.China’s everywhere these days. The world is buying its products. It’s busy opening factories in African countries. Chinese Premier Wen bustled over to Athens and Brussels in October 2010 to tell the stricken Europeans that China will “support” Europe, the euro, and eurozone economies. And now the Chinese have launched an online satellite mapping service to rival Google Earth.
The rather unimaginatively-named Map World was proudly launched by the Chinese State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping in late October 2010, complete with iconic home page showing the impressive Great Wall of China. Rather natty clouds in the shape of the earth’s continents hover above the Wall in a bright blue sky. (China’s in the central position.)
You have to wonder if Google take it personally…. After China hacked Gmail accounts in 2009 and told Google to comply with state censorship laws, Google.cn was shifted away from servers in mainland China to a base in Hong Kong. It became clear that the Chinese wanted to promote their own internet search engine, Baidu, and push Google out. The regime banned Google’s video site YouTube and digital image service Picasa too. Google Docs is available only erratically to Chinese internet users.
And now Map World challenges Google Earth. It feels as though someone in those corridors of power in Beijing has taken Google’s criticism of Chinese censorship very personally!
Map World gives users high-altitude images of the world outside China. Selectively. The other side of the Chinese-North Korean border, for example, is blank once you look for any detail. Other countries are blank too. The Chinese regime takes a dim view of Taiwan and so Map World presents a corresondingly dim view of the island.
Mapping in China is a highly sensitive subject for the secrecy-obsessed regime. Its institutionalised control-freakery means censorship determines exactly what land and features can and can’t be viewed by professionals, academics and the public. Understandably that causes problems for individuals and businesses – geologists and mining companies for example.
Still, one can’t help feeling that the creaky old communist regime has got a leaping tiger by the tail as it grapples with the task of providing internet services to rival Google. Free access to information has become one of the pillars of the world economy and advanced societies. Few of us would credit Chinese leaders with a great sense of humour but fans of open access to information will watch with a wry smile as World Map presents the world according to the Chinese politburo. The harder China’s politicians try to control the tiger, the bigger the danger that it’ll turn and swipe them!
**Map World can be accessed via www.tianditu.cn – but don’t blame me if you end up with fortune cookies on your laptop.**