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Lenovo's $266 Computer Targets China's Rural Computing Market
Mara Hvistendahl, 30 Sep 07
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The computer firm Lenovo recently unveiled a desktop computer targeted at Chinese farmers, the 1,999-yuan ($266) Tianfu, or "Heavenly Prosperity."

The Tianfu features 256 MB memory, a 500 MHz AMD processor, and a two gigabyte CF flash drive (similar to the Zonbu desktop reviewed here). According to Chinese reports, the Tianfu doesn't come with a mouse or a keyboard. Instead, the box comes with a handwriting recognition pad -- a boon to rural and older users with poor knowledge of pinyin, the Romanization system commonly used for typing, and no training in other character input methods.

Buyers can knock an additional 500 yuan ($66) off the price by cutting out the 15-inch monitor and plugging the drive into a television monitor. Such a setup may sound silly to Westerners, but in a country where knockoff computer parts can be purchased for a few dollars from bustling indoor markets, such omissions aren't so significant.

(For more photos and stats, see this review (in Chinese).)

Last week, The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford went to an agricultural fair to check it out. As he reports, the Tianfu runs on a Windows XP-supported "Road to Riches" platform -- a name that's an apt, if blunt, reminder of why rural users turn to computers. The platform is designed to provide peasants with "one-button access," Ford writes, "to websites that provide information on crop raising, animal disease control, market prices, distribution networks, and other topics of interest to farmers." Buyer Wang Shunxiang tells Ford he is confident the Tianfu will improve his mushroom trade business: "If this helps me know more about market prices and find more dealers to sell to ... it won't take me more than a few days to make back the money I am spending." Sounds harmless, right?

I'm not convinced. The Chinese government is promoting the Tianfu as part of its "new socialist countryside" strategy -- a component of Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" program, which aims to narrow the urban-rural development gap. Hu's program is a worthy undertaking -- but it's also inspired by a desire to quell rural unrest, which is responsible for a good portion of the 87,000 protests and other mass incidents that sweep China every year. Many of the Tianfu units -- an initial batch of 600,000, according to Ford -- will be distributed through government offices. One Chinese report says a local Guangdong government already trains residents on Tianfu units at a "countryside information training center." Lenovo is also opening 2,000 of its own training centers throughout the provinces.

It's worrisome to see governments with a habit of restricting free exchanges of information getting involved with computing initiatives at the hardware level. In the case of Lenovo, Beijing appears to have had a hand in developing -- or at least approving -- the Tianfu. It will be interesting to note whether the computer also provides one-button access to political sites and chatrooms.

Still, rural computing initiatives have great potential to level the economic playing field, and fortunately there are other initiatives at work in China as well as Lenovo's. Earlier this year, I visited a Shanghai telecenter. While it has government ties -- there is, after all, no operating outside of the system here -- the Shanghai initiative is primarily funded by international nonprofits, and its community activists use the Internet to educate people about their legal and environmental rights.

Image: Tianfu computer. Detail from photo by Peter Ford for The Christian Science Monitor.

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