China is driving Microsoft crazy. Not because Chinese citizens are rampantly pirating their software (that too), but because they won’t stop using Internet Explorer 6. The company launched a countdown site last year to help wean the world off IE6, and China is still hanging strong at 21.3% usage, by far the highest in the world. For comparison, the next biggest user is Japan, at 4.7%. The US is at < 1%.
It’s not a matter of nostalgia, and updating is easy enough (and, because of that whole pirating thing, cheap too). But the problem is that people actively need the now-11-year-old browser. Most government, bank and shopping websites only work with IE6, meaning you can Chrome or Firefox it all you want… until it’s time to send an online payment or do anything at all involving the government. While the country’s slick, high-tech companies gorge themselves on gleaming Apple products, HR and finance departments have to continuously uncheck that “IE8” box during new installations of pirate copies of XP.
IE 6.0 use during 2012. It’s on the decline, but it still beats other browsers. (Courtesy Baidu)
This isn’t the only creaky-sounding technology requirement of life in China. There’s fax machines (many companies and government bureaus will only accept inquiries via fax, which they never actually answer), the need to lug enormous wads of cash around (the largest denomination is 100 yuan, or about 14 dollars, no one has checkbooks, and hardly anyone uses or takes credit cards), and lots of annoying little pieces of tissue-thin paper (at hospitals and stores, where you have to travel around to multiple counters getting slips of white, pink, and yellow duplicate paper filled out and stamped by different people before they’ll let you get anywhere near that X-ray/eyeshadow).
But on the other hand, in China there’s live TV on buses and subways; you can pay for that bus or subway fare – and taxi fare and a pack of condoms and kimchi-flavored potato chips – on the same contactless charge card; the streets are crawling with e-bikes; everyone and their mother has solar water heaters; and every time I write another paper check, a Chinese peasant cackles into his smartphone. Or even into his dumbphone, through which he, unlike me, can send payments. (Because of mobile Internet use, Chinese netizens will overtake English-speaking Internet users sometime in 2015.) China has high-speed rail and 24-hour McDonald’s delivery dispatched through giganto call centers that can immediately pull up your address via your phone number; we have the godforsaken patch of hell that is Amtrak. If the US goes to cyberwar, its most likely adversary will be China.
And while China may have a long road ahead before it becomes home to serious innovation, I shouldn’t have to remind you that it is the birthplace of a number of game-changing inventions: the blast furnace, the fork, animal domestication, waterwheels, and gunpowder. Now, as robots enter the iPhone workforce, so-called “peasant inventors” proliferate, building robots made of scrap metal, or defending their land from corrupt officials and real estate developers with homemade rockets.
So the question, framed in Red Peril-invoking political rhetoric, is, who’s more high tech, China or the West?
Then again, what does high tech even mean? In Denmark, 36% of adults ride bikes to work. Because it’s Denmark, we take this to mean they’re light years ahead of us in terms of civic consciousness and environmentalism. Transplant that statistic to China, though, and we’d view it as a sign of the country’s lack of development. What’s more advanced – one of those stately manors in the English countryside with no heat or hot water, built to last hundreds of years, or a new apartment with tropical rainshower bath fixtures and kitchen appliances that talk to you, which will start looking dingy within a few decades?
Technology isn’t a marker of advancement; it’s a response to a particular set of needs at a particular point in time. China largely missed out on household landlines because it was less advanced at the time; now they’ve skipped straight to mobile and this makes them more advanced. There are gazillions of solar water heaters in China and this makes them more advanced; they are needed because millions of Chinese previously lacked hot water and many still lack indoor plumbing, which makes them less advanced. Mobile phone payment methods arose in countries where few people have computers and internet penetration is low, but now their ease of use makes our lingering reliance on checks and ATMs feel archaic.
Apple is finding it difficult to stop China’s prodigious manufacturing of “Apple” products.
Two years ago, a friend of mine accompanied an American congressional delegation to a wind farm outside Beijing. (And this might be a good moment to note that China has more wind power installed than anywhere in the world… though “installed” doesn’t always mean “operating”.) The trip was meant to impress the delegation, but might have accomplished the opposite. “They arrived thinking, oh my god, China is ahead on renewable energy,” she said. “That’s all they’d been hearing, is they’re ahead, they’re ahead. Then they get here and see goats on the road and realize, wait, China is way less developed than we thought.”
Beyond all this, is technological advancement even a good thing? We usually assume it’s inherently so, but Orwell would beg to differ. Speaking of which, China has the world’s biggest censorship apparatus, which grows more advanced by the second. The constraints have generated a good deal of ingenuity among China’s more politically-inclined netizens and bloggers, who’ve developed all sorts of clever memes and terms for circumventing the web nanny. Still, China’s Internet regime has evolved from the bluntness of the government’s Great Firewall, which blocks foreign websites like Facebook and YouTube, to more sophisticated methods involving private companies, who are legally impelled to censor but for business reasons don’t want to piss users off by being obtrusive about it. (One example is search filtering, which lets people post anything they like, but prevents posts with sensitive terms from showing up in others’ feeds and search results.)
And the consequences of technological showboating, of diving too quickly into the promise of high tech, became evident in July 2011 when a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou killed 40 people and injured 200. Societies with transparent governments that don’t take bribes; transparent companies that don’t engage in bribery and cut corners with shoddy materials and subcontracting; workers who weren’t plucked from the fields yesterday, handed a hammer, and told to go figure out how to build a state-of-the-art infrastructure showpiece. A system that can protect that worker and regulate that company and enforce that government’s laws – all those things, by necessity, take time to develop; more time than the breakneck speed at which China has been hurtling through its simultaneous industrial and technological revolution. Perhaps it takes precisely the average 72mph that our poky little Acela chugs along at.
None of this is to say that China is or isn’t ahead. I’m saying that it’s both. China is the slick, futuristic cosmopolis that causes every other journalist arriving on its shores for the first time to invoke Blade Runner; but it’s also a rural, impoverished developing country with goats on the road. Both those Chinas are, on their own, bigger than the US, and the existence of one is no reason to discount the other. But if you want to do any business with either of them, better be ready to dust off that old fax machine.