The internet entrepôts of China: back to the 19th century?

For centuries, and especially since the mid-19th century, entrepôts have been important sites of communication—both information and goods—between China and the outside world. Now, many of the same cities are sites of the grand digital switches that connect China to the global internet.

I’ve noted before the interesting work of TeleGeography, a firm that produces maps and other information on telecommunications infrastructure. This year, their world undersea cables map has been released as a huge JPEG image, and it shows us something about China’s communications with the outside world.

Clipped from TeleGeography. Click for their map.

Shanghai, Hong Kong, Qingdao and Shantou. And soon, Fuzhou. These are the connection points for the People’s Republic of China, and they were all treaty ports, where foreign areas of control existed and international trade grew.

The analogy to the treaty ports has been suggested by several writers. One, Han-Teng Liao, noted Aihwa Ong’s notion of variegated sovereignty and proposes the idea of “special speech zones.” These “SSZs” are cites of informational interchange. The difference is that the SSZs are not geographically bounded; rather, they reside in online spaces where relatively free speech is possible.

As Ella Chou recently noted (in her very interesting contribution on cybersecurity), China only has a few ports between China and the outside internet—nine at last report in 2008, she writes. These choke points, one speculates, could allow for a government-directed shut-down of most international online communication.

This leverage points out a key difference with the entrepôts and treaty ports of the 19th century: Back then, the foreign influence was inscribed in physical space, with exclusive areas of control and entrenched foreign populations. Sure, expatriates are numerous in many Chinese cities today, but they do not live in autonomous zones. The potential for increased control in a crisis seems clear here.

That’s all from me. But look at that map.





4 responses to “The internet entrepôts of China: back to the 19th century?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Graham Webster, Graham Webster. Graham Webster said: The internet entrepôts of China: back to the 19th century? – For centuries, and especially since the mid-19th centur… […]

  2. Gen Kanai / 金井 玄 Avatar

    The reference work on the history of undersea cables is Neal Stephenson’s “Mother Earth, Mother Board” which was Wired’s longest (and best) article, afaik.

    The cable landing points are carefully chosen for a number of features, especially that they are not prone to being damaged by boat anchors.

    1. Graham Webster Avatar

      Thanks for the link. I’ll put it on my list, and may even set it in a nicer typeface for reading.

      Some of the discussions going on right now regarding the “freedom box” could benefit from a reminder about the persistence of meatspace in networking, though I’ve heard some folks propose the mesh networking possibilities.

      A link on “freedom box,” which was mentioned today in NYT.

  3. […] a year ago, I wrote about the limited “internet entrepôts of China,” those landing places where digital transmissions come ashore in fiber optic lines. […]

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