Friday, April 29, 2011

Coca-Cola and the Chinese Police

In Kunming, Yunnan Province I noticed what I considered to be a somewhat curious sight:

What is seen in the photo is a police tent covered with Coca-Cola logos.  At first I thought this might be an isolated example, but I continued to see more of them in other parts of Kunming.  Here are just a handful of the many others I passed by:

I've seen them occupied with up to four police officers - normally just sitting there looking bored or chatting.  It isn't unusual to find them empty and no, they appear to never have Coke.

The messages on the tents roughly translate as:
"Kunming Police. Public Security to Control and Protect.  A Harmonious Community, A Safe Kunming."
I'm not the first to have noted these tents.  As reported here on GoKunming, a local Kunming English language web site, the tents are a donation from Coca-Cola.  Based on the date of the article it appears they've been around for about a year.

Part of what made the tents intriguing to me is that in many parts of China it can be common for some businesses to develop a "harmonious relationship" with the police and government officials.  The need to do this came up in the post I wrote about a Chinese lady's intriguing views on the sources of Google's problems in China (see here).

Despite the potential benefits of a positive relationship with the police, the article on GoKunming raises the issue that:
"Coca-Cola's rationale for partnering with Kunming's police is less clear...  Last year, a total of three detainees died under questionable circumstances in police custody in Kunming."
And that was over a year ago before the role Chinese police have played in the recent surge of rights lawyers, activists, etc. being detained (and now even a Chinese rock musician).  Regardless, Coca-Cola may believe that their sponsorship of the police is a net positive in the eyes of Kunming's residents or that the benefits of the relationship with the Kunming police is worth any negative reactions some may have.

The flip-side is also interesting.  Does the Kunming Police believe it is to its advantage to be seen as connected to Coca-Cola, a foreign corporation?

There are many fascinating issues to explore.

To be "balanced", I'll note that Coca-Cola's contributions in Yunnan Province aren't only focused on the police.  Coca-Cola China's 2008/2009 Sustainability Review (pdf here) says:
"Yunnan is one of the provinces most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and, as a result, has a rising number of orphans. In 2006, in order to alleviate the growing pressure of this new demographic, we partnered with the Chinese Foundation for Prevention of STDs and AIDS, the Yunnan Women and Children Development Center and the Yunnan Ruili Women’s Association to launch the first AIDS-Impacted Orphan Care Program in Ruili county.

The primary function of this Program is to provide support and care to AIDS-impacted orphans in the 75 villages throughout Ruili. The Program pays for the orphans’ physical check-ups and medical expenses, subsidizes living and education expenses, provides for regular counseling sessions, and delivers soy milk powder to supplement their daily nutritional needs. 

In 2008 and 2009, Coca-Cola China joined efforts with the Gary Player Foundation to organize annual fundraisers which have raised RMB 13.5 million collectively to reach 2,000 orphans in Yunnan, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Gansu."
I'll also note that it was very easy for me to find this mention of the AIDS program on Coca-Cola's English language web site.

However, I couldn't find any mention of their support of Kunming's police.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Update on Starbucks in Yunnan

A quick update to my earlier post on the first Starbucks to open in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China is in order.

Today was the grand opening and I stopped by for a look:

As you can see the place was packed and there was a line extending out the door.  Later in the day all was the same.

I received some questions from people curious about cost.  For today's exchange rate some sample prices in US Dollars:
  • Tall Brewed Coffee:  $2.31
  • Venti Brewed Coffee:  $4.15
  • Tall Mocha Frappuccino:  $4.61
  • Tall Green Tea Latte:  $4.61
Prices such as these for drinks are relatively quite high for China, and especially Kunming.  For example, milk tea can be easily found for about $1.25 at other trendy tea and dessert stores nearby -- even that is a relatively high price for Kunming.

The fact that Starbucks is so busy with such high prices is a particularly good sign for them and says much about the customers' desires to purchase Starbucks' products.

Finally, I saw yet another sign of how Starbucks has localized for the Chinese market, or I should say "signs":

Signs in Kunming Starbucks' bathroom

Throwing bathroom tissue into a wastebasket can be common in parts of China where the pipes/sewage system isn't able to cope with it.  The second sign is likely due to squat toilets being very common in the region.  I assume some people may attempt to use seat toilets as squat toilets.

I suppose Starbucks has had some experience regarding these issues (and tissues) in the past.

China Scenes: Xizhou, Yunnan

A bit under the weather today (something I ate) so back to photos of scenes in China that aren't typically portrayed in the news.  These are from Xizhou, Yunnan, a village not so far from the touristy town Dali (Xizhou is actually a part of the Dali "administrative region") and the location for this previously posted photo from a horse-cart.  Xizhou is one of many villages in the area which offer a truer glimpse into the traditional culture of the Bai people, one of many minorities that can be found across Yunnan.  However, even there you can find growing touches of Western culture, such as a basketball court.

Traditional Bai architecture

Woman cleaning vegetables in the lake

Basketball court

Street scene

Farming plots near the lake

Street market

Horse-cart transportation

Other forms of transportation

View from inside a local restaurant

Two girls and a home is in the background

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blog Design Updates

For regular readers of visitors to this blog you've likely noticed some recent evolution in its design.  When I first started the blog my primary concern was on content, and it still is.  Before spending a significant amount of time on the design I wanted to get more of a sense of the overall "character" of my posts collectively.  While I knew some of the topics I'd certainly write about, I wasn't totally sure how it would all fit together.

I decided it was time to spend some time on the design so I've been experimenting with some things to improve both the look of the site and its usability, effectiveness, etc.  The user experience researcher side of me would like to do some "A/B testing" -- in short, compare multiple versions of the site at the same time to see what "works" best.  However, I don't think Blogger will let me do that so I'll make do with tinkering with some changes over time.

Feel free to email me, or leave a comment, on any thoughts you may have.  You're the ones who will be using it the most (while I get to spend most of my blog-related time in the Blogger interface world).

An additional note... for long time ("long" as in almost 3 months) readers you'll likely recognize the photo used in the new banner.  It is from a photo I took in Yulin, Guangxi that I posted when I guest blogged for James Fallows in February.  His comments, to which I say "yes!", and the full photo can be found towards the bottom of his post here.

You may also notice that the photo has been mirror-reversed.  I did it for placement of the blog title.  However, I may later revert it to the original orientation so don't worry if you have a bizarre sense that something is "off" but you can't quite pin your finger on it.

That's all for now.  Back to focusing more on posting.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Result of Oppression: Social Violence in China

David Bandurski has a new piece (see here) posted on the China Media Project web site about a debate around the scholar Xiong Peiyun.  A recent lecture by Xiong at a university in China was "canceled" at the last moment and he received a rebuke from the deputy director of the university's own Student Affairs Division for expressing ideas that were not "mainstream".

The article is worth reading in its full to appreciate some of the debate that is currently underway in China.  There are a few issues raised by the contents of the pieces that I'd like to specifically discuss because of their importance in understanding China.

The first is that in criticizing the deputy director in an open letter, one university student referenced the various viewpoints in China and the need for people to be able to express themselves freely, even if through alternative channels:
"Must an individuals views represent the mainstream and basic essence? Personal viewpoints have a right to be in line with the mainstream, and of course they have a right to not be in line with the mainstream. Moreover, from the history of the rule of our dear Party one can see that the non-mainstream views at any given time tend to become the mainstream views in the space of one or two decades . . . I don’t oppose the fact that you represent those people who seek to use public institutions [such as media] to advance their own mainstream values, but I firmly believe under the principle of substantiating [arguments] with facts that every viewpoint should have a channel for expression within the framework of our laws and regulations."
While not everyone feels free to share their thoughts so freely, and while some who have done so have been detained or imprisoned, here is a sign yet still more people remain to both offer a different viewpoint from the "mainstream" and to insist they be able to do so.  A debate by Chinese, for Chinese.

A second issue appearing in the article is the one of "violence" in China.  In speaking to many Chinese students across China, one common theme that has come up is the concern, in their own words, of the Chinese people being "emotional".  There can be a willingness to support the censorship applied by the Chinese Government because of the belief that if many Chinese people knew the uncensored truth the resulting emotions could lead to violence and upheaval.  The biggest concern I've heard regarding possible turbulence isn't the potential of destruction, loss of lives, etc.  It is that foreign countries will take advantage of China during a moment of weakness, as many Chinese believe occurred in past centuries.

I've seen Chinese students who were not constrained by the limits of China's censored internet be brought to tears when exposed to what had been hidden from them.  Often, you don't know what you're missing until you specifically look for it.  While in none of these cases did I notice any signs of violence, it heightened my awareness the impact lifting the veil of censorship can have even on people who are far more educated and exposed to the outside world than most in China.

Xiong Peiyun referenced the issue of Chinese reacting in an emotional and violent manner in his lecture.  What is most fascinating is how he in part tied the behavior of Chinese people to "violent" acts such as the oppression of free speech and people being forced to move from their homes (an issue I discussed here) - both issues related to polices of the Chinese Government.  He even goes as far as to label such acts as torture after addressing the "canceling" (sudden relocation to a much smaller venue) of his lecture:
"Now too we see many violent things occurring, like the way today’s lecture was suddenly cancelled, partly cancelled, and they say someone made trouble. This sort of riot [against the lecture itself] is a kind of violence. I’ve discovered over the past few days that a number of extreme websites have dubbed myself, old [economist] Mr. Mao Yushi (茅于轼) and others as “slaves of the West” (西奴) and said we must be hung. . .

I think this is an awful phenomenon. This sort of violence, this omnipresent violence, there is so much of this violence. It is online too, and from our major boulevards to our villages you can witness violence at any time. Aside from the cases of violent demolition and removal led by the government, there are many other cases arising from our society. I’m talking not just about government violence but about social violence. Social violence always has a profound impact on us. Some suffers a personal collapse, for example, everything goes wrong in their life, and they drive out on the streets and mow down life after life. In case after case, men brandish knives and murder children. . .

I think, if we ask whether this society of ours is healthy, give us the first part of the answer, that this society is a mess and that we constantly see these heinous acts of depriving others of their lives, or what we could call torture. This is the dark side of our society."
Finally, Xiong Peiyun make an intriguing claim that even relatively minor common behaviors in China that could be interpreted as showing disregard for others can be tied to an "air of oppressiveness":
"The other thing is that our whole society has an air of oppressiveness about it. I remember the time when I was living overseas [in France]. I’m not saying things overseas are necessarily great. But I believe the people are extremely courteous and mild in attitude. Let’s say, for example, that you’re walking through a building and come to a [glass] door and someone else is coming through the other way. Perhaps five or ten meters before the door, they will wait for you to pass. When people meet they often embrace. But I think that the distance between people in China is extremely vast . . . If you’re on a bus and someone steps on your foot, according to your understanding this person should apologize, but this person won’t apologize. I’ve seen it happen before where the first person will confront the second person about not apologizing and the other will say, look, why don’t I just inflict more harm on you? In the end, they’ll bring each other down fighting. We should recognize how this society [of ours] is brimming with this sort of air of oppressiveness, this unexplainable hatred. There is no shortage of things like this."
An example to provide context for some the above can be found at elevators all over China.  It is common for people outside the elevator to push inwards past people before those inside have had any chance to exit.  While an explanation for such behavior is certainly debatable, its existence is readily apparent.  It is such behavior that Xiong appears to reference as indicating a lack of courtesy.  Xiong connects oppression to a lack of regard for other people to escalating violence.  He seems to be saying that a tempest is building in China, and the policies of the Chinese Government are at least partly at fault.  Regardless of the merits of the claim, the mere suggestion of it in a public forum in China is striking.  One can not but help to wonder if Xiong will soon be among the many others who have been recently detained in China.

Regardless of detentions and censorship there remains a degree of vigorous debate in China - something that many outsiders in particular would view as positive.  However, I think the above issues raise a very difficult question.  There may be an immense amount of emotion bottled up in China and more yet to be realized.  If consensus grows in China on the merits of uncensored and open debate, as increasing information reaches the Chinese people will there be a way for the resulting emotion to slowly dissipate, or is it inevitable that there will be a significant level of disruption in China?

This is an open question that should help foreigners appreciate why many Chinese may be hesitant for immediate change.  What foreign countries can best offer is not outward support in the debates themselves.  Those are best served by voices in China, as seen above, and foreign "meddling" would only allow suspicions to be raised to serve as a distraction.  What is most needed are signs that if the Chinese people demand open debate and the freedom to make their own decisions for the future of their country that foreign powers will not take advantage of any potential turmoil but instead will show respect as the Chinese people face the challenge of building their country as they want it.

Easter in China: Detention, Worship, and Song

Earlier, in "Christianity in Churches in China" I shared some of the experiences I've had in China witnessing how Christianity could blend into the China's culture.

The openness of the religious expression I shared stood in stark contrast to the news of that day -- Chinese police had detained numerous Chinese for praying publicly outside.  This led one reader to ask:
"So how have these churches even gotten building permits if religion is so tightly controlled??"
The key is that China is "OK" with religion as long as any organized practice of it occurs in government controlled Buddhist temples, churches, mosques, etc.  For example, Chinese Government insists on the power to appoint Bishops for the Catholic Church.  They want the power to be able to avoid the potential that such organizations could be used in any way against the ruling Communist Party of China.

The people who were earlier detained were part of what is called a "house church" in China -- one that isn't officially sanctioned by the Chinese Government and may gather in a variety of locations such as people's homes.  They had bought a building to serve as a church but have been blocked from occupying it.  When they were unable to use the newly purchased building they decided to pray outside.  In recent weeks, some of the worshipers have reportedly been forced out of their homes and lost their jobs due to pressure from security officials.

On Sunday members of the same church again tried to pray outside to observe Easter and the police responded as before by detaining a number of people.  There were also reports of other Easter services being repressed.

Regardless of the continued detainment of people praying in non-sanctioned manners, many other Christians in China were able to pray with no obvious disturbance.  This was made apparent to me as I passed by a church in Kunming, Yunnan during the Easter weekend.

Trinity International Church in Kunming, China

At the time, there were people outside openly passing out pamphlets and actively encouraging passerby's to come inside. [sentence edited for clarity]

First page of religious pamphlet

On Sunday when I took a look inside there was a completely full house with a number of people having to stand.

Church service with packed seats

While I am not at an expert on Easter services, what I saw during my short visit didn't seem unusual to me in any way -- except hearing some Western style hymns in Chinese.  The above photo shows one of four services that were being held on the Saturday and Sunday of Easter weekend.  During my two visits I didn't see any obvious foreigners but the 2nd service offered simultaneous translation into English through wireless earphones.

English version of guide to services

There were many things in the church that seemed familiar for a place of worship.  In fact, they even had the requisite bulletin board highlighting recent activities:

Especially after reading so much about the detentions in Beijing, the large crowds in the church made me feel like I was in a different world.  One congregant said she had absolutely no worries about the Chinese Government -- they were sanctioned and had no fears.  When I asked her about the Christians who had been detained in Beijing she claimed not to have heard the news, but her body language and sudden desire to switch to another topic suggested otherwise.  Her apparent reluctance to speak about the issue may have been related to a sense of shame.  However, it is also possible "observers" were nearby and she didn't wish to draw any unwanted attention.

The issue of religion is an example of how China can be open and free in some ways and yet so controlled and censored in other ways.  It is easy to see that China's openness has grown over the past several decades, however the recent chilling series of detentions of political activists, lawyers, and even those who wish to express themselves through religion or art causes worries there may be at least a temporary shift in direction.

I share all of this simply to point out that like many aspects of China, the issue of religion is not as black and white as many outside of Chinese perceive it to be.  This weekend, hundreds of millions of Chinese went about their lives as normal entirely unconcerned about the Easter holiday.  Millions of other Chinese celebrated Easter in official churches like ones like the one I visited or in "house" churches.  Then there were those who were forcibly restrained from peacefully observing the holiday in the manner they chose.  All of these people are a part of religion in China today.

To close, I'll share a video of several younger congregants singing a religious song early Saturday evening before a production of a play for Easter.  The lyrics of the song are simple and include phrases I'll roughly translate as "I'm truly for you, my Jesus.  I want to contribute much to you.  I really love you."  Even if you don't understand Chinese, you can probably understand the Chinese word for "Jesus" -- 耶稣 (Yesu).  The singing is not remarkable in any way except how it likely mirrors scenes in many other churches around the world.  Hopefully, it is a sign that China will continue to open so everyone can peacefully express themselves as they desire.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Starbucks in China: Now in Yunnan

Starbucks rapid growth is hard not to notice in some of the more metropolitan cities in China.  In cities such as Shanghai it is not difficult in some places to find several Starbucks within a 10 minute walk of each other, if not closer.  However, Starbucks has recently begun to focus much of its growth into many cities that are unfamiliar to most people outside of China.

For example, in Kunming in the new shopping complex at the bottom of these buildings:

new high rise buildings in Kunming

Is what on Thursday will be the first Starbucks to open in Yunnan, a province in Southwest China:

outside of new Starbucks in Kunming

They will also be opening two other stores in Kunming during the following month, including one at this location only a few minutes walk away:

under-construction Starbucks store

(extra bonus: take a look at the family of three all on one motor scooter, not a very uncommon sight in China)

Opening stores in Yunnan isn't significant only because of it being far from China's more developed eastern coast, but also because Starbucks late last year announced it would set up a coffee bean farm and processing facilities in Yunnan - significant for a province that doesn't receive the level of investment from foreign companies seen in many other provinces.

Although the first store wasn't yet open, staff were outside serving free samples of a caramel latte drink -- what for many was their first taste of Starbucks:

several Chinese people being offered sample drinks

I was invited inside to take look around the store while they were putting on the finishing touches and starting to clean up:

inside of Starbucks store

While much of the style is Western, there are certainly some local touches to highlight Starbucks' special association with Yunnan:

photos of local regions in Yunnan and a map of Yunnan

Although the drink menu has many similarities with those found in the US, there are some differences.  For example, similar to Dairy Queen localizing its Chinese menu with mango drinks, Starbucks also has a mango drink not typically found in US stores: the Mango Passion Fruit Frappucino.  I was told that Yunnan grown coffee would not be on the drink menu, but come September customers would be able to buy Starbucks Yunnan coffee beans in packages.

Starbucks was still looking for new employees in Kunming, including these two who were applying when I stopped by:

two girls filling out application forms

However, Starbucks wasn't taking any risks and had brought in several experienced employees from its other stores in China, as far away as Xian and Beijing, to help for a month or two, including these two Coffee Masters:

A young man who is a Coffee Master

another young man who is a Coffee Master

Starbucks' employees are expect to maintain a quality and style of service similar to Starbucks' stores in the US.  While rapidly changing, service "attitudes" in much of China are different from the US so some hands on training by experienced staff is particularly important.

Based on my experience today, it seems like Starbucks has brought in a very friendly and open group to help kickoff their new store, especially my "guide" for my brief tour who used the familiar English name "Mickey":

young lady who works at Starbucks

Finally, it appears that Starbucks isn't similar to Dairy Queen only in its decision to add mango drinks to the menu, but it also faces competition similar to that faced by Dairy Queen from Mango Queen and DU.  In another part of Kunming is:

outside of Teabucks store
Teabucks Tea Store

Yes, Teabucks.

Welcome to Kunming, Starbucks.

[UPDATE: See details about the grand opening of this Starbucks here]

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What China Can Learn From Corruption and Property Disputes in the US

In my post "Humiliation and Disgrace: Interfering with China's Attempts to Improve its Image and the Lives of its People" I shared several examples highlighting the roles "humiliation" and "disgrace" can play in China and how they may lead to self-defeating actions.

I've received some interesting feedback and would like to reply to one of the comments posted here.  "Jeff" wrote:
"Regarding the sensitivity about eminent domain issues, could it have anything to do with the reliance of local gov'ts on kickbacks and fees associated with property development?

To say that other countries in the world have similar issues is to ignore a systemic pathology that, if not unique to China, has certainly entrenched itself into the political economy."
My answer to the question in Jeff's comment is "yes" if speaking of the Chinese Government's sensitivity about the issue in general.  Many Chinese I have spoken to would readily agree that corruption has "entrenched itself into the political economy" in China (see here for an example regarding Google).  The Chinese Government likely wants to provide the image it is addressing such issues and avoid highlighting potential problems.  The Chinese Government's sensitivity could also be a result of the notable cases of strong resistance to forced relocation by Chinese people -- sometimes with deadly results.  However, I should note that the Chinese press was allowed to report on the relocation issue referenced in my earlier post and I'm not aware of any specific claims of corruption in that case.

Regardless, even if no corruption were involved in forced relocation in China I believe the issue would remain a potential embarrassment in international terms for many Chinese.  For example, in the conversation with the policeman referenced in the earlier post, while he mentioned government corruption, it was never brought up in regards to the issue of forced relocation.  Based on his words and the emotions he displayed, what he worried would cause China disgrace in the eyes of the world was that people were forced from their own homes and provided insufficient money as compensation to purchase similar ones.  I do suspect, though, that his concerns about China's image would have also caused him to not want the foreign press covering corruption in the Chinese Government.

In response to the second part of Jeff's comment, when I wrote that "similar issues of eminent domain, though not on the same scale, come up in many countries around the world and are openly discussed" I meant "similar" in the sense that the cases involved people who felt they were unfairly being forced to move -- whether the forced move was primarily caused by corruption or the government taking action for "public use".

I should also note that in many cases in China forcing people out of their homes isn't technically an issue of "eminent domain" since the land is owned by the Chinese Government (or local governments) in the first place.  Law professor Dan Cole touches on this issue in his post "Eminent Domain and Corruption in China: A Murderous Combination" in which he comments on a case of forced relocation in China that had gruesome results.

However, while it may not be surprising to many that corruption has played a role in forced relocations in China, it may come as a surprise that it may play a role in countries such as the US as well.

The US Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London (545 U.S. 469 [2005]) ruled that eminent domain could apply even if the land was being taken over by a private entity if there could be some demonstrated benefit to the public such as increasing the tax base or providing more jobs for the the area.  According to the US Supreme court, it is possible for people to be forced out of their home for the construction of a shopping mall, just as it is for people in China.  This point is important because the possibility of using eminent domain for the transfer of property to a private entity may increase the potential for corruption.  In fact, there is research suggesting just this: "eminent domain use for private benefit is more widely used in [US] states with: (a) higher rates of corruption, (b) appointed Supreme Court justices, (c) less fiscal decentralization, and (d) lower economic freedom" (referenced research by Carrie B. Kerekes here, more recent paper here).

My aim isn't to say that the scope of corruption in such cases is at all similar in the US and China but merely that my statement that the issue differs in regards to scale may hold even in this sense.  I don't believe this negates what many Chinese themselves will say: corruption is rampant in many parts of the Chinese Government, and it is a very significant problem.

Finally, in Dan Cole's post he also discusses how the open nature of the media and the political process in the US helped lead to the creation of further protections for property owners after the Kelo ruling (a ruling which disappointed many people in the US).  It can be a sign to the Chinese people that when foreign governments such as the US advocate for more openness in China, it isn't just because those governments believe they have something to gain, but that they sincerely believe that a more open China would be to the benefit of the Chinese people and better able to fix the problems of most concern to the Chinese people -- even those problems which they now fear could cause them humiliation and disgrace.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Google's Sergey Brin is on Facebook: Of course

An article by Ryan Tate asks, "why is Google co-founder Sergey Brin so secretive about having a Facebook account?"  After all, aren't Facebook and Google currently fierce competitors?  (HT to Bill Bishop's tweet, article originally posted on Gawker here)

My initial reaction: Of course Sergey Brin has a Facebook account.  Of course he wants to do it "secretly".

Several years ago, there was a point when I realized I would likely be joining Microsoft China. It was also time for me to buy a new laptop. What did I buy? A MacBook Pro.

I felt that especially in my role as a user experience researcher at Microsoft it would be important to be deeply familiar not just with Microsoft products but their competitors as well.  Having a Mac at home would give me critical insights that wouldn't be readily apparent without extended use of a product. Also, I was also able to still have Microsoft Windows on it (dual-boot) and Microsoft develops products for a variety of Apple products.

As a user experience researcher I am very aware that my own experience with a particular product may not match the experiences of the target customers for a product.  However, having familiarity with a competing product can help one raise the right questions to ask to gain a better understanding of the users you're targeting and what you need to do to compete. 

I would think it would be beneficial for Sergey Brin to have at least a basic understanding of Facebook  -- whether he likes it or not -- from personal standpoint.  Especially for something like social networking, it is hard to grasp many of the ins and outs without some personal use.  And given his prominence and his role at Google, it seems understandable that he would want to keep a low profile there -- both for his personal privacy and not appearing to endorse Facebook publicly due to competition reasons as cited in Ryan Tate's article.

In fact, because of his personal account Sergey Brin may now be particularly appreciating a key aspect of the Facebook user experience:  "privacy" can tricky to say the least.  Despite the fact that he apparently hid his friends list from public view, "people in his greater social circle are able to see friends in common" and they were able to report what they saw.

To sum up...

Why do I think Sergey Brin has a Facebook account: to better appreciate the user experience and how it works so he can better help Google compete and innovate.

Why do I think Sergey Brin is being "so secretive about having a Facebook account": he doesn't want attention there nor to raise the profile of a competitor.

Finally, the article doesn't say if there are indications he uses it regularly so I am not sure it is fair when Ryan Tate writes that Sergey Brin (emphasis added):
"might not want prospective users to know how deeply enmeshed he is in a rival social network."
In fact, I think I have some exclusive evidence that he hasn't even logged on recently.

Sergey Brin still hasn't accepted my friend request.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: Local Rates, Fashion, and Fakes

I've done a significant amount of research into mobile phone use in China -- to improve existing mobile products & services, to innovate new ones, and to find ways to better market them to potential users.  In this post, I'll introduce at a general level some of the key themes in what I've discovered during my independent explorations across China by highlighting several illustrative examples.  What I'll share in this post is just the tip of the iceberg for a host of interesting topics to delve into, is focused on Chinese youth, and is not intended to be all encompassing.  I'll share more themes, examples, and thoughts on this topic in later posts as well.

To begin, what I learned about a female student in Jilin, Jilin Province (see here for some scenes from Jilin) highlighted at least two key aspects of how mobiles phones are used and chosen by some in China.

girl with two mobile phones

If you look closely at the photo of the student above, you'll notice she has two mobile phones -- one in her hand that she is using at the moment and another hanging from her neck.

Why two mobile phones?  One reason is that she grew up in Hunan Province, far away from where she was going to school in Jilin.  She considered the roaming fees for using her Hunan phone number in Jilin to be too high but but she still wanted to keep her Hunan number since she didn't want to lose contact with people and would be returning there regularly.  Therefore, she needed two different phones numbers, meaning two different SIM cards, so she could get local rates whether she was at home or at school.  One of her phones had a Hunan phone number, the other a Jilin phone number.  Using multiple SIM cards to get local rates is common in China and it is not unusual to find locally designed phones with the capability to hold multiple SIM cards (note: getting local rates is not the only reason some in China desire multiple SIM cards).  However, in this case the girl's older mobile phone didn't have that capability and neither did her newer phone.

Did the savings of not having to pay roaming fees more than offset the cost of an additional phone?  Well, that calculation may not have been entirely critical since there was also another important reason she had two phones.

Her older phone's paint and camera were chipped prior to her departing Hunan for college:

mobile phone with chipped paint

mobile phone with chipped camera lens

It was still functional in most ways, but to her it was unacceptable in large part due to a key concern.

As seen on her "Fashion Chic" shoes, fashion was very important to her.  Her scratched up phone was simply unacceptable from this standpoint.  So, while she was still in Hunan she bought a shiny new phone made by the Chinese company Oppo:

shiny new Oppo brand phone

In China, it is common for many youth (and others as well) to get prepaid SIM cards and purchasing them is a simple process -- no sign up or name registration required for regular usage.  So, when she arrived in Jilin she bought a new SIM card with a local number and put it in her old phone since the new phone already had the SIM card for her Hunan number in it.  Despite the fact that she uses the old phone far more often while at school, it is the new Oppo phone that she hangs from neck.  Hanging the phone from her neck is about fashion, not functionality.

While fashion can play an important role in many countries around the world, its impact in China is particularly striking in the mobile phone domain.  Many are willing to spend a large proportion of their income to purchase a mobile phone, sometimes saving up at least several months of their full salary, out of concerns related to fashion and image.  For many people in China, their mobile phone will be the most expensive and openly visible item that can be with them many places they go -- like a car for many people in the US.  While hanging a mobile phone around ones neck isn't as common in China as it used to be, there remain many opportunities for it to be visible.

Fashion and image aren't only important for many female youth in China but many males as well.  For example, this student at a university in Wenzhou, Zhejiang was also concerned about fashion and image:

male student in black jacket holding mobile phone

And he was willing to spend a lot of money for his BlackBerry phone:

BlackBerry Phone

This isn't to say that fashion and image are the only factors that go into choosing a mobile phone for such people, just that they can be primary factors in the choice.

However, there are many more youth in China that can't afford genuine fashionable foreign brand phones, even if they want one.  While some of them choose a local brand, others choose another common option in China: fakes.

For example, at this store in Chongzuo, Guangxi which sold mobile phones that were (supposedly) genuine:

Mobile phone store in Chongzuo, Guangxi
Mobile phone store in Chongzuo, Guangxi

Many of its employees had obvious fakes such as this one:

fake Sony Ericsson mobile phone with words Snoy Eriosscn
"Snoy Eriosscn" mobile phone

Some fakes aren't as obvious as the one above -- there are a range of "qualities".  Regardless, the usual motivation to buy a fake is the lower price.  But why not buy an equally priced Chinese brand phone?  For an example capturing one of the key reasons, here is a girl in Shuolong, Guangxi, a small village a few hours away from Chongzuo:

girl in Shuolong, Guangxi

She too made a variety of fashion choices:

girls pair of bracelets

But fashion wasn't a concern in her previous choice of a mobile phone:

locally made Photoner mobile phone

Nor was it for the new phone she soon planned to purchase.  Her dream phone was a Nokia.  Not because of any concerns regarding fashion but because she believed it would be very reliable and rugged.  However, a real Nokia phone was not a possibility given their relatively high price so she wanted to get a fake Nokia phone since it would be cheaper.

Unlike many other examples I've seen of purchasing fake products, her choice of a fake Nokia versus other relatively inexpensive options did not appear to be driven by how others around her would perceive the product.  It was about her own internal expectations for what the product could provide to her based on its name - even though it would be a fake.  This distinction is critical in gaining a deeper understanding about how brands and fake products are perceived by some in China.  I'll share more in later posts about this and other issues regarding fake products.

These are just some of the highlights of what I've found.  I'd be curious to hear any of your thoughts on the above examples -- they certainly provide more to discuss than I am able to cover in this single post.  Again, more on these and related topics later.

Monday, April 18, 2011

China Scenes: Nanning, Guangxi

After I finished my week of guest blogging for James Fallows in February, I left the city of Yulin which had provided much inspiration and was briefly in Nanning -- the capital of Guangxi.  While a much larger city and full of signs of rapid development, the city still has a charm of its own.  Like in many cities in Southwest China, the residents feel it has a more relaxed atmosphere than many of China's eastern coast cities.

Some Southeast Asian influence can be seen given the number of business ties and Nanning's proximity to the region.  In fact, when I left Nanning I was able to take a bus straight to Hanoi, Vietnam (my first experience upon arriving in Hanoi is here).  Well, actually two buses since you have to switch at the border.

Here are more photos capturing scenes of China that can be lost behind the headlines, these all from Nanning:


Apartments on a hazy day

Several modes of transportation

Yujiang River

Shop with the name "No Right Just Suitable"

Market on an "old street"

The "old street" could get rather crowded

Street intersection

Contrasting advertising signs

Bridge in a city park