Spam from the Future – Netopia Goes to China

This writer was invited to speak at a couple of events in Hong Kong and Beijing this week, and of course, as any Westerner, I find the culture differences fascinating. Take Hong Kong, designer handbags from Hermès sell at HK$250 000 (around €25 000), which is much more than you’d pay in Paris. “How come?” I asked a local, and he told me Mainland Chinese visitors pay the mark-up rather than order one from Europe and having to wait for delivery. In fact, they often buy five or ten at a time. “But why not buy at home?” I had to ask, but he said they don’t trust the market, too many knock-offs, they want to be sure to get the real thing. It seems that authenticity is important to Chinese elite shoppers, contrary to what we’ve been told. (This was one person’s view, I did not get the chance to investigate further.)

On a graver note, I happened to visit Hong Kong just as the Occupy Central protests clashed with riot police on Sunday. I could not tell if it’s true that the protesters attacked, as the Chinese government media said, or something else happened, but it was interesting to read how the story was reported by the loyalists. The violence happened around 22.00 on Sunday night and already at 6.00 the next morning, China Daily’s front page story told in great detail who had instigated the attack, how the planning had been done and why it failed. Either China Daily has the world’s fastest-working reporters (this was the print version!) or there is something not right. From following the Western media, we get the impression that Occupy Central is a student movement, a grassroots uprising with spontaneous leaders such as the young Joshua Wong. In contrast, Chinese media puts the blame on more established leaders, reverend Chu Yiu-ming and academics Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Dr Chan Kin-man who supposedly planned the protests and then removed themselves after they had gained momentum. Both turned themselves in to police yesterday, oddly they gave a press conference admitting their guilt first. The general opinion among the Hong Kong entrepreneurs, designers and IT-people I fraternised with seemed to be sympathy for the aim of the protest but that the method had failed.

On television, the government allows American shows like David Letterman (who makes jokes about US policy-makers) and House of Cards – I must have heard Kevin Spacey say “Democracy is a mess” on trailers a dozen times on the TV in my hotel room. Popcorn culture is fine as long as it mocks the US system, it seems. At the same time, BBC News Asia also broadcasts television news and supposedly with no restriction.

Of course, not only traditional media is under government scrutiny. The Great Firewall of China is probably familiar to all, and though it stopped me from using Twitter it did not stop my interpreter from following me from his account. “We have our ways” he said wryly. Chinese spammers also have special ways, the concept of location-based text message advertising has been promoted more times than I can remember in conferences and papers, but I have seen few real-life applications until I came to Beijing. At night, I got several text messages with Chinese characters from unknown numbers. Thanks to Google Translate, I could interpret that they advertised massage and… let’s say: “related services”. So it seems there is a market for this type of ads after all. Even stranger, on the night of December 3rd, the messages were all dated December 4th. What used to be considered the spam of the future, turned out to be spam from the future.