120 years on ... the telephone rings out loudly

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2005, 12:00am

Anyone who lived in the mainland more than 20 years ago would remember how a private telephone line was considered a prized possession and a status symbol - even in the biggest cities.

System capacity was so limited that numbers had to be, like many other things at the time, rationed among neighbourhoods or company compounds.

Even those lucky enough to get a phone had to wait for months and pay 4,000 yuan - several times an average monthly salary - to have a line installed.

Most private lines were not direct numbers but extensions attached to company switchboards that would be hopelessly jammed during peaks on major holidays.

China is now easily the world's largest market for fixed-line or mobile phones. However, the journey has taken more than 120 years and early development was heavily affected by expansion of foreign business and political interests.

In 1881, just five years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a British company launched China's maiden public telephone service in Shanghai.

The next year, the city's first manual switchboard was set up, with fewer than 30 users.A move by the Qing dynasty to launch the indigenous telephone services in 1899 was disrupted by the invasion of eight European powers.

Instead, a Danish merchant is credited for establishing a telephone company in Tianjin in 1900 and in the same year installing the country's first long-distance cable between Tianjin and Beijing. Fewer than 100 telephone subscribers were signed up in Beijing then, mostly foreign embassies and securities forces.

So obvious was the colonial influence that when the country's first telephone directory was launched in Shanghai in 1910, two separate numbers were provided for use by foreigners and locals.

China's first automatic switchboard, manufactured by Ericsson, was installed in Shanghai in 1924, and by 1931, a 160km underground long-distance telephone cable, the country's first, was installed between Guangzhou and Hong Kong that could accommodate more than 30 lines.

Five years later, China's first international long-distance line was set up between Shanghai and Tokyo.

After the communists came into power in 1949, industry development adopted a bias towards the Soviet bloc, with connections set up between Beijing and Moscow by 1950.

At that time, the national switching system could only accommodate 310,000 lines. By the end of 1977, telephone density was only a miniscule 0.36 per cent of the population, and it was growing by less than 0.02 per cent each year.

Among developments in the 1980s that paved the way for future growth were the assembling of the first batch of routine controlling telephone exchangers in Shanghai in 1985 and the issuance of prepaid telephone cards in Shenzhen in the same year.

It was only after 1989 when more liberal industry policies, heavy infrastructure investments, network expansion and lowered fees spurred exponential sector growth.

Guangzhou launched the country's maiden mobile-phone network in 1987, with an initial group of 700 users.

Even the telephone reflects the socio-economic changes of China. Before 1949, telephone sets were often imported from the United States and Germany. Phone services were considered such a luxury that deluxe sets were custom-made for aristocrats, tycoons and prominent officials. These have become collectors' items.

Between 1949 and the 1970s, imports from Soviet bloc countries became the mainstream, supplemented by sets made in Shanghai and Tianjin.

With the rare exceptions, all telephone sets were black. Red units were exclusively used by the government and military. Domestic products took over the local market in the 1980s.