China Text-Messages Millions on Typhoon

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
The Associated Press
Thursday, July 27, 2006; 12:47 PM

SHANGHAI, China -- With Typhoon Kaemi roaring toward China's crowded southeast, Dr. Yang was sealing his apartment windows against the pounding rain when his cell phone buzzed to life.

"Typhoon forecast to make land this evening," said the message sent to millions of mobile phones in the coastal city of Jinjiang and surrounding Fujian province. "Please attend to preparations."

Once the domain of gossipy teenagers, text messages have become a key tool for Chinese authorities during this year's unusually powerful typhoon season.

Nearly one-third of China's 1.3 billion people has a cell phone, creating a rival to television and radio as a way to reach the public.

Authorities in Fujian have sent 18 million messages _ known as SMS, for short message service _ with storm information during five typhoons this year, according to the provincial government.

Although residents complained of poor execution, many praised the idea of using text messages to send storm warnings.

"Technology is improving, and I think the government sending messages to warn of natural disasters is pretty smart," said Dr. Yang, who works at Jinjiang's Chinese medicine hospital and would give only his surname.

China's population of cell phone users _ the world's biggest _ long ago surpassed the country's 365 million fixed-line phones, and is growing rapidly.

Cell phone use has spread from affluent urbanites to fishermen, blue-collar workers and farmers in the poor countryside. It isn't unusual to find villages with no fixed lines but dozens of cell phone customers.

Chinese cell phone carriers have built a nationwide network with such extensive coverage that phones work in places as far flung as the Tibetan plateau and the northwestern deserts.

The government has encouraged the spread of mobile phones because their infrastructure is cheaper than fixed-line phones, which require expensive networks of wires to link homes and businesses.

The government also has used text messages to reassure the public about bird flu outbreaks and to warn against supporting the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and taking part in unauthorized protests.

"Obey the law. Maintain order," said a message sent to millions of phones in Shanghai and Beijing last year in an effort to rein in violent anti-Japanese protests.

In part, the government was playing catch-up to political activists.

The anti-Japanese demonstrations were organized and coordinated with phone messages and e-mail. Authorities at one point resorted to cutting off cell phone service near the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai in an effort to stop an unusually violent protest.

The government also was shaken by the use of text messaging to spread rumors of outbreaks of SARS in 2003. The Shanghai government sent its own messages telling the public to ignore the rumors.

Although text messaging is exploding, with 25 billion messages sent each month, the storm warning system is still in its infancy.

Some Jinjiang residents said they knew Kaemi was coming before getting the messages and didn't do anything differently because of them.

Flooding and landslides caused by Kaemi killed at least 25 people in southern China, including six who died when a torrent of water washed away a military barracks.

Still, the messages did "remind people to be careful, and I think that's very good," said Lin Feilong, a member of the staff at the Jinjiang Youth and Children's Activity Center.

Fujian, with 14 million cell phone subscribers, decided text messages were the most effective way to keep people informed, said Wu Jiangbo, an official from General Office of Fujian Communication Administration.

The province has 39.9 mobile phones per hundred people, versus 30.2 fixed residential lines per hundred.

So as Kaemi approached, Wu's office organized China's top three mobile carriers, China Mobile, China Netcom and China Telecom, to send the warning message.

Wu said the government also sent weather updates and other information, though many people reached in Fujian on Thursday said they received at most one message.

In all, 8.48 million messages were sent out before the storm passed, Wu said.

Residents said they hope for more information next time.

"The content was not really useful," said 23-year-old Zhou Lin, an editor in the provincial capital of Fuzhou, who said he received a sole warning message.

"Still," he said, "it's better than nothing."

© 2006 The Associated Press