Digital bits and pieces after five days in Beijing

It is Saturday afternoon, and I’m invited over to my friend’s place on the outskirts of Beijing. During the long ride on the subway, I have ample time to follow my seat neighbors’ conversations on WeChat, by simply, physically, spying on them. The girl to my right, using an alphabetic input method, is obviously much faster in sending off her messages than the older lady to the left, who writes on a trackpad: she writes quickly, but it takes her quite some time to correct and even more time to find the fitting emoticon to accompany her message. Which finally reads “Congratulations!”, showing clapping hands.

My friend’s husband has turned out to be a real mobile nerd over the past four years that I haven’t seen him. We are wrapping Chinese jiaozi (ravioli), discussing the looks of a certain vegetable (which I didn’t know the name of), and while we’re still heading for the refrigerator to take a look at the vegetable in question, he rushes in with his phone, showing us a picture of it. “Nothing as easy as that”, he mumbles. Some minutes later, we’re discussing the polar light and where it can be seen in Sweden. While I’m trying to explain the Swedish geography, and am just about to walk over to the globe so conveniently placed on the sofa table, he again gets ahead of me and has it all ready on his mobile. When later on more friends come to play cards, he is still glued to his phone. They have to invest considerable energy to turn him non-virtual.

Arriving in Beijing a few days earlier, I’ve had my own problems with entering the mobile communication mode. In the previous year I had purchased a SIM card without registering with my passport. This was supposed to be impossible, as since 2013 users have to register with their real names. But in the shop it worked out anyhow. It now turned out that I could recharge my pre-paid account and receive text messages, but could not be reached for phone calls, or make calls myself/send messages. When I went to the phone company’s branch office, they told me that my SIM card was registered on somebody else’s name. A slightly sour clerk educated me that I really ought to have come to them in the first place, registering with my real name. Ironically, I can still use my old (and otherwise useless) SIM card to register for using WiFi, since my card can still receive the SMS with the access code. A bit sour myself (after losing my old phone number and re-investing in a new one), I shortly consider behaving badly on the Internet, thus ‘punishing’ the real owner of my number who had lured me. (Not that it is easy to be digitally naughty with a malfunctioning VPN.)  Of course I quickly discard the thought as inappropriate – and at the same time start wondering whether my online behavior would actually be able to harm someone else – if I was to be monitored?

At the dinner table, my friend and I begin talking about common friends and old teachers we both know. One of them – a professor who is in his mid-eighties now – has taken a fancy to new ICTs and is very active on their WeChat group. She shows me their latest conversations on her mobile – funnily I had seen them already the previous day on the mobile phone of a colleague, who is in the same WeChat group.

When more friends join our conversation, focus quickly shifts onto economic issues and the announced lower growth rates of the Chinese economy. All are keenly aware of the implications of a growth rate below 8 per cent. How can the government seriously think to be able to manage information flows to its advantage, they wonder, when information can basically be obtained anywhere on the Internet, all Great Firewalls aside?

One connection that I really hadn’t thought about before is the one between e-commerce and unemployment. An architect brings this into our conversation. The Chinese society, he argues, is extreme in the extent to which it embraces online shopping. Nobody he knows goes to any shops any longer (except for buying groceries). The sofa we’re sitting on, the surrounding furniture, the TV – all purchased on the Internet, my friend admits. The architect now argues that this has a tremendous impact on the labor market: apart from bigger cities like Beijing or Shanghai, many shops are closing and much less physical space is needed to sell things. As a consequence, cities such as Tianjin have vast amounts of void property, and the construction business has been seriously curbed. Which again makes it much harder for labor migrants from the countryside to find a job in the cities.

Yes, we all do (kind of) - but what if some can't find work anymore?

“We love work” (seen last September near a construction site) – yes, we all do (kind of),  but what if some can’t find any work anymore?

Only a few days earlier I had spotted my first Amazon delivery vehicle (Amazon uses their own delivery staff in China). The company had entered the Chinese market already in 2004 by taking over the Chinese online bookshop Joyo.com, but only recently it seems to become a more serious player in China’s e-commerce landscape.

Amazon delivery

Amazon delivery vehicle

The company wants to score with its international profile, guaranteeing that the products it is selling are genuine – although it had previously made negative news when it was criticized for selling fake cosmetics. As of last year, products can be directly ordered from Amazon US, Germany, Spain, the UK, France and Italy, thus adding to the company’s attractiveness. Very recently, Amazon has also opened a shop in an online mall (Tmall) run by the e-commerce giant Alibaba – probably a wise strategy to establish itself more firmly in the Chinese market.

When it is time to leave, my friend’s friend, who is also leaving, offers to drive me home. She searches my hotel on her phone’s GPS-supported map. By now I have stopped offering my foldable city map to any of my friends – they find paper maps much too tedious to use. I appreciate the fact though that my map doesn’t run on a battery as does my driver’s phone – which actually runs out of power towards the end of our drive…

About Barbara Schulte

Barbara Schulte is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Lund University
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