Category Archives: China

Peking University through the seasons


I have had the privilege of spending a total of around three months this year visiting China on different occasions, and in particular staying on the Peking University (Beida) campus.  It has been amazing seeing the changing colours of the landscape through the seasons, and early on during my visits I decided to try to take regular photographs from the same spot near the centre of the campus to  capture the different colours and senses of living there.  I hope that the photographs below capture something of the differences I experienced.  I definitely think I need to return in the midst of winter to see it in the snow.  My favourite time has to be when Beijing was covered in blossom for an all too short period in early April!

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Findings from research on mobile use amongst marginalised groups in China


I spent five weeks this summer undertaking research in Beijing and Gansu thanks to a UK-China Fellowship for Excellence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  The central purpose of my research was to explore the information and communication needs of poor and marginalised communities, especially people with disabilities (in Beijing) and farmers in rural areas (in Gansu Province).  I learnt so much – and probably more from the informal discussions than I did from the  focus groups and interviews that I conducted!  Many thanks are due to Professor Ding Wenguang and Chen Fei for all of their help and assistance in arranging meetings, and translating our dialogues.

The premises underlying my research were that:

  • all too often, new software and hardware are designed for the mass market, and then need to be ‘adapted’ to suit the ‘needs’ of poor and marginalised people
  • frequently, well-intentioned new technologies are developed in some of the richer parts of the world and then ‘applied’ in poorer countries; researchers are then surprised that there is little take up for their products
  • hence, we still need to get a much better understanding of the needs of these communities, and focus much more on designing technologies explicitly with their interests in mind
  • China has 18% of the world’s population, and so the market size of marginalised communities makes it worth developing products commercially for them

The resultant data are so rich that it is difficult to summarise them in detail.  However, the following seem particularly pertinent

Rural areas

  • The diversity of people and communities in rural areas of China is replicated in a diversity of needs.  ‘One size fits all’ solutions are not appropriate, yet the size of the market for particular groups is nevertheless very large given China’s overall population
  • Almost everyone already has at least one mobile ‘phone – mobiles are already widely used for information and communication, even for Internet access.  There are real implications for Africa – if electricity and connectivity can be provided
  • Economic information is particularly desired – especially on such things as agricultural input prices and market prices – particularly by men.  I was surprised at how dominant and significant this was.
  • There seem to be important gender differences in usage – women placed greater emphasis on social communication and health information; young male migrant workers in contrast seemed dominated by a desire to use mobile broadband to meet with girls.
  • Value for money is important – c. RMB 2-3 per month is all that most people are willing to pay for subscription services
  • Trust of source of information is also very important – there seems to be a lot of bogus messaging – and differing views as to what kind of organisation was most trustworthy.
  • There is real potential for village level training in effective use of mobiles – especially by women for women
  • For many users, the existing functionality of mobiles is more than they can cope with

Disabilities

  • There is huge potential for innovative hardware and software solutions – many interesting ideas were proposed
  • There is therefore a large opportunity for sharing good global practice with colleagues in China in the use of ICTs for people with disabilities in China
  • Information about location and direction is crucial for blind people – we need to think more innovatively about how to deliver on this
  • Screen size and configuration (not touch screen) are very important for blind people – Blackberry wins out over iPhones here!
  • There is an enormous opportunity for audio books (not only for blind people). Perhaps a civil society organisation could develop this, and even market audio books to generate income.
  • Security code challenges are important for blind people
  • Shopping information – much potential for RFID and 2D bar codes for blind people.
  • A powerful text scanner and reader in a mobile phone for blind people would be useful
  • Visualisation and touch/vibration of sound could also be developed further

There is a huge agenda ahead, and I am enthusiastic about ways in which we can encourage delivery on some of these exciting opportunities.  Thanks so much to BIS, Lanzhou University and Peking University for supporting this research, and to all those who contributed through their wisdom and hospitality

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Dongsi Jiutiao – hostel and red dining


One of the pleasures of Beijing is the opportunity to explore its numerous hutongs – narrow streets surrounded by low rise courtyard buildings, known as siheyuan.  As most guidebooks say, many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for new high-rise development, but some still retain their traditional character, and others have been redeveloped specifically with the tourist in mind.  Traditionally, hutongs were 9 metre wide streets, with some dating from as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341), and until the middle of the 20th century they provided the basic residential areas of most of Beijing.

Following a day exploring Ditan Park, the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, we wandered south to have dinner at the Red Capital Club on Dongsi Jiutiao, which had been recommended by friends.  Everyone says it is difficult to find, but that was not our experience. Head south from the Zhangzizhonglu subway station and take the first hutong (Dongsi Jiutiao) immediately to the east (left as you head south!).  The Red Capital Club is then about 400 metres along on the south side of the road.

Anyway, we arrived too early, and decided simply to wander on to see if there might be anywhere we could sit down for a cold Tsingtao beer.  A short distance on, to the north of the road, we came across an amazing find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel at 51 Dongsi Jiutiao (note this is at a different location from the hostel mentioned on their website!  Phone: +86 (10) 84021970).  Although we only sat in the bar, we looked into the rooms which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as dorms sleeping 6 people (RMB 90), they also had double rooms at only RMB 300 a night – amazing value for August (although the advertised rate was RMB 498).  The bar itself was in the centre of the courtyard, full of comfortable chairs, and served a good range of beverages – the beer was definitely cold and refreshing! Its WiFi service was particularly popular – and people from many different nationalities were logging on to their emails and Internet!  All in all, we reckoned that it would be a great place to stay for those on a limited budget.

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The Red Capital Club itself was also definitely an ‘interesting’ experience.  It is intended to reflect the life of the ruling elite in China in the 1950s.  As its website comments, “The immaculately restored compound captures the mood of the 1950s when China was driven by idealism. The lounge cigar divan is like stepping into Mao’s private meeting room. The furnishings were originally used by the central government in the 1950s. Two sofas next to lounge door were actually used by Marshal Lin Biao (Mao’s fated successor who lost out in an attempted coup). A poem of Mao’s adorns one wall and a photograph of Deng taken by his daughter and presented to the club another”.  The decor is now a little faded, and the food quite expensive, but it was definitely worth the visit.  They even had a bottle of Marsanne from the Caves de Tain in the Rhône Valley – which tasted remarkably good (although that could have been related to the fact that it was the first white wine I had tasted for almost a month!).

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Exploring Wuwei


Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of my assistant Chen Fei’s family, we were introduced over the last couple of days to the fascinating diversity of the area in the vicinity of Wuwei, in north-west central Gansu.  The city is situated along the Hexi corridor, leading westwards into central Asia, and has been subject to numerous cultural influences.  We had a kaleidoscope of experiences, including visiting the tomb where the famous bronze galloping horse treading on a flying swallow was found, wandering around the Confucius temple in Wuwei, walking in the desert at the edge of the city, learning all about how to serve and drink different types of Chinese tea, and then finishing up walking in the mountains near Tianzhu and being entertained by Tibetan dancers over lunch.  It was a brilliant time, and owed everything to the generosity of our hosts.

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Arrival in Lanzhou


We arrived in Lanzhou  from Beijing last night.  What a difference from my last visit almost exactly six years ago!  The Yellow River remains the same, but the number of high rise buildings and the amount of traffic are vastly increased.  Two dinners and a lunch later, the food has been wonderful – thanks so much to the generous hospitality of our hosts.  Today was relatively relaxed before we go out into the field on Monday – an opportunity to see some of the efforts of the local government to beautify the banks of the river: reconstructions of the old waterwheels, Longyuan park dedicated to dragon culture, statues of traditional folk stories, and a new wetland park full of beautiful flowers and walkways through the rushes.

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From cherry blossom to lotus flowers


When I was in Beijing in the Spring, the city was full of cherry blossom and magnolia flowers.  Now in hot, humid August there are not many flowers of any kind out, but the lotuses and water lilies on the lakes in Beihai Park and the Summer Palace add a splash of colour – especially above the weeds and debris in the not all-too-clean water…

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On returning to Beijing…


For my first couple of days back here in Beijing, I had difficulty connecting to my WordPress account, but have at last found a way to do so, and can catch up on my digital thoughts.  The contrasts with my visit in the spring:

  • the cacophony of sound from invisible animals/insects in the trees in the evenings – amazing walking around Weiming lake
  • it is so much hotter (temperature today around 30 C) and more humid (only currently around 62%; data thanks to Weather Underground)!
  • I’ve never seen so many people using umbrellas as parasols to protect themselves from the sun
  • almost half the people on the subway/underground/metro seem to be using their mobile ‘phones, albeit often for games (somewhat more than I reckoned in the spring)
  • bicycles and motorised tricycles as ever carrying a diversity of goods across the university campus
  • very, very few people seem to be wearing watches – how do they tell the time?
  • last time I had not noticed all of the trackways for blind people crossing the city, but all too often they are blocked or eroded and I have never seen a blind person using them…

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