A Geek's Guide to China

by Joe Lavin, Aug 27, 2001 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Okay, I may not be the typical traveler. When I visited Beijing earlier this year, I wasn't just content to see famous sites. Amazing as some of these were, I wanted to see something more modern. As an unabashed computer geek, I wanted to see the hi-tech China.

What better place then to start than at Zhongguancun, an area often called Beijing's Silicon Valley? Along with most of Beijing's computer companies, this neighborhood is also home to several computer stores. From the moment I get out of my taxi, it is obvious that these stores are nothing at all like the staid computer superstores of the United States.

This hi-tech bazaar is laid out in such a way that it feels more like a food market than Silicon Valley. There are a few large stores, but most are just tiny shops no bigger than the typical studio apartment. They all seem so schizophrenic that it's tough to tell what each stores specializes in. Printer cartridges, laptops, and monitors are all mixed together. And that's not counting all the used computer shops. I look into one of these and just see computer parts lying on the floor.

To be honest, I am a little scared to buy anything here - for fear that it will stop working when I get home. Nevertheless, the prices are reasonable and the merchandise - once you find it - seems relatively up-to-date. I see a 600mhz laptop with an Intel Celeron processor and 64 megabytes of RAM selling for about $1,200. I even find the same digital camera I own on sale for about the same price as I paid in the U.S.

Of course, there is also plenty of software piracy in Beijing. I notice this most when I visit Silk Alley. Despite the name, there's more than silk here. There are clothes, backpacks, electronics, and a healthy supply of pirated CDs and software. Prices are negotiable on all. As I wade through the throng of shoppers, I feel incredibly popular. Wherever I go, I hear a constant chatter of strange greetings - "Hello, Sir," "Hello, CD," "Hello, DVD," "Hello, Software," and the particularly hard-to-resist "Hello, lookie, lookie!"

We see none of the software or CDs, because the police are right there. Not that the police really seem to care, of course. Arbitrarily, they may stop some, but for the most part, they do nothing about the piracy. Walk up to one of the software pirates, and he will simply take you down several back alleys, to a spot well away from the authorities where dozens are peddling all things pirated. There, you will find all sorts of software, including several Chinese versions of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows. With all this piracy, it's obvious that Bill Gates' billions are certainly not coming from China.

This shopping is fascinating, but perhaps the best place to see how computers are affecting China is an Internet café. When my friend Brian tells me that there's one just blocks from where I'm staying, I'm elated - and not just because I'm addicted to the web. I'm also excited to get in touch with the world again. After several days in Beijing, I have absolutely no idea what is happening outside China.

I am thrilled simply to read the news - and to dispel some myths. There is a rumor among the Americans there that Jenna Bush had been arrested for drunk driving; a quick scan of the headlines reveals that it was only underage drinking. I read the rest of the headlines, check to see how my Boston Red Sox are doing, and send some e-mail to friends and family. All this for less than a dollar an hour? It's a good deal indeed.

The cafe is crowded with computer users. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised that many of the Chinese are so web-savvy. When I later spend a day sightseeing with a Chinese friend of my hosts, I discover that she knows much of what is happening in the world. While she claims to hate computers, she still has an e-mail address, enjoys chat rooms, and has a detailed knowledge of the recent American spy plane accident that could only come from foreign sources.

In fact, Internet cafes like this one are easy to find in Beijing. There's even one a block from where they keep Mao Zedong's body in Tiananmen Square - just another fact of modern Chinese life that is no doubt causing Mao to spin in his grave.

Not all web sites are accessible, of course. CNN.com, for example, is blocked, because the government doesn't like the way it covers China. A few other sites like June4.org and Amnesty International are also blocked, but it hardly matters. Whatever I can't read at CNN, I can easily find at Yahoo. Yahoo has invested so much money into China that the government will probably never block it. Indeed, as long as the government wants to make money from the Internet, they will never be able to entirely filter out foreign news.

Just as we are about to leave, I visit my own web site to see if I can get to it, and it pops up quickly. No censorship there. I make a point to bookmark it. In fact, I bookmark my page at all the Internet cafes I visit in China.

I doubt anyone will notice, but it's basically my own 21st century version of "Kilroy was here."