re  suspected –sometimes with a dose of hysteria– of being instruments of Chinese policy and possibly vectors for cyberwar attacks. If one is caught with an uncapped sharpie…well, the argument will be, you do the math.

Given the effort its expended over the last few years and the collateral damage it is likely to sustain if the investigation of ZTE’s alleged coverup gathers steam, perhaps Huawei should send its PR and Lobbying bill for the last few years to ZTE. And as for the rest of us? I’m sure we’re all very disappointed.

Not shocked. Just disappointed.

I’ll Be the Judge of the Air Quality in These Parts

When I was young, lithe* and had elastic knees I studied the Japanese martial art Aikido. Aikido is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, despite what you saw in all those Steven Segal movies, it is very much bound with a philosophy of acting in defense only. Second, in keeping with that philosophy, much of Aikido is designed around using an attacker’s energy against him. The harder you swing, the more you give an Aikido master to work with.

The Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection swung hard two days ago when he called out the US Embassy for monitoring air quality and publishing the results through its well-known @BeijingAir Twitter feed. The Vice-Minister said:

“Some foreign embassies and consulates in China are monitoring air quality and publishing the results themselves. It is not in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as environmental protection regulations of China.”

For “some foreign embassies” you may read, “The Embassy of the United States of America,” which launched its Twitter feed back in 2008, that marvellous Olympic year when everything seemed possible.

The Chinese government first complained about @BeijingAir in 2009, so this isn’t a new issue. The latest demand seemed like a classic soft-power own-goal: a prickly and legalistic attack on a service many people, foreigners and locals alike, rely upon. Journalist James Fallows, who has written at length on China’s soft power challenges, summed it up: “The country is better than this.” But leave it to the US State Department, which runs the embassy, to take the Ministry’s mighty swing and apply a little soft-power Aikido:

[State Department spokesman Mark Toner] denied on Tuesday that publishing US air quality readings was in violation of the Vienna Convention as far as he was aware. He also said that Washington would have no problem if Chinese embassies wanted to start monitoring air quality in the US capital and sending out their own reports.

That’s a nice bit of work, not only rejecting the legal argument but also reinforcing the relative openness of American society by extending a reciprocal invitation to the Chinese. Naturally, the Chinese wasted no time in declining the invitation and reiterating their argument:

The Chinese government has no interest in monitoring and releasing air-quality readings for US cities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at the ministry’s regular news conference on Wednesday.

“Foreign embassies and consulates are not legally qualified to conduct environmental monitoring and release this sort of data in China, nor do they have the professional capacity and conditions to do so,” Liu said. “

There is a less charitable reading of the US comments, which could be interpreted as rubbing in the faces of the Chinese that the US is fully developed and has awesome air. (I have no idea what the air in DC is like, but it’s undoubtedly better than here.) But given the expressed interests of the Chinese people in better air and better information, Mr. Toner’s invitation seems ultimately an effective and graceful way to redirect the energy of the Ministry’s attack.

What’s the Ministry’s main beef here? Is it legalistic? The Ministry claims that US monitoring is illegal under the convention that governs the establishment of diplomatic missions. Is it the publication of the data? Is it the application of international standards to the categorization of the data? Is it all of the above? Despite my admiration for the State Department response, the Chinese government does have some legitimate complaints. The US Embassy has only one monitor for an immense city. The Chinese have improved and expanded their own monitoring, including publishing hourly readings of PM2.5 information (see the second tab). And it is unfair to expect China to achieve today the same level of quality that the US had to implement the Clean Air Act to achieve. That was a 27 year process.

But air pollution in Beijing isn’t just bad, it’s Ben Hur chariot race epic. And it isn’t just pampered foreigners that care about the air, as a burst of Chinese outrage demonstrated last year. Despite a certain amount of desensitization, the air pollution issue in Beijing encroaches on two of the most sensitive areas of public communication: public health and your kids. For a public health risk communication program, trust and interpretation are critical. And they’re both at the heart of the reaction to @BeijingAir.

Trust is in short supply these days, as we’ve seen from the rumor campaigns, and anything that calls into question the level of trust invested in official government information is likely to be considered sensitive. I’d guess that the biggest thorn in the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s side is not just that the US government is tweeting its own air quality readings, but that its readings appear to be more trusted than MEP’s own. There have been several instances of divergence between the Chinese and US readings, and this is a country where data have a history of being suborned to politics, even in air quality. Every time the US results are conspicuously worse than the Chinese results, it’s a slap in the face.

Interpretation is what enables you to act on data.  AQI numbers and “micrograms per cubic meter” are pretty abstract without some kind of framework for interpretation. The Chinese framework (bottom of the first tab) is conspicuously more liberal than the US one. The Chinese “acceptable” limit for micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 is up in territory that the US considers “unhealthy.” The Chinese AQI band for “moderately polluted” covers territory that any normal person considers awful. As for the bad days, the less said the better.

People will drive without seatbelts, drink themselves into the gutter and smoke a carton of Zhongnanhai Lights a day, and still get bent about the air quality. But air quality is an imposed risk, and people always react more forcefully to imposed risks than risks of choice. Especially when those risks are imposed on their children and aged parents. (At least air pollution isn’t exotic. You want to have a major crisis? Have an imposed exotic risk like a nuclear power plant disaster or pandemic.) In such situations, a conservative framework seems much more appropriate, but it is politically more dangerous because you spend more time with the needle in the outrage-generating red zone. It’s telling that although the Chinese government now reports hourly PM2.5 data there is no framework for interpreting it on the page. All you get is raw milligrams-per-cubic meter and an unexplained “limit” of .075 mg/m3 in the fine print at the bottom. Pretty binary. Meanwhile, @BeijingAir merrily tells you how you should feel about the air from hour to hour, using unfortunate words like “hazardous” when things get thick. And let us not forget the infamous and murky “crazy bad” episode.

Given that @BeijingAir is apparently both more trusted and painting a darker picture of the situation in Beijing, it seems likely that it will continue being a sore spot with the Chinese government. Maybe this is the real reason Twitter was blocked, although the rise of dozens of Chinese smartphone applications that relay proxied versions of the Twitter feed has rendered the block moot as far as @BeijingAir goes.

As for me, if I could pick one thing to change in Beijing, I’d fix the air quality. Beijing on a clear day is a genuinely nice city. The colors pop, the parks look beautiful and you can see a huge stretch of the mountains from my office. Also, I long ago gave up the martial arts for running, which I find similarly meditative and a lot less bruising. When I get up at 6AM the first thing I do is check the Chinese Android app that relays the latest @BeijingAir information to my phone in a very easy-to-interpret graphical format (it has a handy homescreen widget, too!). The information has to be hourly, and it has to be accurate. I have very strict rules: If AQI is below 100, I run. If it’s between 100 and 150 it depends on how long my planned run is and how long since my last run (the less running I have been able to do and the shorter my planned run, the more liberal I am). If it’s above 150, I go to the gym and lift weights instead.

I go to the gym a lot more than I used to, and I run a lot less. This sucks for my running and peace of mind, but on the bright side, check out the shoulders on me.

Another moderate day.

*OK, I was never really “lithe.”

Google’s Lame Card Trick

Suppose a magician was inflicted upon you, and he asked you to pick a card, any card. Except that one. No, not that one either. Yes, OK, that’s a good one. Now place it back in the deck… Is that your card? Ta-da! You’d say he was an awful magician, right?

That’s what Chinese internet users are likely to think about the new and improved that tells you if one of your search terms won’t work. While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Photo credit:

The Devil’s Air Conditioner and Other Tales of Woe

Sometimes life in Beijing is like one of those Japanese game shows where they see how much torture people are willing to endure for surprisingly mediocre prizes. Picture the following and you’ve more or less got it:

“Mr. Ishihara, for a new desktop dumpling fridge you’ve been strapped naked to a hospital gurney in the burning sun for twelve hours. You’re pinking up nicely. Do you wish to continue?”


“Then it’s time to raise the bar! Here comes a team of lingerie models to glue Gabonese fire ants to your testicles!”

“I can take it! Must…have…tiny…fridge!”

“Great! While they prepare the ants, let’s watch this secretly recorded video of you confessing erectile dysfunction at last week’s office drinking party!”

That’s us on the gurney. We’re all in it for the rush and the dubious prize while an oddball assortment of it-could-only-happen-here, Rube Goldberg discomforts repeatedly jabs its three-fingered cartoon glove into our sensitive bits. As long as you can take it, you live in Beijing. When, like Popeye the Sailor Man, you can’t stands no more, you pack up and head for more congenial shores. With a dumpling fridge, if you’re lucky.

This weekend’s finger to my sensitive bits involved the air conditioner in my apartment.

Let me tell you a bit about my apartment. Nominally in a “luxury” development, it’s horrendously expensive and situated in one of Beijing’s most fabulous areas. The amenities are good. There’s even a French bakery in the courtyard. But construction-wise it’s less luxury and more like what would happen if you got a pack of wild monkeys just drunk enough on Snow Beer to almost read a blueprint and fenced them into ten hectares of land with a pile of grade-B residential fittings and free-flow concrete. The caulking wanders off in random directions, the hot and cold indicators on the faucets are reversed, the “hardwood” flooring buckles in weird places, the towel racks droop, and when the wind blows, a majestic assortment of Jurassic aromas billows from the drains. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Still, I was hardened by a year in Shanghai, so in most ways I consider it pretty good as Chinese apartments go. The worst that can be said of the landlord is that she’s totally disinterested, which is way better than totally venal, which is always a possibility here. The landlord situation reminds me a bit of the shopworn parable about Confucius, the widow and the tiger:

One day the Master came upon a woman weeping at a grave. He said, “You weep as one afflicted by great sorrow.”

The woman replied, “It is true. My husband’s father was killed here by a tiger, and my husband also. Now the tiger has killed my son.”

“Why do you not leave this place?” asked the Master?

The woman replied, “The government here is not cruel.”

Replace “government” with “landlord” and it’s still more or less valid.

But the air conditioning problem is serious. Our apartment is hot and stuffy year round. Even in Beijing’s Siberian winter we pick up so much waste-heat from the neighboring apartments and poorly insulated piping that we often end up running a fan in our bedroom at night. As for summer, well, if you haven’t experienced August in Beijing you can simulate it by tying yourself to a burning coal stove and then having your friends hurl you into an open sewer. If you actually try this, put it on YouTube so everyone can benefit from your sacrifice. That’s how knowledge is born.

Anyway, we rely on our air conditioner. This sucks for us, because it is an enormous, fiddly contraption that looks like what might happen if Lockheed Corp. and Hubei People’s Steam Propulsion Systems Factory No. 182 jointly bid on air conditioners for TEPCO. This model, which is standard in our apartment complex due, one can only assume, to graft, is approximately the size of a 1968 Volkswagen Camper, and takes up the entire balcony outside my son’s room. Unlike a Volkswagen Camper, it uses water as a coolant, making it complex and prone to breakdown. But it does have the Camper’s woeful lack of power and tendency to choke in the face of modest demands.

In a masterstroke of engineering, our air conditioner also manages to combine the worst attributes of central and split air conditioning. Like central air conditioning, it has to be switched from “heat” mode to “cooling” by the property office, which puts us at the mercy of the government rather than the climate. The switchover involves one big button and just enough fiddling with valves to be complicated, but the good news is that regardless of official dates the property office usually folds in the face of a little hectoring.

Like a split aircon, however, the compressor draws on our household electricity (our breaker box emits an alarming buzz every time it turns on), and coolant pipes run through the ceiling to the vents in all the rooms. In our previous apartment, in the same complex, the pipe over the kitchen dripped condensation. During summer it reliably shorted out the gas leak detector in the kitchen ceiling about once a month, usually at three in the morning (we ran the aircon at night), triggering an electronic shriek that could curdle the fluid in your eyeballs. I would deal with this problem by blearily jamming a screwdriver into the alarm until it shut up, and then having the property office replace it. If we’d ever had an actual gas leak, the sparks created by my screwdriver surgery would have blown us all into the courtyard like Ed Norton’s furniture and condiments in “Fight Club.”

The compressor unit on the balcony is wired to a set of high-tech thermostats, all of which insist that every room in the house is always 25C regardless of actual temperature. When the sun expands into a red giant and incinerates the Earth a billion years from now, these thermostats will insist it is 25C right until the moment they evaporate. Whether you set the thermostats to 30C or 5C (which is where ours are all set), you get the same anemic trickle of semi-cool air from the vents.

But we take what we can get. Spring in Beijing is a season of hot days and cool nights. And dust and fuzz and pollution. The apartment warms up during the day and stays warm pretty much all night, forcing us to run the air conditioning even though the outside temperature has dropped. Any cooling is better than no cooling.

At 2AM on Saturday night I woke up bathed in sweat. The outside temperature was a crisp 12C, but our room had crept up to a broiling, humid 28.5C. The aircon vent was cheerily pumping out a stream of toasty, warm air.

Well, you say, turn it off and open the windows, genius. And in many places in the world this would be sound advice. But on Saturday night the air pollution AQI reading was 212. In China an AQI of 212 counts as “moderate,” but in the rest of the world it’s more like, Holy Jesus, Martha, it’s the apocalypse! Get the kids into the fallout shelter while I shoot the dog! You don’t really want to sleep in it. What’s the point of having $3,000 worth of Swedish air filters (yes, really) in the apartment if you’re just going to throw open the windows and let the scuzz in?

We let the scuzz in, at least for a while. But that led to another problem. Our previous apartment faced the courtyard from the 7th floor. Other than the occasional raving drunkard or 160db Phil Spector wall-of-sound throat-clearing hawk, it was reasonably quiet. On the rare clear-air nights we occasionally slept with the windows open just for the hell of it (although always with the risk of waking up to find the loess plateau in our bed).

Our current apartment faces the road between our complex and the neighboring ultra-mall. This road is small, but punches way above its weight in terms of congestion, perma-honking and random cacophony. To add insult to injury, when they built the mega-mall they somehow neglected to design in a loading dock. The result is that all deliveries to the mall are made at the entrance to the parking lot, which is just below our 16th floor apartment. This happens at the only time when they can partially block the road, which is the middle of the night.  For a mall that sells a huge amount of really expensive stuff, these deliveries are not gentle. They often sound like someone backing a flatbed truck with busted shocks and a full load of plate glass and live hogs over a row of two-by-fours.

As long as our hermetically-sealing, double-paned windows are buttoned up, the noise doesn’t bother us. And, anemic as it is, if the air conditioning is working, we can keep the windows closed. But if the air conditioning fails, our choices rapidly dwindle to dying of heat exhaustion in our own bed, opening the windows and admitting the din and miasma of Satan’s workshop, or suicide.

At two in the morning, suicide doesn’t look all that bad, but we resisted. After my wife went out and poked futilely at the buttons on the compressor for a while, we went for heat exhaustion, turning off the compressor but keeping the windows shut. On Sunday morning the property office showed up, declared that we had somehow switched the air conditioning unit to “heat,” switched it back, and left. On Sunday evening the aircon ran refreshing and cool, as much as it ever does. Maybe it was our fault, I thought. Maybe we did something wrong.

And then Sunday night at 2AM we woke up bathed in sweat again. With a flashlight I went out to the balcony where the Beast lives and examined the controls. Outside it was pleasantly cool. The air conditioner had switched itself to “heat.” I switched it back to “cool.” The mechanics might be complex, but the controls are simple. There are only three buttons: On/Off, Heat and Cool, and an LED that displays “HE” or “CO” and the coolant temperature. It ran in “cool” mode for a minute or so. I watched the coolant temperature drop. And then it switched itself back to “heat.” I repeated this five times. Every time the air conditioner switched itself back to “heat.”

On top of all its other problems—the fiddly complexity, the anemic output, the buzzing breaker box—this cursed thing apparently thinks it’s smarter than us. When it’s warm outside, in the early evening or right at dusk, it chugs along merrily in cooling mode. The moment the temperature outside drops too much, it figures we must be freezing in our booties, and spontaneously switches itself into heat mode. Damn the thermostats (25C), full speed ahead!

Or, worse, it’s actually trying to kill us, like the possessed laundry press in the old Stephen King story, “The Mangler.” It wants to roast us to death in our sleep and let the cats feast on our remains, just for the sheer sport of it. I don’t know what happened to the previous tenant in our apartment. I do know that he left a fair amount of his stuff behind when he “moved out.” Coincidence?

I just made the last rent payment on our current contract. In about two months, we have to decide whether to move or to stay in the same place and accept the inevitable rent increase. On the one hand, the apartment is expensive and noisy and the air conditioning unit is apparently possessed by Satan and determined to destroy us all.

On the other hand, there are croissants downstairs and the government is not cruel.

It’s a tough call.


But it's refreshingly cool!

Facebook + Instagram + China = Take a Deep Breath

So, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion bucks. Awesome for those guys. I, alas, did not get rich in either of the Internet startups I participated in. But you can’t put a price on experience, right?

Deep sigh.

Anyway, Instagram is freely accessible here in China, at least for the moment, and apparently has a small but growing user base. It’s been limited to a certain slice of the China market by being an iOS-only app until last week. It may get picked up more now that it’s on Android as well, especially given Android’s whomping share of the smartphone market in China.

Because Instagram is accessible from China there has been some speculation that it might provide a back-door into the market for Facebook. Well, color me embarrassed, because when I looked at how Facebook might get into China a couple of weeks ago, one scenario I didn’t explore was Facebook buying another, unblocked western social network.

Instagram certainly functions as a posting back-door to both Facebook and Twitter. Instagram posts route to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks through Instagram’s unblocked servers (actually, Amazon’s cloud servers for the moment). There are similar middleman workarounds for posting on blocked social networks, such as, but none come close to providing full access to Twitter or Facebook. And, from what I can see, neither does Instagram. That’s important.

The question that wins you the brand new car is: Will Instagram now be blocked in China? The reason why you don’t have the car yet is that the answer is complicated. China doesn’t block all foreign social networks. It does block the established, heavy-hitting, horizontal sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. But many vertical social networks and newer sites are unblocked. I can get on LinkedIn, Quora, Path, Flickr and Pinterest just fine, without a VPN (your mileage may vary). I can even get on MySpace.

I cannot read the minds of the bureaucrats who decide what gets blocked and what doesn’t, and if I could I’d probably be in a position to be less wistful about the fates of the startups I joined. But there do seem to be a few key factors in determining who stays safely outside the firewall. These include size, perceived influence, how closely the network has been associated with political movements, power to function as tool of mass organization, and whether or not the network has been explicitly associated with content or activities that the Chinese government considers sensitive. On all three counts, I’d rate Facebook and Twitter considerably higher than the rest of the pack. As for Google Plus, I trust this audience doesn’t need much explanation.

So, what happens with Instagram now that it is part of planet Facebook?

It depends. Assuming people don’t suddenly start posting pictures that annoy the Chinese government, maybe nothing. At the moment, Instagram seems pretty harmless, and its one-way posting features to other social networks don’t look like a big red flag. Posts to Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo essentially outsource the content monitoring and censorship. Of course, Twitter once looked pretty harmless. In 2007 I even wrote a short article mocking its triviality, possibly betraying the lack of vision responsible for my current un-billionaire status. Twitter has been blocked for a while now. So much for harmless. The fact that Instagram is essentially mobile only has also probably helped keep it under the radar.

But if Instagram is integrated more tightly into Facebook’s core service and stops looking and feeling like an independent platform, then the risks go up fast. Everything hinges on where Facebook sees the value in Instagram, and whether or not it pulls Instagram into the mothership. The more integrated Instagram is, the more powerful it is as “back door into China” for Facebook, but the more likely it is to be blocked. And if Instagram is suddenly used to post a lot of pictures of a sensitive event in China, it might not even matter if Facebook doesn’t change a thing.

Meanwhile, local photo-sharing clones have been blossoming for a while. Early enthusiasm for foreign social networks in China does not reliably translate into long-term success, while mainstream success in China often does translate into closer scrutiny. Instagram may indeed be a back door into China for Facebook, but if it wants to stay open, it might have to stay a rather small door indeed.

Other links:



Facebook’s China Playbook

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend* were spotted in Shanghai on Wednesday. This has lead to a completely predictable round of speculation as to whether this signals some new development in Facebook + China. This sort of navel gazing takes off whenever Zuck comes to China, or looks in the direction of China, or gets lunch at P.F. Chang’s, or whatever. And why not? Facebook is the biggest social network in the world. China has the biggest population of Internet users in the world. Facebook is going public soon. Zuck is learning Chinese, etc. So a Zuck sighting in China is, to invoke the memory of Arsenio Hall, one of the things that make you go, hmm…

Despite all of that, leave to our friends at the excellent Tech in Asia blog to have the most sensible take, “Zuckerberg is in China…Who cares?” Indeed.

Obviously, we don’t know a thing about Facebook’s designs on China. But to make sense of the speculation it’s helpful to consider the actual scenarios by which Facebook or Twitter or indeed any foreign social network might enter China, and to look at how different stakeholder groups will react to the possible scenarios. This is different than analyzing business strategy or financial implications, but ultimately it’s all connected.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major scenarios that we can envision: extending the mothership service to China; developing a separate “splinter” service for China under the original brand (this could be disconnected from the main service, or just enforce dramatically different policies); buying an existing Chinese social network; and doing nothing. Obviously, they’re not all immediately practical. Facebook is blocked in China, which makes extending the mothership difficult. There are also intermediate possibilities that blend aspects of these scenarios, but that’s a deep rabbit hole to go down. Along with these scenarios there are five major stakeholder groups, not including Facebook themselves: the Chinese government; Chinese Internet users (potential customers); Western activists and governments; investors; and the Western public (aka Facebook’s current users).

The easiest way to look at all these moving parts is to simply throw the whole thing in a table that considers for each scenario the risks and how each of the stakeholder groups is likely to react (click the table for a larger, EZ-reading version):

Admittedly this format throws a lot of nuance overboard, but nevertheless there’s a clear three-way conflict that emerges. The approaches that are more acceptable to the Chinese authorities are both riskier with regards to Western activists and regulators and, importantly, less relevant to Chinese users. The approaches that are most relevant to Chinese users and have the highest potential return to the business are unacceptable to the Chinese government. Ultimately the Chinese government calls the shots.

The basic math is that to even have a chance of operating here Facebook would have to apply the mandated censorship policies either just to users of its core service in China or to a spinoff service that is kept separate from the core service. It would also have to be prepared to surrender Chinese user information to the authorities if requested. That will raise eyebrows as Facebook knows a ton about its users by design.

The risks of these approaches are clear to anyone who has studied the history of Yahoo in China and followed the congressional grilling of US Internet firms operating in China back in 2006. That was the stone age of social networking (Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace, Facebook turned 2, Twitter was hatched), and the political atmosphere around such things has not become any less sensitive since then. If anything, the messianic aura that clings to social networks and of which Chinese authorities have always been so distrustful has been exacerbated by last year’s political events in the Middle East. And let’s not forget recent events here in China and the leadership transition later this year.

There are ways to create distance between the core Facebook brand and service and the Chinese government’s likely requirements, but those ways don’t eliminate political risk at home, and they all make the service less appealing to Chinese users. These same users are already being wooed away from traditional social networks by microblogs and have a colorful history of rejecting foreign online services as irrelevant even when they’ve been allowed to operate here without restriction. Remember MySpace China? Me neither, and a friend of mine helped launch it. Owning a local social network would provide a layer of insulation from the risk of Western backlash, but at the expense of sacrificing much of the point of entering China.

None of this predicts whether Facebook will enter China, or how they might attempt such a thing. They’re probably playing a very long game. Whatever path they choose, it won’t be easy, either in China or at home. Bear that in mind next time Zuck is spotted in China and the tongues start wagging.

*Note to editors: Can we get over the fact that Zuck’s girlfriend is Chinese American? Everyone is compelled to point this out, but net impact on the Facebook-in-China story is zero-point-zero.

Pushing up the Daiseys: Can a lie tell a greater truth?

I am huge fan of This American Life and I was surprised when I learned that they had produced a 57-minute episode retracting an earlier story from January featuring Mike Daisey describing his visit to Foxconn in South China.  I really admire their courage to face their mistakes and spend an entire episode explaining to their audience what happened. Their attitude and commitment to such a high standard of journalism impressed me. Not only do they set a good example for international media, but the Chinese media could learn from the professional way they handled what is every news organization’s nightmare – what to do when your correspondent turns out to be making things up?

I was disappointed that the original episode was fabricated.  As a former journalist, I have been to the factories in Shenzhen many times and was personally involved in researching and reporting on several stories about migrant workers in Shenzhen, although I haven’t been to Foxconn.   I’ve also followed these stories as covered by my former colleagues, most of whom have done a great job reporting on factory conditions and labor tensions in Chinese factories.  However, the first time I listened to this story I was on my way to work.  The entire way on the subway I was totally fascinated by Daisey’s theatrical, sometimes poignant sometimes humorous way, of presenting the story.  The problems of these workers came alive in a way I hadn’t heard before.  Like many people, I was particularly touched by the stories of disabled workers.  At the time, I thought it was one of the best pieces I had ever heard about migrant workers in China. As soon as I arrived in the office, I recommended the program to my husband and many friends.

Today, listening to Daisey’s confessions and defense, I have to say that I am not angry, and in fact I feel kind of bad for him. No doubt, This American Life is doing the right thing to uphold a higher standard for reporting and emphasize the distinction between a work for the theater and one produced for a show like TAL. However, to be honest, when I listened to the piece in January, I didn’t consider it serious journalism. This American Life frequently uses monologues on their show all the time.  The theatrical way that Daisey presented the show made me feel that it might be one of those shows even though it addresses a real serious issue in China.

While everybody is right that the guards at the factories never wear guns, the issues about migrant workers he addressed in the program are not fiction. Some workers are underage. Migrant workers do suffer from long work hours. Some factory workers get horribly injured and far too few have insurance.  The problems faced by migrant workers in China are real, even if some of the scenes in Daisey’s story were not.

Finally, I know that the popularity of Daisey’s show is quite unfair to many correspondents in China. Many of them have been covering the same issue for years. However, as a Chinese person I am  glad that the migrant workers’ issue finally  received so much attention in the US through a popular radio program, no matter if Daisey interviewed three or three hundred people. As long as he helped these workers to raise the public awareness, I am happy about it.

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