Shadowy shopping at the Beijing PC mall

Buying a PC in China is like shopping at a farmers market, but certain shoppers might find themselves with an uninvited tour guide. Photos: A tech trek in Beijing

Tech Culture
BEIJING--Finally, after a week in China, I let my mind wander into a spy novel filled with chilling intrigue and discount notebook PCs.

Last week during the Intel Developer Forum, Intel arranged a visit on Friday to the Hailong PC Mall, a bustling six-story building in the heart of Beijing's technology district. PC malls are the primary outlet for PC shopping in China, and they are different than wandering around Best Buy or ordering online.

The mall is really made up of dozens of kiosks covering 20,000 square feet, most of which are rented from the mall's owner. MP3 players and desktops are hawked on the first floor, flash memory and associated gadgetry on the second, and notebook PCs on the third. Components such as motherboards and hard drives are available on the upper floors. All in all, this particular mall did business worth 3.3 billion yuan ($423 million) last year. PC malls themselves account for 60 percent of all PCs sold in China.

As I wandered around the third floor--drawing shouts of "Hallo!" and "Mister, Lenovo/Asus/Fujitsu!" from the eager salespeople--I examined the dozens of notebooks on display from well-known names like Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Lenovo, as well as from only-in-China outfits like Haier. Think of Haier as the Chinese equivalent of Whirlpool going into the PC business; it's a well-known vendor of washing machines and air conditioners that decided to get into the PC market and has eked out a small but comfortable market share.

The prices seemed pretty decent. Haier was selling a 14.1-inch wide-screen model with Intel's Core Duo T2050 processor, 512MB of memory and an 80GB hard drive for 5,999 yuan ($773). Acer had a beefier model with a 15.4-inch wide screen, a Core 2 Duo T7200 processor, 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive for 11,999 yuan ($1,547). A 13.3-inch MacBook was going for 12,988 yuan ($1,675). As you might expect, those prices are just where the bargaining starts.

But I also noticed something else as I circled the floor. A Chinese man wearing a dark blue suit with a red armband was trailing about 10 feet behind me, following every move I made and talking into a mobile radio every so often.

I repeated the maneuver to confirm I was being followed, as somewhere John Le Carre and Tom Clancy doubled over laughing at my ridiculous charade.

I had arrived with a group of Intel public relations representatives, European journalists, and the indefatigable Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates. The PC mall officials had tried to discourage us from taking photos of the kiosks, but that was the whole reason I was there. So I split from the group, which wanted to shop for flash memory cards, and decided to wander off on my own, just another tourist in Beijing looking for a deal on a PC.

After having traveled throughout Beijing for a week, I had almost forgotten I was in a communist country that tightly controls the media and does not look kindly on dissent. But this guy, whose red armband with gold lettering screamed "official," started making me a little nervous.

I strolled down one aisle, then abruptly turned around and headed the opposite direction. My tail studiously avoided making eye contact as he passed, barking something in Mandarin into his radio. I checked out a few more laptops, and when I lifted my head, there he was, about 15 feet away.

I repeated the maneuver to confirm I was being followed, as somewhere John Le Carre and Tom Clancy doubled over laughing at my ridiculous charade. We danced back and forth across the floor: I would temporarily give him the slip by the HP booth only to spot him lingering by Samsung's wares.

Finally, I relocated the group I had arrived with and pointed out the gentleman. Agnes Kwan of Intel appeared a little bemused as she identified the man as a member of the mall's security force, basically an overaggressive version of the guy who you usually see scarfing down chocolate-covered pretzels in the food court. He had apparently been assigned to follow me; he never said anything or tried to stop me from taking pictures, but he never strayed more than 15 feet away during the 20 minutes I wandered the mall. None of the other shoppers on the third floor appeared to have a tail.

I left without purchasing anything, but Kay and some of the European journalists scored 1GB Kingston SD memory cards for 80 yuan each--about 10 bucks. As we stood on the sidewalk awaiting the bus, two or three uniformed security guards came out, bearing the same red armbands as my suited pursuer, who trailed a few feet behind. We stared each other down as I walked away, with a mutual respect for the other's tradecraft and a debt owed to .

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