In a land of over a billion people, paradox should be expected. That's why nobody should be surprised when the world's biggest country seems to say one thing and do another. In this case, China is expected to plump for a home-grown 3G standard, TD-SCDMA, while a Chinese university in conjunction with industry has just announced a chip built for the more widespread international WCDMA system.
This demonstrates the tension between national politics and global commercialisation. The choice of national infrastructure standards is frequently made for other than technical reasons. The temptation is always strong to impose a local standard that keeps outside interests away while giving local industry an in-built advantage; in China at the moment, where the power of the establishment is increasingly dependent on enriching the middle class through industrial growth, that temptation must be overwhelming.
But history shows that this form of protectionism is counterproductive. TV is a case in point: in post-war Europe, the individual countries adopted a wide range of different and incompatible broadcast standards; America and Japan stuck with one — and the manufacturers working in the bigger market won. With digital mobile phones, Europe had the unified standard and America the jigsaw: GSM — the larger market — was the winner.
GSM has also proven that the mobile technology market is naturally worldwide, even if 3G with its mess of standards has shown that industrial and political issues are still potent forces for disruption. Nobody can afford to pretend otherwise.
China has to make a decision. It could spend its industrial muscle in developing a system that will forever be at a disadvantage internationally, one that will weaken its voice in 4G discussions. Or it could go with the clear leader for worldwide 3G — WCDMA — treble its market and become an equal partner in global telecommunications in time for the next wave.
And that would help to end another paradox, that a country would expect all the advantages of a free market — and its communication technologies — without making the concomitant investment in the freedom of its citizens. For long-term success, China will have to learn to play by global rules, even when those rules say that you have to trust your own people.