Change and growth have been unstoppable in China since the 1980s. Over the past decade, China has caught up with the West and now looks set to become the world’s biggest economy. And, as in the West, technology has played a big part in Chinese success.
But China isn’t another America – far from it. As one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and one of few remaining communist states, the Chinese do things differently. And it shows in how they use technology.
Here we take a look at how two fast-growing technologies – RFID (radio-frequency identification) and VPNs (virtual private networks) – are taking off in China.
An RFID tag is a tiny device that stores data to identify the item it’s embedded in, such as a product or credit card. RFID readers can scan items embedded with tags from a few feet away.
China is leading the world in its adoption of RFID technology – and in surprising ways.
China is known as the world’s manufacturer of electronics and other kinds of goods. Low costs mean everything from the iPhone and PlayStation 4, to clothes and children’s toys, carry the mark ‘Made in China’.
Now RFID chips are making Chinese manufacturing even more efficient. In one clothing factory, RFID tags are attached to every piece of fabric passed along the production line. RFID readers at each sewing machine track how much time workers spend on each piece. It’s an accurate, automated way to measure performance and keep employees under surveillance.
RFID tags aren’t only used during production of goods in China. Counterfeit goods are a major problem in the world’s most populous country, but RFID tags are helping to solve it.
Luxury products such as Ferragamo shoes are now embedded with RFID tags, which consumers can scan before buying. Only genuine items will pass the RFID scan test – so if you don’t hear the correct ‘beep’, you know you’ve got a fake on your hands.
But the biggest RFID project in China, and the world? That would be the Chinese government’s program of surveillance.
All Chinese government ID cards have featured RFID chips since 2005, resulting in issue of over a billion devices. The tags are embedded in everything from uniforms to vehicles, in order to monitor how items are used and by whom.
China has also begun manufacturing its own RFID chips, rather than importing them from foreign companies, to “protect the safety of our citizens and to break up a situation where only foreign companies control the technology”.
Another technology that’s increasingly important in China is the virtual private network. A VPN is a software tool for connecting to the Internet, which can mask the user’s IP address and encrypt their data. With a VPN, you can bypass censorship of websites, videos and other content.
VPNs are on the rise in China, where the Internet is heavily censored. But who is using them may surprise you.
China is famous for its strong borders, and Internet connections in the country are no different. The Great Firewall of China is operated by the government and came into effect in 2003.
The Great Firewall blocks international sites that might report negative news about China, represent political activist groups, feature pornography, or anything else considered ‘subversive’. Popular sites that were blocked in mid-2016 included Google and its services, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Blogspot.
Yet not many Chinese people actually use a VPN. According to a 2010 study by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, less than 3% of people who live in countries with Internet censorship try to break through the firewall.
(Given China’s 2013 population of 1.357 billion, that’s still about 4.1 million VPN users.)
The number has probably grown since 2010, but Chinese VPN users are likely still in the minority. After all, the online services most people want to use – like Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter – are hosted in China and aren’t blocked. Many of the websites censored in China are in English, which many Chinese don’t speak.
But for those Chinese who want a broader view of the world, VPNs hold the key to online freedom.
It’s a different story for people just visiting China. If you’re taking a vacation or business trip in Beijing, you probably want to keep in touch with Twitter and Facebook. You might want to watch your Netflix shows too.
That’s why setting up a reliable and fast VPN is a top priority for many people visiting China. Without a VPN, there’s a good chance you’ll be locked out of some of your favorite sites.
Not every VPN works in China, however. The government keeps on strengthening the Great Firewall to block VPN services, with some worse-affected than others. A recent TechCrunch report found the paid VPN Astrill blocked, while premium service ExpressVPN continued working as normal.
Many free VPNs also lack the resources to keep a step ahead of Chinese censors.
The lesson to travelers is to choose your VPN wisely. Find a service with recent positive reviews from users in China, and don’t expect reliable Internet freedom for free.