From March 2009

Chinese Cyber Espionage Exposed

In what will come as no surprise to many the Information War Monitor has exposed a Chinese hacking group (the so called GhostNet) who had infiltrated over 1000 computers in over 100 countries, 30% of which were considered to be “high-value” targets (i.e. belonging to government agencies, international organisations etc.). Perhaps most telling were the number of foreign embassy’s infected and possible targeting of Taiwan and the Dalai Lama in particular.

The Trojan horse program, typically spread through email attachments, gave the attackers complete control of the infected computers allowing them search and download files, log keystrokes, and control attached devices such as webcams or microphones. Command servers were identified and traced to be in mainland China (Hainan, Guangdong, Sichuan and Jiangsu) as well as one in Hong Kong and the US. Hainan Island is home to the Lingshui signals intelligence facility of the People’s Liberation Army although no concrete evidence could be found to link them.

Even more worrying is the fact that because of the inherent insecurity of the Internet’s design almost anyone can mount a cyber-attack with easily downloadable hacking tool-kits and a basic understanding of the technology. Whilst these intrusions were traceable to IP addresses in China there is no evidence to be able to say whether the activity was government sanctioned or just a kid in his bedroom. Catching those responsible who are more likely than not on the other side of the world under different jurisdiction is almost impossible currently. China has denied any involvement and described the study as “nonsense”.

Whilst little is known of the current sophistication of cyber espionage it is believed that the US, UK, and Israel are currently leaders in this field and clearly China wants a part in it. Most previous cyber attacks such as those in the Russia-Georgia conflict have been tracked to nationalistic individuals acting alone.

The report, which covers the findings of their 10 month investigation, is fascinating reading if you’re interested in computer security and the technicalities of how these attacks work. For more on the inner mind of cyber criminal organisations in China check out The Dark Visitor blog.

World Connectivity Rankings

A study conducted by Professor Leonard Waverman (London Business School), commissioned by Nokia Siemens Networks, has recently released their results which ranks the current connectivity levels of 50 countries by analysing the impact of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) on economic growth.

While I’m not personally particularly interested in economics the report has produced some interesting findings by looking at usage, skills, and infrastructure across consumer, business, and government sectors. These were then weighted according to their respective contribution to utility and productivity. Although this is essentially a collection of different metrics it differs from previous studies which only looked at infrastructure.

Probably the biggest surprise was that the USA came out at the top of the list as, even though its consumer broadband penetration is average, it excells in both business and government usage and infrastructure. The UK (ranked 6th) also comes out surprisingly well despite its consumer infrastructure ranking well below that of the leaders.

Below is a quick summary of how Japan, Korea, and China performed in the index:

Japan Connectivity Score
"Consumer Connectivity Keeps Japan in World’s Top 10"

Japan (ranked 10th) is often characterised as one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and with good reason. It has excellent network penetration throughout the country and consumer bandwidth is much higher than that what can be found in Europe or the USA. Whilst they performed very well in consumer infrastructure and business usage they were found to be average in other areas readucing their overall ranking.

Only Korea, Japan and Sweden have measurably high rates of fibre-to-the-home broadband penetration (greater than 5 percent), with many countries having a virtually zero penetration rate.

Korea Connectivity Score
"Business Connectivity Scores Hit Korea’s Connectivity Ranking"

One would have expected Korea (ranked 18th) to do better considering it’s hyper-fast broadband but while consumers are lapping up the bandwidth through these advanced data networks business spending on IT lags behind other countries. In part this appears due to the dominance of the massive conglomerates (Samsung / LG / Hyundai…) who dominate, leaving smaller companies in the technological dust.

Korea does not appear to be a top performer in the business arena – indeed, Korean productivity on a per worker basis is much lower than European or North American productivity, and the difference is even more pronounced on a per-hour worked basis given that Korean workers work several hundred hours per year more than their counterparts in Europe.

This appears to be a cultural / working-style issue as much as anything else.

China Connectivity Score
"Impressive Consumer Infrastructure Held Back By Poor Business Scores"

In China (ranked 15th in resource & efficiency driven economies) the report interestingly highlights the lack of international bandwidth and tight government control as limiting factors contributing to poor business innovation and creativity. As I previously discussed in 2005 China’s networks have reasonable internal capacity but all the connections to the outside world  are severely bottle-necked. This makes communications with the “outside” an extremely frusrating experience and has to be part of the reason why China still lags a considerable way behind the innovation-driven economies.

On average countries rank only 5/10 indicating that overall there is enormous potential for improvement. The complete report can be downloaded here (via Futurize Korea).

Chinese Economic Crisis Comics

The world economic crisis created in America is having knock-on effects around the world. As people in the west stop spending so the demand for manufactured goods from China is slowing down putting millions of migrant factory workers out of work.While the government does it’s best to keep the lid on free speech which might insight civil unrest the people still find other forms of expression to vent their feelings and resist censorship (known locally as “harmonization“) through the use of allegory, puns and seemingly innocent comics or videos.

The following comics appeared in my inbox today humorously depicting the every-day impact of the economic crisis and how people have reacted in China (which some friends helped me translate). Each should be read from top to bottom – left and right are separate comics:

Chinese Economic Crisis Comics

Chinese Economic Crisis Comics

The economy aside, while this example is fairly tame, an interesting point raised here asks…

Will the Chinese people rise above cyber-vigilantism and use the Internet to build a just and fair society governed by accountable leaders? Or will the majority be be happy to wield their new-found powers of online speech in random fashion? … It’s hard to know whether people beyond the elite intelligentsia will pay attention to such concerns.

Considering the mass appeal and reach of the internet I’d like to say yes but knowing the Chinese’s lacklustre interest in politics it’s difficult to see it happening on a mass scale soon. The Chinese government maybe beginning to warm up to the idea of online debate but you can be sure it wont be democratic in any sense of the true meaning.

More comics after the break…
Read more

Conghua Shimen Forest Park

Misty Mountains

Yesterday, much against my better nature for a Saturday morning, I got up at the crack of dawn and joined my company’s photography group on a trip to Conghua Shimen National Forest Park, located about 1.5 hours north-east of Guangzhou and approx 3 hours from Shenzhen. Conghua is known as the “oasis” of the Tropic of Cancer with 68% forest cover and over 300 lakes and 180,000 acres of green mountains.

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As we left behind the metropolis, driving in convoy, the winding roads took us though small farming villages where life is a much simpler affair and people exist in a style which has not changed significantly over the past half century. We had come to see the blooming of the oilseed rape flower fields but unfortunately as we ascended the mountain to over 1000m above sea level the top was shrouded in thick mist which reduced visibility to less than 20m.

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The fog filled bamboo groves create a unique and mysterious atmosphere which, although not very conducive to photography, was still well worth the trip. I’ve always fancied the idea of being a monk and living in a mountain top monastery free to meditate amongst nature and here I secretly hoped to be alone to enjoy the feeling in silence (something sadly a rarity in China).

Wedding Photography

After descending below the mist we came across a picturesque lake which was teeming with couples having their wedding photos taken. In China people have their wedding photos taken long before the actual wedding day which are then proudly displayed at said event. They usually take them in a variety of outfits, both traditional Chinese and modern western styles. As a man I find the whole idea ghastly but somehow imagine that the grooms don’t have much say in the matter!

Looking Down

At the other end of the lake a film crew were shooting a commercial for a Chinese bank with a massive crane hovering over the water and an actress in a boat below (not sure what she was supposed to be doing). Less than 10 minutes after I took this shot the heavens opened and they called it a wrap for the day. Will have to keep my eyes open to see if the ad shows up on TV.

By this time it was 5pm and time to head back to Shenzhen where we rounded off the day with a rather sumptouous dinner.

Planet Samsung

With North Korea increasingly sabre rattling and relations with the south breaking down under South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative hard-line approach things are becoming increasingly tense along the 38th parallel, the most heavily fortified border in the world. Combined with the north effectively being allied with China and the south being allied with the US things could get messy very quickly if there is any further escalation.

North / South Korea Divide Propoganda

Whilst there is propaganda on both sides it’s only in the north that you will still find the same type of turgid Soviet-esq Socialist Realism that one might expect from such a repressive regime. No clearer is this illustrated than in the advertisements which permeate everyday life in one of the only forms of artistic expression in which “representation equals endorsement“.

“When provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the US!”
“When provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the US!”

The California Literary Review has a great collection of North Korean Propaganda posters, some of which are shown here. I find it fascinating to see the Mao-era design style replicated throughout the communist regimes in this part of the world –

Posters are visual illustrations of the slogans that surround the people of North Korea constantly. North Korean society is in a permanent mobilization. Party and government declarations are stripped down to single-line catchphrases. Through their endless repetition in banners, newspaper headlines, and media reports, these compact slogans become self-explanatory, simultaneously interpreting and constructing reality.


“Pyongyang, a great place to live”

North Korea is the last country of its kind in terms of being almost completely isolated from the outside world and most of its people live on the edge of poverty with only very basic amenities and in constant need of foreign aid to prop things up. With no access to external sources of information such as the internet they effectively live in a bubble where everything they see, hear and are told is controlled by Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship. Contrasted with out own information driven society it’s hard to imagine what it must be like for them.

North Korean Propaganda Poster
"Work and live with the mind and spirit of Pegasus!"

How long the north can remain in isolation remains to be seen but one thing both Korea’s share is their fervent sense of national pride and loyalty; case in point I recently joked with a South Korea friend about whether she thought it was odd that she lived in a Samsung house, drove a Hyundai car, has an LG mobile phone, shops at Lotte, and only ever flys Korean Air?! Answer: Yes, very, but not much choice considering what’s on offer. Here the conglomerates rule.

North Korean Propaganda Poster

Much of this nationalism can be traced to the intrusion by the Japanese in the late 19th century which led to forms of resistance and the construction of Korean identity in ways that pitted them against foreigners, tradition, and even themselves. Today this anti-foreigner sentiment has been extended to the US who still station thousands of troops in the south.

While reunification remains the ultimate goal of both sides (albeit not necessarily for the same reasons or end goal) this still seems a long way off and there is little public interest in South Korea for anything which might upset the status quo of their relative prosperity.

With thanks to @Veropresso for her input on this article and who would like it noted that she’s not in fact a nationalist!

Chinese Guerilla Advertising

Call Me

In China a lot of business is done below the radar in the informal sector but while these businesses may be faceless their advertising is not. Littering the pavements and walls of almost anywhere you go you’ll find gazillions of stickers and stencilled signs bearing mobile phone numbers with a short description of the services offered. Most are borderline if not downright illegal. The government employ people full time just to try and clean them off but its an impossible and endless task.

A quick perusal of some in my local vicinity with someone to help translate turned up the following services:

  • Locksmith
  • Fake certificates
  • Resident permit
  • Plumber
  • Fake ID card
  • Loans
  • Exam papers
  • Backstreet clinics
  • …and other unmentionable things

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Many of these activities seem to be a direct consequence of the incredible bureaucracy of the government who require people to follow horrendously complex processes with copious volumes of even more complex forms to do even the simplest things (whilst at each step earning a tidy profit to administer it all). Added to this a large and relatively poor migrant population and the conditions are fertile for this kind of activity. If my experiences with getting a residence / work permit were any indicator of the norm I’d almost be tempted to call them myself!

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China has a household registration system called “Hukou” which is required for a person to work legally in a given city. It’s basically used by the government to try and ensure structural stability of the population and keep tabs on people the Party classes as politically dubious. Transferring your Hukou to another city or province is a major headache and is generally considered unfair and responsible in part for creating the poor underclass which further explains why a black market has grown up around it.

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You’ll also notice people standing on the streets squawking “Fa piao, fa piao, fa piao!” to everyone who passes. This literally means “invoice” (of the fake variety) which they will be happy to sell you for a fraction of their real value (typically about 3% apparently). In China invoices are usually given as pre-paid tax receipts which businesses require to claim back on their expenses. By buying fake ones you can effectively claim back on money you never spent in the first place. Highly illegal but evidently commonplace.

The many layers in China’s society are quite facinating and no doubt the above is just the tip of the iceburg in terms of dodgy goings on. If I wake up one day in a bathtub full of ice and my kidneys missing then I’ll probably have scratched too far 😉

Shanghai Insect Market

Crickets in Jars

Whilst wandering around Shanghai Old Town last month I came across this curious market selling all manor of creepy crawlies and other things you’d probably not want to get too close to! In fact the market sells a variety of flowers, birds, fish and insect’s as well as all the paraphernalia needed for keeping them (although don’t expect animal rights to be very high up on anyone’s agenda here).

Baby Turtles

Baby turtles by the dozen. They go nicely sautéed with birds nest soup I hear… 😉

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Looking at these bird cages I was reminded of Chinese apartment blocks.

Live Insects for Sale

If you can put up with their incessant chirping apparently crickets make very good low-maintenance pets – all they need is a few fresh grubs each day! In ancient China they were the pet of choice for the rich and wealthy where cricket fighting was and still is today a popular pastime. In Beijing, the Association for Cricket Fighting organises cricket fighting events and championships (I kid you not). In some cases the crickets will go as far to bite each others legs off and cricket gabling can be an equally dangerous business where thousands of Yuan are often at stake.

You can find the market the market not far from Laoximen metro station (line 8).

Chinese Web 2.0 Clones

Many western web companies have struggled to gain traction into the Chinese market (or ignored it completely) as most Chinese internet users tend to stick to home-grown services which are better localised for their needs and faster as they can be hosted within the country. Added to this the complexity of complying with local laws (i.e. censorship) makes China an unattractive proposition for many foreign startups.

Having said this if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then China is certainly flattering a lot of people and you would be forgiven for thinking that a lot of local start-ups were simply Chinese versions of their western counterparts such is the extent of their similarity. Here I’ve taken a quick look at six of the most convincing Chinese web 2.0 clones:

Xiaonei (Facebook clone)

Xiaonei Profile

With over $430 million in venture funding behind it Xiaonei is a pretty serious contender which makes it even more incredible that they would create such a blatant rip-off of Facebook. Nearly every aspect of the interface mimics its US counterpart down to individual icons which look almost identical. With over 9 million users as of last year it’s growing rapidly and apparently is very popular with Chinese students which is exactly how Facebook began.

Other lookalikes: Kaixin001

YouKu (YouTube clone)

Youku Video

YouTube has probably spawned more clones than all of the rest around the world and in the China the biggest is rather unimaginatively named YouKu. It has all the same features you’d expect including lots of boring videos from Chinese Communist Party meetings and a noticeable lack of concern for copyright. It’s had $40 million of capital invested and in a bizarre twist seems to be running ads from Google (who own YouTube). The Chinese government are also keen to get a slice of the action and have announced they are building their own online-video platform.

Other lookalikes: 6.cn, 56.com, Tudou

Fanfou (Twitter clone)

Fanfou Messages

The accuracy with which Fanfou has copied Twitter is pretty staggering in both functionality and visual style. As well as all the expected features (like using @username to reply to another user and limiting posts to 140 characters etc.)  it even includes the latest integrated search functionality which hasn’t even been released on Twitter itself yet! Interestingly many users use comic faces instead of their own photos which suggests that people are more concerned about their privacy than most of the Twitter crowd.

Other lookalikes: TaoTao, Jiwai, Zuosa

YuPoo (Flickr clone)

Yupoo Photos

And the award for the clone with the most unfortunate name goes to YuPoo! This aside it’s a screen-for-screen replica of Flickr which up until recently even had the same colour scheme. Like it’s counterpart it also integrates with 3rd party companies to providing other services like printing and surprisingly for China allows you to assign Creative Commons license to your photos. The only noticeable addition are the internet police icons at the bottom of the page which warn users not upload dodgy pictures and make an occasional appearance to remind you that you’re being watched.

EveryDo (BaseCamp clone)

EveryDo Dashboard

One of the most well known online project management solutions is BaseCamp from 37signals who have often been held up as an example of excelent design (if a little quirky sometimes). In this light it’s interesting to see how EveryDo has managed to pull off a pretty convincing clone here even down to the company mission statement/philosophy! An insightful blog post titled “Why you shouldn’t copy us or anyone else” from BaseCamp’s founder possibly tells us what they think about it.

Baidu (Google clone)

Baidu Homepage

Baidu is the ultimate copy of Google search and one of the few places in the world where Google isn’t the leader in terms of market share (Baidu has 60%, Google only has 26%). While visually it looks very similar one of the areas Baidu differs in a big way from Google is it’s approach to copyright material which it will happily index and let users search for (see the MP3 music/video search link in the screenshot). It also uses a highly controversial result ranking system which caused outcry last year when it turned out that he company had manipulated and censored search results for commercial purposes. Google is heavily focused on China so whether Baidu can maintain its position in light of the controversy remains to be seen.

At the end of the day copying can only take you so far. Like cheating on a test, you may be able to reproduce the answers from someone else but, without the understanding which lies behind that answer, what you’ve product is a hollow reflection. Without understanding all the layers beneath the interface (i.e. the engine of the product) the copy can never function in exactly the same way. Take Digg as an example; many of its clones have failed because, while they could reproduce the look and feel, they could never recreate the complex algorithms behind it which drive the article rankings. China needs to be able to find its creative edge if it wants to compete globally.

The other side of the coin tells us that with one quarter of the worlds population they don’t necessarily need to care about other markets outside the homeland and that they will be quite happy to carry on copying as long as its profitable. It will be interesting to see how this space developes.

Shenzhen Land Reclamation

Today I was looking for my apartment on Google Maps (like you do) since hearing that they recently did a massive imagery update and noticed something curious about the the images for Shenzhen at different magnifications:

12x Zoom:

13x Zoom:

You’ll notice that the images have some striking differences, especially in the highlighted areas which show massive land reclamation (the creation of new land where there was once water) and the addition of a bridge linking Shenzhen Bay to Hong Kong. Clearly the higher magnification imagery is newer but what’s more interesting is the massive rate at which the land mass is being expanded.

This sort of environmental engineering has a huge impact on the social, economic, and physical environment with one of the most visible casualties being a  mangrove forest in Shenzhen Bay which is vanishing rapidly due to excessive land reclamation, pollution and property development since the 1980’s. Over 147 hectares have already been lost, around 50% of the total thus drastically decreasing the biodiversity are the area (report). A state funded project begun last year to try and save the remaining forest.

Ironically China already has plenty of land but not in the right places and cities like Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau are all building outwards while real estate remains hugely expensive (propped up by corruption). Even more ironically the sea level here is rising three to five centimeters annually meaning that much of the peninsula may be submerged in 60 to 100 years!

Yuyuan Gardens

Located in the centre of Shanghai’s “Old Town” is Yuyuan Gardens, one of the regions most famous classical gardens dating back to the 16th Century (Ming Dynasty). During my weekend in the city I had the opportunity to have an explore –

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Although only covering 5 acres the layout has been intricately designed to make it feel much bigger with “dragon walls” separating a total of 6 sections containing numerous ponds, doorways, bridges and rockeries lined with ornamental trees (one is claimed to be over 400 years old). If you’re looking for a stereotypical image of ancient China then this is the palce to come.

Unfortunately the experience is somewhat marred by the hordes of Japanese and Korean tour groups who pour through the site constantly with their guides loudly explaining the historical minutia. Not quite the tranquil retreat that the gardens original designer, Pan Yunduan, had imagined it to be yet if you can look beyond this intrusion it’s a remarkable place which has been lucky to survive China’s turbulent history.