China's longstanding effort to solidify claims to various disputed areas has prompted a focus on an unexpected threat: Coca-Cola. The concern is probably overblown, though, given how much worse spying pays than selling soda.
Officials in the southern province of Yunnan accused employees of the soda company of using illegal geolocation devices as they made deliveries in the region. The Associated Press reports that Coke uses generally available location technology in its trucks, but employee use of hand-held devices appears to have triggered the February complaint. But, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, China's rules around use of GPS technology are confusing.
The rules for conducting research and collecting data for business in China often are unclear and have caused problems for foreign companies. A Chinese court in 2010 sentenced American geologist Xue Feng to eight years in prison for trying to buy data about China's oil industry, including the coordinates of wells. The data were believed to have been commercially available, Mr. Xue's defense team said. But the court convicted him on charges of attempting to obtain and traffic in state secrets, raising questions on the definition of secret information.
The AP reports that the authorities that monitor surveying identified 40 cases of illegal surveying between 2006 and 2011. Most apparently occurred in the northwestern part of the country, where China disputes ownership of various boundaries and regions with India, Pakistan, and Bhutan.
Such boundaries have increasingly become a point of pride in the country, which earlier this year unveiled a new map claiming several disputed regions as Chinese, and, last November, did something similar with the map on its passports. The AP notes that China recently updated its surveying laws to provide fines and jail times to those who create maps that don't reflect the government's territorial claims. Partly in an effort to maintain control over how geolocation services operate in the country — and partly for national security reasons — China created its own GPS satellite network, BeiDou, that went into operation late last year.
It's in Coke's economic interests to resolve the current dispute quickly. In 2010, the company controlled 17 percent of the country's soda market, targeting $100 billion in revenue by 2020. Last year, that percentage had dipped to 16.6 — but still represented more than three times that of rival Pepsi. Those numbers provide perhaps Coke's best defense should anyone worry that the company is conducting surveying-based espionage of any sort: Spying will never be as lucrative as selling sugar water.