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Section II: Living in China continued

Technology: Computers, Mobile Phones, Internet, and Communication Security

Since its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has made great strides in the production, import and distribution of many technological products that were once only available in the West. Mobile (cell) phones, DVD players, computer laptops and personal home entertainment systems, for example, are all now available in any city although, depending on the product, variety may be limited in less populated regions. Unfortunately, as technology has advanced inside the Middle Kingdom, so too have problems with Internet and communication security.

This chapter will provide an overview of the current status of computing, the Internet, personal electronics, and problems with communication security in China.

Computers and Personal Electronics

A great deal of criticism has been written in the Western press about the problems of software pirating and technology counterfeiting in China: However, it is difficult for us to personally find sympathy for, or assume the moral high ground in regard to, companies that are earning billions of dollars a year by selling their products for prices that all but ensure that legitimate copies will never see the light of day in Asia. Most Chinese simply do not have access to enough discretionary income to buy a licensed copy of Windows XP at USD $200, or legitimate DVDs at prices beginning at USD $14.95.

Lenovo 3000 N200 Notebook Computer
Lenovo 3000 N200 Notebook Computer. About 5,000 RMB if you know how to bargain.

Consequently, and strictly from a consumerism perspective, foreigners should be aware that authentic computer components are extremely difficult to come by in China, as the demand for such goods simply doesn’t exist. As a rule, if a computer component manufacturer exports primarily to North America and England, it is unwise to buy that product in China because the chances are you are buying either a clone or, far worse, a legitimate but defective product that could not pass IEEE specifications in the West. Nevertheless, these products are sold at full price and with all the impressive and proper seals of authenticity and inspection attached to them (and this practice is not just limited to China—a few Western-based Internet computer companies have been shut down for engaging in precisely the same practice). Most will break or overheat within a few months time, usually just after the 6-month or 1-year guarantee expires. For the most part, when you can, buy Chinese brand names only such as Lenovo or ask the dealer which is the best brand that he sells that will give you the least amount of trouble—usually if you ask that directly, they will steer you in the right direction. This principle applies to all personal electronics as well. After a period of time, you will begin to learn which brand names are the most reliable. Beware of prices that are too good to be true (such as a SONY Playstation 2 for under USD $40) as well as prices that seem too high—in China, paying a lot more for something doesn’t necessarily make it any more real.

China is one of the few places in the world where you will be presented with the opportunity to purchase a "real fake" or save a bundle by opting for a "fake fake," i.e., a reputable clone versus a far cheaper and even more unreliable one, respectively. For example, one foreigner's wife recently boasted about how she purchased a "fake fake" Nintendo (clone based on the original 1985 16Kbit Famicom/NES) for 55 yuan (about USD $8.00) because it was "good enough" for her six-year old child and she didn't want to spend at least 10 times that for a "real fake" SONY Playstation 2 until he was a couple of years older.

Most foreign teachers have reported a good deal of success and satisfaction with Lenovo laptops: A decent one, that can comfortably run Windows XP, should cost no more than 8,000 yuan (about USD $1,032). In the alternative, especially if you plan on staying in China for awhile, you should consider buying a good desktop system (P4 @ 2.6Mhz, 512MB RAM, 533MHz FSB and a 120GB HDD @ 7200RPM) with a 19" monitor, which should run you no more than 3,000 yuan! In the alternative, you can have a personal PC custom-built while you wait by simply picking out the case, motherboard, CPU, memory chips, and whatever PCI devices you want and they will build the computer for you at no extra charge.

Generally speaking, AMD products (Athlon and Duron) are hard to find and when you do, the selection is very limited. Related, one can now find Apple Computer stores gradually popping up in major cities across China but the prices for Macintosh products will be somewhat higher here than you would pay back home.

Computing Necessities in China

Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2012

You are going to need a very reliable antivirus software package in China. If you have a few dollars to spare, purchase a license to Kaspersky's Antivirus software. It is by far the best protection money can buy and it is virtually seamless unlike most other packages. If you are looking for a free antivirus package, the best of that lot is probably Grisoft's AVG free antivirus that offers basic protection and should keep you running without major incident.

Even if you have never before given any thought to backing up your valuable files, you should get into the habit once you move to China. The primary reason for this is that if your internal hard disk drive fails and you need to purchase one made or distributed in China, you will most likely be buying a fake product. I run my computer 24/7 and need to replace each new hard disk drive purchased in China every three to four months (typical lifetime expectancy should be between two to three years). The most painless way to back up your data is through an automated online storage system. The best (and cheapest) of the lot is Mozy Home Backup. The first 2GB of storage is free and, if you need more backup storage, you can purchase backup packages for up to 50GB or 250GB of storage at a cost of $5.99 or $9.99 per month, respectively. Both PC and Mac versions of the software are available.

Before moving to China, you might also want to consider installing Microsoft's East Asian fonts. Even if you plan to never browse a site with Chinese characters, you will be occasionally receiving e-mail from your school and Mandarin is a lot more pleasing to look at than gibberish. To install that font package, simply insert your Windows installation disk back into the DVD drive, navigate to Control Panel --> Regional and Language Options --> Language Tab, then select "Install Files for East Asian Languages."

Entertainment

Most foreign teachers buy a DVD player their first week or so in China for English language DVDs will become their major, if not only, form of entertainment. First-run Western movies can be purchased on single-layer DVDs (DVD-5) for around 6 to 8 yuan—although the quality varies considerably. Most of the time, if you have a bad copy, the dealer will allow you to exchange it without any hassle. Sometimes a movie will be reproduced on a dual-layer (DVD-9) disk and the price for that is usually a little higher (8 to 12 yuan). If you do buy a DVD player, make sure it supports the MPEG4 (MP4) format (also known as DIVX or .avi compatible). This will allow you to download and burn .avi movies (the most common video compression format on the Internet) without first needing to convert them to VOB (video object) files (DVD format). Most newer models do support MP4 and you can buy one on sale for under 200 yuan ($28.00 US) that will work for at least a year.

Although a few Chinese cable TV stations—the most notable of which is CCTV9—have a considerable amount of English language programming, not all cable providers offer them as part of the basic package. In some areas of China, especially in the east, southeast and southern regions, residents can receive signals from the Agila II satellite that broadcasts Dream TV from the Philippines, the most popular English language television option in China. Unfortunately, the Chinese government blocks the sale and import of satellite receivers (even though it is technically legal for foreign residents to watch satellite TV).

Those interested in Dream TV must deal directly with Chinese importers and satellite TV pirates who somehow manage to bypass import restrictions (or just steal the signals) and then resell the satellite receivers and digital access cards to foreigners at a very large markup. One such "value-added reseller," Don or Yi Wangdong, has set up a sophisticated system for pulling in various services from a variety of satellites and then redistributes the packages through his own authentication servers, which require Internet access instead of digital access cards. Don (Yi Wangdong) operates under numerous business names and has just as many websites to match. If you find a satellite service or dealer on the Internet other than Shanghai Dream TV, the chances are you are dealing with one of Don's (Yi Wangdong's) "doing-business-as" companies. Reception on these "shared-cam" redistribution packages is poor, the picture often freezes, and after-sales service is just about non-existent. For more information, see our blog articles China Satellite TV Service Center and Satellite TV Solutions for Expats in China.

Internet and Firewalls

Nothing to Offend China

Most schools offer some form of ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) or Broadband access to the Internet. More often than not, however, it is a low-speed (i.e., 512kb/s) subscription that is connected to a router and fed into several apartments—so access will be very slow because the line is being shared.

As of December 2009, a one-year subscription to 6Mb/512Kb ADSL runs about 2300 yuan (about USD $335.00), if prepaid, so it is relatively inexpensive compared to the rates we are accustomed to paying in the West.

Internet access in China is very much a hit-or-miss proposition depending not only on the size of one's city but, especially, the quality of the telephone wiring within one's building and apartment. China Telecom appears to have no mechanism in place for replacing old wiring, so if your building or apartment has wiring problems, you are just out of luck. If reliable Internet access is important to you, you will need to carefully question current Western colleagues about the quality of their Internet connectivity if you will be living in school or company-provided housing. When renting your own apartment, it would be best to consider apartments in newer buildings only.

In addition, due to excessive filtering, international bandwidth from China can be very limited and spotty, so that although access to China-based sites is usually acceptable, access to sites located in the West will be frustratingly slow or not even possible. Be prepared for the fact that very popular services, such as Yahoo and MSN Messenger, will be so overcrowded that they are often unusable due to "busy servers" (forget about using your webcam, which will produce little more than a static picture that is rarely updated).

Finally, many foreigners report having extreme difficulty accessing certain Western websites from within China (all one sees is a blank white page or a server error). Although China has never officially acknowledged such practice, it is considered common knowledge that the government does block interconnectivity to websites outside of China that it regards as particularly or unfairly critical—in what is referred to tongue-in-cheek as the Great Firewall of China. Currently, popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are censored from within China. One major problem with this international firewall is that most small and mid-sized companies exist on virtual servers, not dedicated servers: That is, as many as 500 domain names may be served by just one IP address. Firewalls must be configured using an IP address, not a domain name, so many "innocent" sites get blocked along with the one "guilty" targeted site.

It should be quickly added that as China has continued to gain international respect—and especially after the enormous success of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing—the government has become far more tolerant of world criticism and many websites that had been previously blocked, such as Wikipedia.com, are now entirely accessible. Nevertheless, if you have difficulty accessing a site that might be behind China's firewall, you have two basic options: the use of a proxy server (public or private) or the purchase of a virtual private network (VPN).

Proxy servers are useful for accessing sites behind a firewall when your Internet connection is otherwise good outside of China. An updated list of public proxy servers is maintained at Proxy.org. The problem with public proxy servers, however, is that they change as often as the weather does and there are often severe limitations on available bandwidth (that is, how much you can access and download from within each proxy server). For those who find themselves "stuck" on the Internet more often than they care to be, and who are otherwise happy with their Internet connection, you should consider purchasing a proxy server VIP membership which will give you much faster access and considerably more bandwidth.

After having tried several different solutions, we can highly recommend Astrill.com as the most reliable, fastest, and most affordable choice for Western expats in China (it's what Ken and I use). What we love about the service is that it supports both proxy server use (that affects your browser application only) or a true virtual private network (VPN) with POP mail access. Readers who access Astrill.com through Middle Kingdom Life will receive a 5% discount on a six-month subscription and a 10% discount on an annual subscription (discount will be automatically applied).

For other reader recommended proxy and secure e-mail servers, please check out the reader comments on our forum.

Mobile Phones and IP Cards

Inside of a GSM phone Inside a typical GSM phone. SIM card is on bottom-right.

Mobile communication is big business in China. By the end of the fourth quarter in 2006, China Mobile—a state owned enterprise and the largest provider—had over 247 million subscribers with an anticipated increase of two million subscribers per month. China's current total number of mobile phone subscribers is estimated to be in the region of 450 million (when you include the other provider, China Unicom), but is expected to increase to 600 million by 2009. Over 100 million mobile phones were sold in 2006 alone (Mobilecomms-technology, 2007).

China uses the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) mobile phone standard and supports 900MHz and 1800MHz frequency bands. The GSM standard uses SIM (subscriber identity module) cards for establishing service. Generally speaking, if your mobile phone provider at home uses the GSM standard and your phone is either tri- or quad-band (i.e., supports either the 900MHz or 1800MHz frequency bands), it should work in China. Those moving from North America who subscribe to Cingular (now AT&T) or T-Mobile and have tri-band cell phones should have no trouble using their phones in China (any phone store will be able to unlock the phone for you). A new SIM card will cost you 150 yuan at China Mobile and you'll need your passport to subscribe. They offer a large variety of plans to suit individual needs (based on both outgoing and incoming usage minutes and area coverage), including Internet access through GPRS (general packet radio service), which supports Internet Protocols, e-mail applications and color Internet browsing, and reception tends to be excellent.

If you need to buy a new phone, China now has a fairly wide selection of mobile phones ranging from relatively inexpensive Chinese brands (well under USD $60) to top-of-the-line imports from Motorola and Nokia (including the supercharged GPS [global positioning system] compatible N95) that are Internet-ready and offer many PDA (personal digital assistant) features with a stylus for entering data and sending SMS (short message system) messages.

China 17910 IP Card

As a rule, mobile phone imports from America, Korea and Japan are comparable in price to what you would pay back home. Nokia Smartphones (mobile phones with PDA capabilities), with the Symbian OS (operating system), have the lion's share of the mobile phone market in China, followed closely by the Linux OS (that supports all Java-based applications), used predominantly by Motorola in China. The Windows Mobile OS constitutes only 5% of the market and the Palm OS (used, for example, by the Palm Pilot and Treo) is pretty much non-existent in China. If you have a Smartphone that is generally not sold in China, you will still be able to readily find mobile repair shops to competently service it.

A very inexpensive solution for making international calls from China is to pick up a few IP (Internet Protocol) cards (pictured on the left). These cards allow you to place oversea calls, over the Internet (using voice over IP technology) for as little as USD .08 to .11 per minute (generally speaking, as price varies somewhat by location, you can buy three cards, with a total face value of 300 yuan, for 100 yuan. One card, with a face value of 100 yuan, will provide you with about 38 minutes of call time to North America). Once the account number has been entered, it can be registered to the home telephone number so that all one needs to do is enter the 5-digit code of the IP card before dialing overseas, e.g., 17910...country code, area code + number. Another cheap solution, favored by many foreign teachers, is to use free computer-to-computer voice over IP solutions such as Skype.

Telemarketing Scam

In regard to telephony in China, if you are a relatively new foreign teacher, you should be aware of a very common scam that many telemarketers capitalize on. A computer will dial your number and disconnect the call after one ring: just long enough for the call to register on your phone but not quite long enough to allow you enough time to answer it. If this happens to you, do not call back the number. If you do, your account will be debited for an inordinate sum of money for the privilege of listening to some promotion in Chinese. As a rule, if you cannot recognize the telephone number that has called you, it is generally a good idea not to return the call unless you know for a fact that the phone rang more than once.

Communication Security

Another issue worth mentioning pertains to Internet security, especially in regard to e-mail, and this is not specific to just living in China. Sending and receiving unencrypted e-mail is like mailing a post card through the postal service: anyone can read it. Especially in regard to those who are using school and university routers and, possibly, local e-mail servers, it is a very simple matter for the site administrator to flag and read mail sent from and to specific users. For this reason, you should never send unencrypted e-mail that contains private and personal information, such as credit card numbers—and this is true worldwide.

If you require absolute privacy, you need to obtain a digital certificate from a trusted certification authority. Digital certificates are an integral part of what is referred to as the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) system. Both the sender and recipient have two sets of keys: a private key and a public key. You encrypt an e-mail by using the recipient's public key (available for download at Internet repositories or when you receive a digitally "signed" e-mail) and then the recipient decrypts the e-mail by using his private key. The recipient then replies to you with encryption using your public key and you, in turn, decrypt the e-mail by using your private key. Private keys contain a digital fingerprint and can only be imported into an e-mail client on the same computer that was used to apply for the digital certificate. Up until 2010, at least one company offered free digital certificates for personal use but that program was discontinued. Microsoft maintains a list of vendors that offer digital certificates that integrate seamlessly with Outlook and Outlook Express. Depending on features and trusted authority, the annual subscription rates vary from $17.95 to $19.95. The authors of this site use and recommend purchasing a digital certificate from Verisign (now managed by Symantec).

Aside from Internet and e-mail security, several foreign teachers have reported that their phone lines have been tapped and at least one insisted that his apartment had been bugged, i.e., listening surveillance devices had been planted in his apartment. If you hear a brief and rapidly repetitious "clicking sound" at the very beginning of your phone call, this is a likely indication that your phone line has been tapped. Foreign teachers who are new arrivals in (especially) second and third tier cities should expect to have their phone lines tapped. Also keep in mind that, in addition to land line conversations, mobile phone conversations can easily be monitored with commonly available software tools. Finally, your mobile phone can be used to pinpoint your precise location assuming it is turned on.

Obviously, you should exercise discretion in what you say over the phone, especially during international calls and, particularly, if you are relatively new in the area. Although this invasion of privacy is terribly disturbing to most Westerners as a matter of principle, the reality is, if one is not engaged in illegal activities there is absolutely no cause for legitimate concern. The surveillance is generally terminated as soon as the teacher's good intentions have been ascertained, typically within the first year.

Voltage, Plugs and Video Format

Electronic Plugs for China

Mainland China uses a 220V electrical current system with plug categories D & J (three oblique prongs grounded and two flat prongs, respectively: see photo right) and PAL (Phase Alternating Line) TV video formatting (common throughout Europe).

If you have an appliance from home that runs on 110V and you want to bring it with you, it is not difficult to find relatively inexpensive power adapters in China, especially for low-wattage appliances such as an electric razor.




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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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