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.
This is evidenced in -numerous Euro-centric world maps that depict Europe at the center of the world. Readers might also be familiar with the world map created from an Antipodean perspective that seemingly turns the world upside down.
However, the launch of the Chinese Web mapping service has far reaching implications. It signifies that as the Chinese government is catching up technologically, it is prone to using this technology for its political ends.
First, it is easy to label certain places as parts of China on maps, but this does not solve the actual territorial conflicts between China and other contending regimes.
Second, state control over map production curtails the creativity and freedom that civic cartographers possess to depict the world. There is only one certified version of how Chinese citizens can see China and the world, namely the Chinese government’s version.
The “Taiwan Province,” which China has constantly included in its territory, also experienced a long period of governmental control over map production. Since China observers like to compare the development of these two “Chinas” on different sides of the Taiwan Strait, maybe it is worth taking a look at the Taiwanese experience in this regard.
In 1950, the Taiwanese government created a national regulation on the screening of map production. All maps had to be examined by the Taiwanese government before issuance. This policy resulted in a near standardization of maps and map-making techniques in Taiwan. For decades, students learned about their world through standardized maps provided in geography textbooks.
One notable example is that the Chinese map looked like a maple leaf because it included Mongolia as a part of its -territory. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has recognized Mongolia’s independent status and accordingly excluded the territory of Mongolia in its map. The PRC version of China resembles the shape of a rooster.
Since the lifting of political censorship in the 1990s, the Taiwan government gradually let go of control over map production. Civic production began to flourish and the consequence is that residents of Taiwan started to allow themselves to re-examine and understand their homeland and the world from more diverse perspectives.
Cartographers and readers with different ideologies and viewpoints can express their preferences for what a map of Taiwan or the world should look like. There are also debates over whether maps should present scientific geographic information to the public or whether maps could also be used to reflect ideologies.
It is obvious to many of us now that maps can serve both functions. There is no need to conceal this duality. However, an open attitude and honest discussion over the information revealed in maps allows us to think and grow.
Pluralism, rather than standardization, appears to be healthier in this case. However, we all know that the Chinese government is recalcitrant when it comes to the free flow of information. It is interesting to observe how this Web mapping services produced in China will develop over the next couple of years, not just in terms of the quality of its service, but also in how it shapes or reinforces Chinese citizens’ perception of “their” country and “their” relations with the world.
Yu-Wen Chen is a visiting research fellow at La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security in Australia.
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