Kindles In China: An Amazing Story

I met an old friend for a couple of beers at the Legal Test Kitchen in Boston’s Seaport on the edge of Southie last night, and we spent some time talking about the Kindle.

Jim received a Kindle DX with Global Wireless for Christmas and he was a bit skeptical at first, but he says he’s a believer now. Not only did it help get him through his recent knee rehab, but it came up big on the two-week trip that he took with his family to China recently. He read two entire books on the flight over and arrived in the land of 1.3 billion people far more knowledgeable about his destination than when he left Boston.

He brought some reading with him on the Kindle, of course, but he didn’t mind paying the extra wireless download fee of $1.99 each time to add other books along the way. And even though Amazon is not shipping Kindles to China at the current time, Jim found that the Whispernet worked like a charm in numerous locations across China.

You might expect that in Shanghai or Beijing, but here’s the piece that I found astonishing.

At some point during the trip Jim and his family were in the mountains in a rural area along the Tibetan border, and he was engaged in a conversation with his 20-something Chinese guide about reading and censorship. The guide was telling him about a book that he wanted to read, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, but the Chinese government had banned it, which is not a total shocker given Amazon’s review:

In Wild Swans Jung Chang recounts the evocative, unsettling, and insistently gripping story of how three generations of women in her family fared in the political maelstrom of China during the 20th century. Chang’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine. Her gently raised mother struggled with hardships in the early days of Mao’s revolution and rose, like her husband, to a prominent position in the Communist Party before being denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Chang herself marched, worked, and breathed for Mao until doubt crept in over the excesses of his policies and purges. Born just a few decades apart, their lives overlap with the end of the warlords’ regime and overthrow of the Japanese occupation, violent struggles between the Kuomintang and the Communists to carve up China, and, most poignant for the author, the vicious cycle of purges orchestrated by Chairman Mao that discredited and crushed millions of people, including her parents.

Most people in China can’t get that book any more than they can do a Google search for information about Tienanmen Square.  But Jim decided to put his Kindle DX to the test.

He typed the title of the book onto his Kindle keyboard, used the 5-way to select "search store" to the right of the search field, clicked on the "buy" button, and Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China was on his Kindle in, you guessed it, less than 60 seconds.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the potential power that the Kindle could have in China, or about forces may have conspired to make the Kindle unavailable in China. It’s available in Taiwan and Hong Kong and Viet Nam, and apparently it is not a problem for a U.S. citizen to carry a Kindle into China. At other times during our conversation Jim spoke vividly about how the economic changes fostered by the Chinese government have helped to lift 400 million people out of poverty during the past couple of decades, and it seems at least a bit ironic that some of this economic power now and in the future is or will be tied to the development and production of new technologies like the Kindle and the iPad. I learned this week from UPS worldwide tracking information that my iPad, like thousands of other iPads, is in fact on the way here from Shenzen, China, and of course there were stories this week about a "gray market" for Kindles in some Chinese cities.

So Kindles are traveling to China, Kindles are being sold in China, Kindles are connecting to the Whispernet in China, and Kindle Killers are being shipped here from China. It was clear to Jim that for the vast majority of Chinese people, the human rights issues for which Westerners point fingers at the Chinese government are far, far less important than the sweep of economic change and its effect on the quality of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

But the Kindles? They may have minds of their own.

This is a reprint from Stephen Windwalker’s Kindle Nation Daily blog.

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