The digital and the forbidden: my trip to Beijing

Tiananmen Gate

Thousands of people flooded around me.  I stared in exasperation at the sign.  Yet, I knew that it had to be emblematic of something about my week-long trip to Beijing — my first to China.  True to my personality, I had tried to go against the tide by trying to enter the Forbidden City from the less popular north gate.  But as of July 2nd, the sign informed me, visitors to the very much once “forbidden” home of the Emperor of China, had to enter from the south, and leave by the north.

I had been happily using my Garmin GPS watch to track my weekend pedestrian expedition in Beijing.

My walk through Beijing

But the thought of trudging back to the south end, only to end up back where I was presently, and then have to do it all over again to get to the subway seemed like many steps too far.

So what did I do?  I skipped visiting the Forbidden City – a treasured UNESCO site – altogether.  Rather I content myself with a deep hangout at Beihar Park, and then Tiananmen Square.  And I spent all day using stodgy Internet connections through Beijing to download a rental of the Academy Award-winning “The Last Emperor” from iTunes for my return flight to Seattle.  Bertolucci’s famed exclusive access to the Forbidden City for his film would have to suffice.

After all, I had accomplished what I had set out to do: to get a glimpse of China for the first time, especially from a digital media perspective.  My vehicle in was as a participant in transmitCHINA, where I hobnobbed with entrepreneurial digerati from both the Middle Kingdom and the New World.

Even better, the event was held at a resort by the Great Wall of China.  This afforded me two opportunities:

My walk along the Great Wall of China

(1) I got to walk along a secluded, non-touristy part of the Wall.  Once again with Garmin GPS breadcrumbs to show off to the folks back home.  I was actually surprised to get accurate tracking, I had expected that the signal would somehow get scrambled by the Chinese government.

(2) To experience the Great Firewall of China firsthand.  No Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube (some conference participants agreed with my hypothesis that this was partly for political reasons, partly to shelter homegrown Chinese platforms from global competition).  Thirty thousand government employees sit and monitor for the use of the “three T’s” – Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen.  I even searched “Great Firewall of China” on both Google and Bing and got hung up indefinitely.  Once old China hand explained to me that an attempt to access the wrong kind of site would usually result in a “digital slap on the wrist” from the government – no access to the Web for a few minutes, just so you knew you had done wrong.

At the Great Wall (Badaling section)

Still, I was prepared for government blockage, having signed up for a Virtual Private Network (with VyperVPN) before I left the USA.  I was able to divert my computer’s internet connection to IP addresses in the USA (Netflix!!), the UK (BBC iPlayer for Torchwood and Doctor Who!) or the EU and Hong Kong to access Facebook and Twitter to my heart’s content.  And I found this Wikipedia entry of the Great Firewall, which also includes a concluding, pithy quote from my brother, Dr. Gus Hosein’s colleague at Privacy International, Simon Davies.

Now I thought I was being sneaky and decidedly a bad guest by using the VPN.   But then I saw a few other participants (even locals) also had their own VPN access.  So I didn’t feel so bad.

Indeed, I’ve read that the Chinese government tends to go in waves when it comes to clamping down on VPN use (it continues to shore up the Great Firewall with the latest in monitoring technology).  It recognizes that unless it’s a particularly sensitive time politically, people do need a release valve for pent up frustrations.  Better they do so online than in person at Tiananmen Square (there’s a heavy police presence there, by the way).

At Tiananmen Square

I was told on several occasions that they’re actually afraid of Sina Weibo, the Twitter microblog equivalent.  There are 195 million microbloggers in China, which dwarfs Twitter’s worldwide user count.  And they use platforms like these to complain about government officials, which can sometimes result in a prompt response.

Tracking the transmitChina Weibo stream

During my short time in China, I came across these stories in the local English-language paper that demonstrate the contradictory, sometimes chaotic nature of the use of digital media:

–       An official in Henan province was dismissed after his temper tantrum against a school principal was caught on video and distributed online [link].

–       A man had complained for two years on his blog about “mistreatment” at the hands of his doctor.  [link]  He ended up confronting and stabbing the doctor.

–       Yao Chen, the “Queen of the Microblogs” has 11 million followers on Weibo.  The B-movie actress is the third most popular microblogger in the world after Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.  This summer she posted a story about her mother’s cousin who tried to commit suicide because she had received unfair compensation after her land had been requisitioned. [link]

A fairly literal translation of the Chinese saying

China is a 5,000 year-old civilization that presently feels as if it’s the center of the universe, with the money and youthful presence to back it.  I suspect this is what Paris might have felt like in the 1920’s, or London in the 1880’s — both major cities at their magnetic peak.

During my time at transmitCHINA, I made some valuable connections with Asia experts from the University of Oregon and the University of Toronto, which may lead to more serious relationships in the region.  I also experienced an innovative roundtable approach, the antidote to the dull as doornails panel presentation method that we eschew at Four Peaks.

During one such session, I had the opportunity to define “disruptive innovation” with a small group of people.  When I explained that part of this phenomenon is to find opportunity in chaos, Kaiser Kuo, the head of international PR for Chinese search giant Baidu said, “There’s an ancient Chinese expression for that, ‘in chaos, heroes arise.’”

I was quite taken with this, which led me to spend more time chatting with Kaiser.  I quickly found out that in addition to his high profile position (his unofficial title he told me was the “Minister of the Suppression of Barbarian Lies”) he was responsible for the rise of heavy metal to China in the 1990’s with his group Tang Dynasty.

Well he had me there, and we soon discovered that we had a mutual, unhealthy love for the group Rush.  Wow, China was turning out to be even cooler than I could have imagined it.  As Kaiser and I began our bromance, we met for coffee back in Beijing a few days later (after his lunch with Charlene Li, whose books Groundswell and Open Leadership have both been required reading in my class).  One thing led to another, and he invited me to attend a show featuring his AC/DC cover band “Dirty Deeds.”

Kaiser Kuo on bass with Dirty Deeds AC/DC tribute band

Around 150 expats (more than 1% of Beijing’s 16 million residents are foreigners) and some Chinese showed up.  The bar’s Internet connection was the fastest I had experienced yet in China (which allowed me to download the rest of “The Last Emperor” to my iPad).  I was thinking that this was a pretty free-flowing Western experience when one of the band members pointed out that there was a surveillance camera by the bar with a direct connection back to the local police station.

I recalled my tourist experience at the Forbidden City the previous day.  Even as China opens its gates, there are still certain immutable realities when it comes to command and control.

I got one last reminder of this upon my departure as I tried to login to the airport wi-fi.  I had to scan my passport into a machine (which registered my name and passport number).  Out spat a small receipt that read “According to Ministry of Public Order No. 82 Passengers online should authenticate by real name.”  As I would soon discover, it was hardly worth the surrender of my personal information; the slower-than-dialup connection got me nowhere fast.

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