March 2006

I have been watching, connected to, traveling to, and sometimes living in China now for over twelve years, so I feel fairly confident in going on record with the following generalization: Trends and technologies from the outside world often catch on slowly in China, but once they do, they expand with lightning speed and begin bursting at the seams. Case in point, based on my observations, is the use of the Internet in China.

The first time I was aware of any Internet usage in China was in early 1996, when Xiamen University, where I was taking some advanced Chinese language courses during a holiday break from my teaching job in Korea, was considered pretty advanced to have one e-mail address for the faculty of each department to share.

A combination of availability and restrictions, however, seemed to prevent much access to the World Wide Web beyond that.

Fast-forward to 2000, when my wife’s family home here in Anhai, Fujian Province, was pretty much cutting edge by having a dial-up Internet access account. I took advantage of that to convince my employer at the time to let me take a “working vacation” and telecommute from China for a brief period.

I don’t work for the same company now, so I don’t mind telling you that it was a dismal failure. The connection was supposed to be 33.6K, but I think it functioned more like 3.6K, if you can imagine that. I once timed it to see how long it took my employer’s company home page to load.

At home near Seattle on DSL, it was an instant load.

On 56K dialup in the United States, it was somewhere between five and ten seconds.

From my outpost in China: 4 minutes and 24 seconds.

Internet Use in China on the RiseBut not long after that, the “lightning speed/bursting at the seams” phenomenon I mentioned took off.

Using my wife’s family as an example, a “3.6K” connection was followed just two years later by readily available ADSL for homes, and my Wife’s Younger Brother, by being familiar with the Net and having a degree in electrical engineering, found himself serving as the chief IT person in his place of employment (even though his job title isn’t IT-related, as I’ve mentioned earlier).

Then my Wife’s Younger Sister and her Husband opened their Internet cafe for a time. And several members of the extended family–siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews–are operating pretty successful small business operations through China’s answer to eBay, called TaoBao. (As a side note, you might like to check this Google News link for insight into a competitive tiff actually going on between eBay and TaoBao).

On one hand, most of the Internet in China news you read about in the mainstream press these days focuses on the negatives: censorship (the so-called “Great (Fire)Wall of China”), restrictions, and the like. But the other side of that story–the much bigger side, I don’t mind saying, thankyouverymuch–is how quickly broadband access poured into the more developed regions of China.

And the increasing rates for Internet usage are pretty dramatic as well.

For comparison, the United States has about 135 million Internet users, which accounts for around 67% of the country’s population. In mid-2000, there were estimated to be only about 24 million Internet users in China. The most recent estimates put that number at over 100 million. And that’s only about seven percent of China’s entire population. (Just wait until that percentage grows!)

There was a statistic floating around a couple years ago that by 2007, the most common language on the Internet would be Chinese. That claim, however, has since been refuted.

Based on what I’ve seen, I too think it won’t happen until later. Like, say, in 2008.

Note: Internet usage statistics for this post gleaned from here, here, and here.

One day while I was getting into a cab in Xiamen, I noticed a sort of (ahem) “business card” someone had stuck on the back window. Curious type that I am, I grabbed the card…and was kind of surprised to find it was an advertisement for a 24-hour escort service.

Now, one gets used to seeing these sorts of cards all over London, and in certain parts of Hong Kong, but this was the first time I’ve seen one in mainland China. In the P.R.C., working girl “hired companionship” is typically more visible as red-light “beauty shops” and such.

Anyway, here’s the card, front and back, advertising sexy models, college students, and housewives as specialties, though I’ve blurred out the cell phone contact number. Don’t want anyone to think I’m an affiliate or anything.

And isn’t it, I don’t know, weird that the gal in the second picture is wearing a Minnie & Mickey Mouse necklace?

Well, as you learned yesterday, my trip to Beijing didn’t happen because my daughters got sick. (Though my Wife and her Younger Sister made the trek.)

Today you’re learning that I didn’t make it to Shanghai either, partly because various folks I’d hoped to meet there were going to be out of town when I could make it there, partly because we had too much going on here around Xiamen and Anhai to keep us busy.

But I feel like writing something about Shanghai anyway. Here it is….

In the good old days of the 19th century, getting “Shanghai’d” wasn’t such a great thing, as it essentially amounted to being kidnapped and forced to work on a ship sailing to–in most cases–Shanghai. Certain bars in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, in fact became notorious centers for the practice. (Underground tunnel tours in both cities feature information about the practice, in case you find yourself a tourist in either spot and want to learn more.) In this 21st century Internet age, however, you’re more likely to be roped into Shanghai by one of the numerous English language Web sites devoted to that great city.

But understand that these are not tourist Web sites, for those from Western countries who are planning a visit. No, these booming sites reflect the boom of Westerners who are invading Shanghai to live, to work, to play and–well, in some cases–to simply blog.

Before I introduce you to some of these leading sites, a word or two of background.

Nearly a century ago, before those minor interruptions of the Chinese Communist Revolution and years of hardline Communist rule, Shanghai was the happening place in Asia. Westerners had flocked there for business, missions work, and pleasure. In fact, it was a prime destination for many in the Leisure Classes of the United States and Europe, the Paris of the East.

It was also a financial center for that part of the world.

But then–pardon the overgeneralized history lesson—the Communists came into power, kicked out the foreigners and imprisoned, chased off, or executed the Chinese who were seen to be in collusion with the Foreign Devils. And Shanghai become just another city in Chairman Mao’s version of paradise.

But then fast-forward several years. Chairman Mao died. The Gang of Four fell from power, Deng Xiaoping said, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice?”–not to mention “To get rich is glorious”–and suddenly the leading entrepreneurial and financial spirit that had left Shanghai to roost not too far away in Hong Kong for several decades began to return.

Already Shanghai is easily the financial capital of Asia again and, depending on which statistics you look at, is poised to give New York City a run for its money as financial capital of the world sometime in the next couple decades or so. (An article in this past weekend’s Seattle Times provides some additional food for thought on this “rise of Shanghai.”)

With all this activity going on in Shanghai, and so many Westerners taking up residence there, it should be no surprise that numerous Web sites are right there in the heat of things.

To get you started, here a just a few representative sites to help give you an idea of what’s going on in Shanghai, where I think there are now more Starbucks per capita than in Seattle.

  • Shanghai Expat–A comprehensive community portal for expatriates of other countries living (or planning to live) in Shanghai.
  •–An urban webzine covering the nightlife, dining, culture, art, and stage in Shanghai.
  • Shanghaiist–Part of the “Gothamist” network, Shanghaiist is a website about Shanghai and everything that happens in it. That means news and events, restaurants and bars, happenings and goings-on.
  • China Herald–Weblog with daily updates of the news on the emerging civil society in China, from the quirky perspective of Brussels and Shanghai-based internet entrepreneur and China-consultant Fons Tuinstra.
  • Shanghai Diaries–Former U.S. journalist, now a freelance writer and editor in China, Dan Washburn has launched “a website about Shanghai, China … and lots of other stuff.” (He’s also the editor of, mentioned above.)
  • Running Dog–News And Current Events From Shanghai, China and The World.
  • Shanghai Streets–An incredible photo blog documenting scenes and people on the–you guessed it–streets of Shanghai.
  • Shanghai Sky–Another incredible photo blog, this one Flickr-based, documenting scenes and events in Shanghai.

There are many more quality “Shanghai Sites,” but an hour spent browsing through just these–if you aren’t aware of what Shanghai has been up to in the past 25 years–will amaze and inform…and perhaps even change your view of the world.

And in case you missed Shanghai’s first heyday, check out this one:

  • Tales of Old Shanghai–“Documenting a vanished age in a city which gloried in being `The Paris of the East’ and wasn’t shy about being `the Whore of Asia’.”

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