The Chinese government launched a free online mapping service, Tianditu (www.tianditu.com), literally World Map, in late October. The government has repeatedly claimed that this service is to offer comprehensive geographical data for Chinese users to learn more about the world. Nevertheless, there are a lot of critiques, suspicions and debates over the service, both in terms of its technological and political implications.
Technologically speaking, many users have questioned whether the Chinese mapping service is just a replica of Google Maps and Google Earth. Netizens based in China and elsewhere have posted images extracted from Tianditu and Google to make a comparison and found images from both sources to be identical, except that those from Tianditu are in Chinese.
There are also complaints about the quality of the service because the data is only updated about twice a year, while Google can update its information more frequently, as often as every few minutes if it wishes. Given that the service is new and is still in the testing stage, it is expected that more will be done to improve its quality in the coming years.
What is more intriguing for many China observers, however, is the actual motive behind China creating its own free online mapping service. The Chinese government has traditionally treated geographic data as confidential information vital to its national security. For instance, in January last year, three British geology students were caught in Xinjiang Province, where the Chinese authorities believed their surveying and mapmaking efforts posed a threat to Chinese national security, and thus were unlawful.
It is unusual for the Chinese government to unleash its geographic data and even make it freely available online. The move has signified the Chinese determination to compete and probably further close down Google mapping services in China.
Google’s mapping services are still accessible in China, but the company has not applied for a license to offer this service in China. Given the Chinese government’s continuous friction with Google over a handful of issues, notably censorship of certain online information and Web sites, it is likely that Google’s mapping service will be terminated or interrupted in China in the future.
In addition, as with the production of traditional paper maps, the Chinese regime has again shown an ambition to assert its political claims over a number of controversial geographic locations in its own version of the world map.
To no one’s surprise, Taiwan is labeled as a province of China on Tianditu. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are also included in the Chinese territory, although countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines also seek to exercise control over these islands. And Arunachal Pradesh is labeled as a part of Tibet belonging to China, while the Indian government believes it is part of India.
Contrary to many people’s belief that maps should present accurate geographic information for users to understand our world, cartographic production has repeatedly been used throughout history by regimes to construct or consolidate their citizens’ view of “their” country and “their” world. Mapmakers consciously or unconsciously create maps that reflect their ideologies and perceptions of certain geographic locations.