Saddle up for the Year of the Horse

Photos: Tourists visiting Tiananmen Square, Beijing, January 16, 2014 (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan); Zhang Qin in Last Train Home, A film by Lixin Fan, A Zeitgeist Films release, image courtesy Zeitgeist Films,; Shandong Tourism video of sunrise appears on screens overlooking Tiananmen Square, Beijing, January 16, 2014 (© ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images).

Saddle up for the Year of the Horse:
Get lucky away from red dust

When January rolls around each year in China, the world’s largest human migration takes place. It’s called chunyun, and refers to the peak travel period in the weeks and days leading up to the annual Spring Festival period beginning with Chinese New Year celebrations. Baidu, China’s search engine giant, has been mapping traveler journeys across the nation with a real-time heat map. Launched on January 27, Baidu’s data visualization is culled from mobile phone user geolocation data and coordinates from users plotting their travel destinations with Baidu’s mobile map app. As a result, the Baidu Migration heat map offers an augmented perspective layer into the chunyun travel period throughout China and points beyond.

Time for planning Chinese New Year celebrations and sharing meals have also been considered by many families and may have their own respective hurdles and logistics, but getting home is the hard part. This year is no exception. Environmental conditions are affecting travel. Even some roads and highways have been closed due to pollution around Tianjin, according the South China Morning Post. And if the color of this year’s Year of the Horse is green, Beijing residents wouldn’t know it by looking outside. Under a sepia-colored layer of heavily polluted air, China’s capital city as well as many other cities around the nation practically disappear. Beijing, Tianjin and other major cities are recommending fireworks bans for New Year celebrations due to heavily polluted air quality levels.

Many media reports have documented how residents are coping with the pollution in Beijing and around China, but one particular image stands out. Earlier this month on January 16 an image published by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images captured a haunting panoramic LED screen with a searing red sunrise looming above Tiananmen Square on an ashen dark gray day. A contrasting band of crimson red against a gray urban scene not only achieved global virality around the web, but fetched controversy between Western media asserting that the video of a sunrise was for the benefit of Beijing residents who cannot see the sun and blue sky above the smog. Such claims were, as domestic critics and others quickly argued, baseless. (See Paul Bischoff’s editorial “No, Beijing residents are NOT watching fake sunrises on giant TVs because of pollution” in Tech in Asia on January 20, 2014). These critics defended a fact that the video is an ad that regularly loops on the screen throughout the day. Missing from the image is simply a nuanced context, and that the photographer had captured a dramatic photo on a day the city experienced gloomy air quality.

Meanwhile, residents in Beijing and throughout the nation have not been distracted by this particular teapot tempest controversy. More worrisome is the environmental and health impact of the air pollution during this year’s holiday period. Official air quality reporting sourced from the state, foreign embassies in Beijing and the real-time China Air Quality Index mobile app are of greater importance and express caution towards increased health risks and even travel advisories. And as January’s annual chunyun travel rush kicks up with anticipation, many look forward to Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations beginning on January 31 and continue for the two-week long Spring Festival. February 14 marks the date for the Spring Festival and culminates with the holiday’s Lantern Festival. By the time the dragon and tiger dances begin ushering in the Year of the Horse, many weary travelers will have reached the doors of loved ones and family members across the country. An estimated 3.62 billion passenger journeys during the 40-day chunyun travel period leading up to and following this year’s Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival will have been made, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency (“China Focus: Transport system to be fully stretched for ‘chunyun’”, January 14, 2014), which is expected to be 200 million more travels up from last year.

In 2006, more than 130 million workers nation-wide traveled as far as 1,000 kilometers or more for family visits and Spring Festival holidays. It’s a homecoming period, one that has been captured in Canadian Filmmaker Lixin Fan’s award-winning 2009 documentary Last Train Home. His film follows one family’s rail journey across the country from the city of Guangzhou towards their remote family village 3,000 kilometers away in Huilong to reunite with their relatives and children. Shot in the winter of 2006, Fan’s film exposes a sobering impression of the hectic chunyun period and an intimate focus on the Zhang family during this time. Last Train Home is also redolent of the thematic narratives of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s films, and offers a revealing a look at contemporary China on the cusp of change.

In an early scene from Last Train Home, both parents greet their mother looking after their teenage daughter Qin and her younger brother Yang. The father proudly hands Qin her Lunar New Year gift – a small mobile phone – which Yang takes from her smiling, transfixed on the tiny screen, and asks if it has any games it. Although the film was completed in 2009 it’s significant to note that Last Train Home was shot just one year before Apple’s Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone at Macworld 2007 in January of that year. In the years since, Apple’s production of their popular smartphone has transformed entire industries, disrupted others, and set the pace for the global mobile technology and smartphone market. Nowhere else but in China has the iPhone been a significant symbol and driver of mobile technologies, communications, commerce and culture as the country has been at the intersection of mobile industry’s production, consumption and trade. In retrospect, Last Train Home marks the passing of an era for China and the world. Nearly eight years later, the mobile economy remains strident as ever.

Significantly, 2014 is the year that the iPhone launches on the world’s largest wireless carrier after Apple’s CEO Tim Cook secured a deal with China’s telecom giant China Mobile at the end of December 2013. This is big news for Apple, despite the fact that many of its products and iPhones have been available on the Chinese Mainland since 2010 when Apple debuted its flagship Beijing store. China Telecom and China Unicorn have also been selling the iPhone 5S and 5C since September 2013. To commemorate the new iPhone deals and latest Apple products, Apple announced “Red Friday” specials on their iTunes store on January 14, 2014 in anticipation of Chinese New Year gifting. Apple’s “Red Friday” campaign on iTunes was offered not only in China, but also in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. In addition to Apple’s usual offerings of iPhones, iPads, headphones and accessories, shoppers can even buy a Parrot drone from iTunes. China’s emergent middle class coupled with a penchant for luxury and brand will ensure that some gift recipients will not only get lucky red envelopes this Lunar New Year, but a fresh selection from Apple’s product range. Also, earlier in January, Apple’s China Mobile iPhone launch debuted at its Beijing flagship and at China’s other Apple retail stores with much fanfare, and analysts expect that the iPhone will do well in 2014 as it heads up against domestic competitors like Huawei and Xiaomi.

As the mobile market is constantly changing globally as well as domestically in China, the mobile applications environment is witness to considerable upsets among China’s smartphone users. Over a year ago, Sina Weibo, which emerged as a social media giant in recent years as a popular microblogging platform, has shed its user base in the millions due to tightening government oversight and surveillance. Once praised as a promising Twitter-like democratic platform, it has evolved into a feed for food photography and numbing bot-driven jokes. Consequently, many users have abandoned Sina Weibo in favor of the increasingly popular mobile instant messaging apps like Weixin that are currently not under deep official scrutiny. Social and mobile apps like Weixin, Tencent Weibo, and the new Quora-like platform Zhizhu all stand to benefit from the Sina Weibo exodus.

Coinciding with these shifts and China’s move towards to exert leverage on the domestic mobile market. Earlier this month, the government’s announced the debut of the Android-bsed COS, the Chinese Operating System, produced as a state-funded project between the Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ISCAS) and Shanghai Liantong Network Communications Technology, Sina News reported earlier. COS can offer a secure mobile environment while supporting upwards of 100,000 mobile apps. In competition with devices running Android OS, Apple’s iOS and Windows Mobile, will China encourage competitive pricing for handsets with COS spurring a migration towards its own closed system?

That question as well as the larger context is an open one as the Year of the Horse unfolds. In the nearly eight years after Faixin Lin’s Last Train Home was filmed, the world of mobile technology and culture has greatly turned a few revolutions since. Now that Zhang Yang is nearly 20 years old, perhaps, he’s taking selfies and sharing them with family over this holiday season after purchasing his train ticket using Near Field Communication.

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