Online in China and Japan–Some Observations about Computing, Mobile and Otherwise

During the month of July my wife and I spent several weeks traveling in China and Japan, attending a couple of academic conferences in Xi’an and Osaka, and sightseeing. I took a netbook (a tiny, less-than-full-featured laptop) and my Palm Pre. Here are some random thoughts on my experiences, what I saw around me, how the world is connected, and my experiences ‘phoning home’.

First, a few comments on what ‘equipment’ I took with me. Because of the strict, and somewhat complex Export Control policies that all American universities are subject to (see for more information) I decided not to take my ‘home’ laptop with me, but instead borrowed a stripped-down netbook that had only web-browsers and Microsoft Office installed on it. That way, there was no risk of ‘exporting’ something that ought not to be ‘left’ outside the country. In addition, I password-protected the netbook (using a long, complex password) so that, if the computer were to be stolen, it couldn’t be accessed without reformatting the hard drive.

I took my Pre primarily as a music player. It also has WiFi, which permitted me to do web-surfing and email, although only within range of a WiFi access point. As a phone, however, it was useless, because the CDMA (Sprint) system is not used in most of China or any of Japan. Since we were not visiting friends or making business appointments, we didn’t feel the need for a ‘real’ phone, although several of our colleagues at the conferences had simply rented them at the airport when they arrived–they are surprisingly cheap to rent.

Wireless connectivity in both China and Japan was more limited than I had expected. All hotels had ethernet jacks (although not all had cables—fortunately I had brought one with me). As is the case in North America, the cheaper the hotel, the more likely the internet connection was free—a weird fact I have repeatedly confirmed around the world.  I’m sure this was idiosyncratic to the hotel we stayed in in Xi’an, but we had a choice of a no-smoking room without internet access or a smoking room with. They assured us they had thoroughly cleaned the room, and, in fact, we found it to be just fine, and chose the occasional faint hint of smoke to be worth the online access.

You may have read that some websites are inaccessible in China, and we certainly found this to be true. CNN, Facebook, and Google were all unavailable. There is a Chinese competitor to Google search, called Baidu, and there are also a couple of Chinese equivalents to Facebook, and lots of folks we talked to used them.

There is a way around these restrictions, however, via the Wayne State VPN facility. I’ll write a separate blog about it in a couple of weeks, but it has a number of advantages. Primarily, it encrypts whatever you send out from your computer when you are connected to it, so anything you may write cannot be eavesdropped upon. It has other uses I’ll talk about later, but it’s just a safer way to surf and read email.

One of the things that struck me about both China and Japan was the vast use of smartphones and tablets. There are iPhones and Android devices everywhere (you can tell by the fact that folks are swiping the screens of their devices). Lots of people also have iPads and similar toys as well—clearly mobile devices are the wave of the future, not just in the US but around the world.

I had much less sense of the widespread use of ‘The Cloud’ (another topic I’ll be covering in the next few weeks), but it’s quite clear that the parts of  Japan and China that we visited (Shanghai, Xi’an, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo) are about as wired as any comparable city in the US.


6 Replies to “Online in China and Japan–Some Observations about Computing, Mobile and Otherwise”

  1. What prevents a country from blocking you from going to a vpn address such as I’m surpirsed China hasn’t done this for all foreign vpn sites.

    And while you didn’t discuss this in your pot, I would not use a computer that wasn’t mine to surf or do anything else while in China – I would assume all public internet computes have keyboard logging software on them.

    1. Nothing prevents countries from blocking vpn’s, but so far they haven’t done so. Of course, most business and official visitors might choose not to return if they were unable to contact their home sites securely, and I’m sure most reasonable political entities know that. Perhaps North Korea wouldn’t care, but I’m sure the Chinese do.

  2. China has a massive amount of restrictions and very weird policies in my opinion. Pretty much their government is trying to limit their knowledge about the rest of the world. Very interesting article.

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