Echelon is the name of the clandestine operations program that the Chinese Communist Party uses to monitor all internet traffic within the Chinese mainland. For foreigners visiting China and getting onto its internet for the first time, the experience is strange and surreal, as if you’ve stepped into a parallel universe. As is well-known, the giant American players like Facebook and Google don’t exist in China– you’re not able to access those websites at all and will be blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall if you try. Instead, you access incredibly similar sites– literally, 99.99% perfectly identical down to the colors, icons, and typography. The only difference is that the site is in Chinese and is controlled by the Chinese government or a state-sponsored company.
My first assignment, on my first full day in Shanghai, is to visit one of the many nondescript, government buildings that houses the Echelon project. Shortly after setting up my new phone, I receive a ding! on the device, informing me that I am the proud new recipient of a roundtrip bus ticket, heading out to Jinshui, which I knew was a district on the outskirts of town. It’s about an hour’s ride out to the northwest and I’m told in the message to bring my overnight duffel– I would apparently not be returning to the hotel that evening.
The bus station is within walking distance of the Four Seasons and departure isn’t until two o’clock that afternoon which meant I still had a few hours of free time to burn. I decide to use the time to wander around downtown Shanghai for a bit on foot. May as well take in some local culture. I’d use the few free hours I had to visit a used electronics store to pawn off my old phone and also take in some of the sights.
I toss my laptop, toothbrush, and some clean clothing I need into my overnight duffel and head out of my hotel room. I make sure to not leave anything of any value behind. Part of me is certain that I’ll have visitors looking through whatever I leave in the room while I’m away. It may be paranoia but it comes with the profession. By this point, I’m used to it.
With the help of one of the helpful concierge receptionists, I’m able to make my way to 電子大道, which roughly translates into “Electronics Avenue.” It’s a bustling and crowded city road full of street vendors hocking their wares. In one of my ears I have a Google Ear Bud which helps translate in real-time all of the Chinese that is flying to and ‘fro. The translation isn’t perfect but is far better than nothing.
“For cheap! For cheap!” cries one of the short, balding shopkeepers. His ragged, white tank top is dirty and stained with sweat. “PlayStation 9 for sale! PlayStation 9! Sold here first! Get here now!”
“Get yours, today!” yells another shopkeeper across the way, an old rotund greying grandma who looks like she’s put away one too many steamed pork dumplings in her day. “On sale now! On sale now! Big screen for movies and videogames! 18k resolution! 18k resolution!”
I push my way through the crowd to a small shop sandwiched between a storefront selling laundry machines and another selling cellular SIM cards. This was the shop that the concierge hotel agent had recommended to me. Using my limited Chinese (and Google Translate on my phone) I’m able to pawn off my old Samsung for a decent price. While I’m there, I also buy another phone, a used but still serviceable cheap ZTE Chinese branded one. I drop it into my duffel for use later; one can never have too many phones.
I’m tempted to hang around Electronics Avenue for longer, admiring all of the cheap Chinese knockoffs and counterfeit goods on sale, but see on my watch that it’s nearly two o’clock so I begin heading towards the bus station, which is luckily just a few blocks away.
The Shanghai Central Bus Terminal is a gleaming citadel of modern technological wonder. Because of course it is. Flat screen LCDs line every square inch of wall surface and display the bus routes and real-time maps in bold colors and typography, in seven different languages, all simultaneously. There is not a single scrap of trash or litter anywhere. Every available surface practically glitters and shines. It’s another testament of what you can do when you have unlimited government funding and eminent domain to basically build whatever you wish and trample over indigenous lands and communities. Port Authority back in New York City looks like a war-ravaged, war-torn, third-world refugee camp by comparison.