The Beijing Olympic Games is to serve as a window to showcase the city’s high-tech achievements and its innovative strength.” This statement from the official website of the 2008 games (en.beijing2008.cn) is supported by dozens of action plans, statements of guiding principles and press releases highlighting technological accomplishments and setting goals to be met by next August.
The high-tech focus has been especially strong in the telecommunications and media sectors, which have long been subject to heavy-handed state control but are flourishing due in large part to a steady series of reforms.
But recently Beijing has been forced to deal with several setbacks in its Olympic master plan. In October, a series of announcements hinted at yet further delays for third-generation (3G) mobile networks. More recently, it has been reported that a government body is gathering detailed background information on the tens of thousands of international journalists expected at next year’s games.
The further delay in the roll-out of 3G licenses makes it all but impossible that there will be any operating networks of any significance by next August. As recently as last year, it was widely assumed within China’s telecoms sector that 3G networks would be up and running in time for the games.
What’s the hold-up?
The reason for the delay is that the TD-SCDMA standard, which China claims as a “homegrown” technology, is simply not ready. The government has spent huge sums of money on its development, but none of China’s increasingly independent-minded telecom operators has much interest in working out the kinks in the technology, while the standard’s competitors jump ahead with the more mature (and cheaper) WCDMA and CDMA2001x EV-DO global standards. Without a clear indication that TD-SCDMA will be competitive with the other 3G standards, the government has refrained from issuing any 3G licenses to any operators.
The irony of the TD-SCDMA story is that the government’s obsession with having a domestically developed 3G standard has hindered its own goals of a “high-tech Olympics” and a “people’s Olympics.”
China has over 500 million mobile phone users, most of whom use GSM-based networks designed and supplied primarily by European vendors. This foreign technology has made operators and equipment vendors wealthy and improved the standard of living for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. But because of the focus on TD-SCDMA, China’s mobile users have yet to enjoy the broadband speeds they can get through wireline connections, and whatever 3G network is proudly trumpeted next August will be a fraction of what could be in place right now.
In the media sector, the recent announcement of extensive profiles being created for 28,000 foreign journalists is significant more for the international reaction than for the news itself.
The government claims that the database, produced by the General Administration of Press and Publication, is in place “to target events according to journalists’ preferences” and to help identify people with ill intent posing as reporters during the games. Such explanations are at least plausible, and the existence of a database of visitors should come as no surprise given the existing registration requirements placed on foreigners.
While the real effects of the list won’t be seen until during and after the games, the current controversy highlights a deep distrust among many of exactly how China’s high-tech push will be used. For every article in the government-run newspaper China Daily touting the country’s latest advancement in communications technology, there is a further news of another website being blocked by the government or another Chinese journalist being detained based on information emailed outside the country.
Dave Carini is an analyst at Maverick China Research, a Beijing-based research and market-entry services firm