This summer while visiting China I rented a cell phone (through yoyoor.com, excellent service btw). Almost immediately I began to get text messages in Chinese, which I assumed were advertising and spam–based on my minimal vocab of Chinese characters. But one day, I was on a plane to Beijing with a Chinese-speaking friend. When we landed we both received text messages on our phones at the same moment. My friend looked at his message and turned to me, waving his phone, “Welcome to Beijing!” I showed him my phone, “what does it say?!” The same exact message. All of my American sensibilities about privacy and personal space shuddered. Not only do “they” know where we are, and that we just arrived in a new city, but they were letting us know about it.
A few weeks later in Beijing, a few days after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square “incident”, an American friend of mine who teaches at Tsinghua University told me that the day before the anniversary her students received text messages wishing them luck on their exams and telling them to “be good.” Clearly this message was targeted–only students received it–and was intended to influence public behavior through broadcast. Creepy.
Indeed, using text messaging to send out broadcast messages like this seems to be the norm in China. Just today I read about a text message the police in Urumqi sent out to the city’s citizens, warning them about recent attacks with syringe needles.
Really, this makes perfect sense. If you have a population that don’t all have TV, or radios, or access to the Internet, and a high penetration for cell phones, it is the perfect medium for broadcast. (Of course it helps that the government owns all the cell phone companies in the nation.) And yet to Westerners, getting direct text messages to our cell phones seems like an invasion. Our cell phones are so personal and intimate that getting messages from our government, uninvited, seems too personal. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if this begins to happen eventually in the West too. It will just take some time for us to get used to it.