I recently returned from the International Paleolimnology Symposium in Lanzhou, China. It was an interesting conference, but more effort than going to an equivalent European or North American conference. Below are a couple of issues I had.
Live-tweeting conference presentations has become an important means of disseminating information beyond the delegates at a conference. Not so if the conference is in China: twitter is blocked.
The Chinese government has implemented a firewall, blocking sites it cannot censor. There is a list of high-ranking blocked sites on Wikipedia which changes over time: most social media are blocked (the government actively censures the Chinese clones of Facebook and Twitter), as are search engines that don’t comply with Chinese government demands. So, no Google (including gmail), no twitter, no facebook, but it’s not all bad news, you can use bing.com. Sorry, my mistake, it is all bad news – bing is awful.
Searches in English on Bing don’t appear to be censored. Searching for “Free Tibet” (without quotes) give the websites one would expect, including the blocked freetibet.org – not just special offers from Lhasa.
Fortunately, the Chinese firewall is easy to circumvent with a virtual private network (VPN) which lets you connect to the internet as if you were in a different country. The internet connection between your computer (or smartphone) and the VPN host is encrypted and the Chinese censors cannot tell which websites you are connecting through via this host. Most universities have a VPN (Google University of Wherever VPN). If you are on a University managed laptop, the VPN should already be set up, otherwise you might need to install a small program and configure the VPN. To get it to work, first connect to wifi and then from the same menu that you select the wifi network, there should be an button to connect to the VPN (I’m being slightly vague here as the procedure is probably different on different operating systems and your VPN provider should have full instructions).
There are also commercial VPN hosts which might be faster than your university’s system and might be useful even when you are not in China (for example, to watch British TV when you are not in the UK). Some VPNs get blocked by the Chinese government.
It’s not unusual to meet someone at an international conference whose English language skills are not great, but you can communicate with almost everybody. Not so at Chinese conferences. All Chinese delegates who gave talks were easily understandable, but talking to poster authors could be difficult. At one poster, I made slow progress explaining some issues to the author, several of her friends and her (?) supervisor, until a Chinese delegate who had done a PhD in the UK came to help. Most of the conference volunteers spoke little English. Part of the solution here is to learn who is fluent in English and ask them for help. Written English may be better understood than spoken.
Outside the conference centre, the situation is worse. I’m not good with languages, but I can travel around most of Europe without too much problem. Not so in China. In mid-range hotels, restaurants, and shops, you will be lucky to find someone who can understand English. Learning a little survival Mandarin is useful: hello – nihao; thank you – xiexie.
The enormous Chinese character set is daunting (think of it as a new set of diatoms to learn), but I found the 30 or so characters I recognised useful. I found the phone app Pleco very useful as an offline two-way dictionary. WayGo might be better, but won’t work on my old phone. If you need something, you can use the app to get the relevant character to show to someone. It is also quite fun trying to draw the characters and see if Pleco will recognise them. Most of Pleco is free.
I plan on uploading some photographs I took in China, mainly of Bactrian camels, gentians and newly built skyscrapers, if I ever get my computer and camera to communicate.