Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Quake!

It is funny how just after I wrote a blog about the freedom and the speed of the internet in Hong Kong, the entire Internet infrastructure in Hong Kong fell apart.

On Dec. 26th at 826pm an earthquake struck southern Taiwan and severed all of the four large fiber optic cables that carry information (internet/phone) between Taiwan and Hong Kong. I was aware that these cables have been laid throughout the world under the oceans, but I had no idea that these cables could snap so easily.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I had no idea that the global internet was so vulnerable to nature.

I went a full two days without checking my email - something that hasn't happened since I was 13 years old. It was an odd sensation to say the least.

I have heard that mainland China has had some difficulty as well - but HK was hit the worst.

On a side note, and a more important note, apparently there was a lot of damage in southern Taiwan but loss of life was minimal. Exact numbers are not known. The big story in the reporting has been the reduced internet access. Second side note, the Taiwan earthquake occurred exactly 2 years after the quake that struck off the coast of Indonesia unleashing a tsunami that killed 1/4 of a million people and left over 2 million people homeless.

Glad to be blogging again.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Oh, The Freedom

I love living in China. No matter how bitter I get about the difficulties of working there, never forget that I love working there.

As much as I love it there, I need to get out from time to time and my favorite destination is Hong Kong. Good old HK will always have a special place in my heart. It was my first stop in Asia, it was my home for about 18 months, I made some incredible friends and spent a few too many nights drinking vodka red bulls in Lan Kwai Fung.

My friends in Hong Kong are family, and while the rest of my family is virtually inaccessible for the holidays due to extreme distance, a few beers and some good chat is always much needed after an intense few months of work.

Well today I just got down to HK and rucked up to my usually place where I crash. Even before un-packing I file up the wireless internet access and breath a deep sigh of relief, oh what a feeling.

It takes a trip to Hong Kong to remind myself just how slow and bogged down the internet in China really is. FTP'ing images is a nightmare, sites are blocked, blogs are censored, streaming video crawls and YouTube looks like a "still picture" portal.

A friend of mine from the US was in Shanghai with me earlier this year and he is a computer engineer, he was quick to open up my computer, boot the MSDOS and find out exactly how slow the internet in China really his. To his, and my, surprise it was clicking along at about 15% the speed that most residential broadband users get in the US.

Now, before we jump to conclusions - it's not all just censorship. It's true that emails and FTP's that go from China to Europe and North America have to pass through a censor that screens for key words (Thank you Cisco), most of the problems with speed actually occur at a more local level.

The problem lies with China Telecom, the state run monopoly fixed line provider. The big telecom company sells off a certain fixed number of broadband connections to local distributors who in turn sell this service to the end customer (me). But the local branches splice and often run as many as ten connections on one of the fixed lines on the main server. The final product is painful.

Just in the last year or two China Telecom has begun pumping broadband cables directly in to residential and commercial buildings and things have been getting better - but it's just not fast enough.

So I sit in HK surfing away. I filed about 400 images with my agency and uploaded a ton of stuff to my own site, why, because I can do it one hour in HK - a task that would take as much as three hours in Shanghai, maybe more.

Human Rights Watch, BBC, US State Department, my own blog - here i come. Let the information flow freely.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Followed: Zhejiang PSB

note: PSB = Public Security Bureau.

And, begin:

It is not often that I am followed in China.

I know that statement may not seem true to many of my readers who live in Western Europe or North America, but its my reality. For the most part, China is opening up, and I travel extensively, photographing various issues and generally enjoying freedom to point my lens at almost anything I choose. Who would have thought that I would get in to trouble in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Zhejiang Province is China's most progressive. Zhejiang Province was the first of its kind to allow private ownership and allow private industry. It's population is well educated and the province is home to China's most beautiful city, Hangzhou. For those who aren't familiar with Hangzhou, it is home to China's famous West Lake. It was Marco Polo's favourite stop, and for entirely different reasons it is my favorite city in eastern China. And above all else, it's home to Internet wonderboy Jack Ma, CEO of

So, tonight I arrive by car from Shanghai. The weather was bad and all I wanted to do was get in to the hotel, rest and relax; the next few days are going to be busy. I drift out of the hotel with my writing partner and pop accross the street for a Starbucks for a bit of food and a juice, and while I am sitting on the second floor engaging in a good chat, two men in bad wind breakers come in and sit at the table accross from me. They both have leather man bags, or European carry-alls, they both look at me no less than 3 times on the way past and when they sat down they just sat there and starred over at me. They hadn't ordered any food or drink.

So essentially China's very secret, secret police were sitting opposite us in Starbucks and they were acting like two undercover cops in a bad cops and robbers movie; straight out of a pirated DVD of Starsky & Hutch.

With these two police officers watching our every move, we get up to leave the Starbucks and sure enough they follow, less than 20 seconds behind us as we leave the door and exit out to street level. We make one more stop in a small noodle shop and then head back to the hotel. I head up to the room and it isn't 10 minutes before I am called down by the police. That showed a bit of class, usually they prefer to intimidate in the privacy of our rooms, not the lobby of a 5-star hotel. They wanted to check the passport, view the visa and see how my stay was in Hangzhou. I told them it was fine up until about 30 minutes ago.

When asked why 4 police officers had to come and ask for my passport, the reply was simply - "they work with me". Shocking. When I asked them why I they had to see my passport they replied, because we want to make sure your visa is valid. Shocking. After explaining that I had entered China legally and registared at the hotel with a valid visa, the police officer still insisted that I follow the law of Zhejiang Province in the Peoples Republic of China. Shocking.

I hand over my passport and he views it. And gives it back. I ask if we are finished. He says yes. I shake his hand sincerely and walk back up to my room and write this blog. Fresh from the scene. Less than 30minutes has past.

Disturbing as this first interaction was, for the 3 days that followed we were followed (day and night) so closely that it was uncomfortable and almost claustrophobic. When I stepped in to an elevator our minder stepped in with us. When we sat to have lunch they ate at the table beside us. When we hired a taxi for a tour around town, the black honda was just inches from our rear bumper. Imagine 3 days like that. Exhausting. The Chinese government just used their man power to wear us down, hour by hour, day by day. There was no being secretive, there was no hiding behind trees - they were in our face during the entire trip.

I have written a lot in pervious blogs how China is progressing. So when I visit Hangzhou to do a story about and Jack Ma, the last thing I am expecting is a "1985-like minder". I am trying to be positive about the direction that China is moving in. I even went to Hangzhou to do a really positive story about and there 5000 employees, and how this company is quickly become one of the most successful internet companies in the world. I wanted to write a blog today about Jack, but I was too frustrated about being followed at an obnoxious distance. The policed state of China shows its ugly face yet again.

The most hilarious part of this whole story is that just last week the Beijing authorities came out and told the world that they are going to ease restrictions on foreign journalists between now and the Olympics, in an effort to ease difficulties and allow freer movement. Apparently that memo never made it to Zhejiang Province.

I am curious to know what will happen before, and during, the Olympics in 2008 when 10,000 registared Foreign Journalists decend on China to report. Will this new policy of freedom hold up, or will there be shocking results. I wonder how many times I'll be followed and harassed between now and August 8th, 2008 at 8pm when the opening ceremonies kick off.

As is too often the case in China:
Beijing: One step forwards.
Provinces: Two steps back.

Welcome to China, open for business.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle