Digital Notes from Shanghai: On mobile phones and changes

I arrived in Shanghai last week and will in some blogs share my experiences and reflections.  This is not my first time in Shanghai as I was a student here during the period 1988-1990, i.e. before the advent of the Internet and the mobile phone. At that time many people still didn’t have a landline phone. Whenever I got a call the concierge in the student dormitory called my name in the loudspeaker, and I had to run down and to the next building to pick up the phone. The same held true of most of my Shanghainese friends who lived in apartment blocks where a common phone was kept by the concierge. If one needed to make a call while in town there were public telephones in newspaper stands in most street corners. I mainly communicated with family and friends at home in Sweden through letters as international phone calls was much too expensive. Today, thanks to new ICTs such as the Internet, mobile phones, apps such as WeChat, and Skype etc, communication within the country and beyond is much easier, faster and cheaper. This easy co-presence and space compression is something we have rapidly come to take for granted.

Shanghai is now one of the cities with the highest Internet penetration rates in China. In 2012, when the national average was 42.1 %, the penetration rate in Shanghai (CNNIC 2013 report) was 68.4 %, and 78.4 % of the city’s netizens used their smartphones to access the Internet. There are numerous outlets in the city selling the latest computers and smartphone models, and like people all over the world many commuters on the metro are busy on their phones texting and chatting with friends, checking the news, and watching films.

Until last year I was satisfied with my old mobile phone that had a Beijing number, and  I bought a top-up card and recharged whenever I ran out of money. My phone was so old I couldn’t use it to take photos (I used my Swedish smartphone for that), or connect to the Internet, but I didn’t care much. As Wifi has become standard fare in most hotels and cafés I could log on with my laptop almost everywhere. But when even taxi drivers started to comment on how old and outdated my phone was, I felt it was time for an upgrade. It was also attractive to be able to go on WeChat or check my e-mails when travelling.

IMG_8090Liu Bolin the invisible man among mobile phones of different models. I took this photo of his art at the Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai, 14 September 2014. For more on Liu and his art see for example the Guardian.

Since part of this project is to immerse oneself in all aspects of the digital in China, I decided, on the recommendation of a friend, to buy a Xiaomi smartphone. Xiaomi is a local Chinese brand that has rapidly become a bestseller and a competitor to big companies such as Samsung and Iphone in China. I felt that for research purposes it would be interesting to use a local brand (and it is thus not my intention to promote the brand here). The man behind Xiaomi, Lei Jun, has been compared to Apple’s Steve Jobs, which says something about the hype around Xiaomi. The phone has built up an ethusiastic fan base (its fans are called 米粉 in Chinese), and the company is actively using social media to interact with fans/customers (see its Sina weibo account). It is difficult to buy a Xiaomi and the phones quickly sell out on-line, while I bought mine with a China Mobile subscription in Shenzhen. Xiaomi has now reportedly become the world’s 5th biggest smartphone maker, which is an amazing feat given it was only launched in 2011. Whenever I take up my phone here it leads to comments and interesting discussions.

IMG_8067My Shenzhen monthly subscription was a bit expensive (the mobile phone service market/SIM card options market is huge and complex) and after using it for more than a year I realised I never used it to the full, so arriving in Shanghai I decided to get a new SIM card. I went to one of the many small stands selling top-up cards, SIM cards, phones and other mobile phone and computer equipments. I bought a SIM card with China Mobile, the country’s largest mobile phone operator. Since 2010 one is required to register using one’s ID or passport (although it still seems possible to not do this), and since this month the authorities seem to have stepped up these efforts. The man who owned the stall thus took a photo of my passport and sent it via WeChat to the Shanghai branch of China Mobile. After some time it was confirmed and approved and I could start to use my new number. The day after I however got a call from China Mobile who wanted to check my ID and name.


While I was waiting to get my SIM card, and the approval from China Mobile, I observed the other customers and what they were buying. Many came to buy top-up cards, or pre-paid cards that one can use with a landline phone to make cheaper calls. One migrant worker bought a card to be used within Shanghai and another card to use when calling back home to his family in another province. Those who wanted new numbers all tried to get one that included lucky numbers such as 8, which is pronounced ba in Chinese and has some resemblance to the character for wealth 发, pronounced fa. A young man bought a cheap phone for his father who didn’t want a smartphone.


The owners’ father, who had moved to Shanghai from Fujian in 1995, and I reminicensed about the rapid changes in telecommunications. He remembered having a beeper, and I recalled friends who used that although I never owned one myself. In the 1990s, the first mobile phones, which were huge and expensive, were called 大哥大dageda, big-brother-big, a word that is no longer in use; mobile phones are today called shouji 手机, literally hand-machine. Maybe there are some beepers and dageda on display at the Museum of Telecommunications in Beijing. The museum also have an exhibit of phone cards according its website and might be worth a visit.


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