REPORTING FROM BEIJING — The Chinese-controlled internet is already a world apart from that used by the rest of the globe, split by censorship that blocks users in China from accessing many of the apps and websites used daily in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Staff writer Alice Su in The Times’ Beijing bureau and Los Angeles-based columnist Frank Shyong, who previously covered the San Gabriel Valley and the Chinese community in Southern California, discuss what it’s like to live and work between the two worlds.
Q: What is the internet like in China? What does bifurcation look like?
Alice Su: You can’t access most things from China. You need to use a virtual private network, or VPN, to open Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter; the same goes for apps. Recently we bought a Chinese phone to use as a burner; it can’t download Western apps.
It was a big deal this month when Google announced it wouldn’t provide the Google Play store to Huawei phones, but in China, most phones already can’t access the store. You can’t download Gmail, Google Maps or any of those apps.
If I want to access a Chinese site such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I have to turn off the VPN because if I’m on Western internet, I can’t open the Chinese site.
I don’t know if you can open the Ministry of Foreign Affairs site in L.A., but here in Beijing, I’m always turning the VPN on and off to see the Chinese version of things and then go into the version the Western world sees.
In China, everybody uses the social media app WeChat. You need to have WeChat or Alipay set up to order food or call a Didi, the Chinese version of Uber. But these apps only work with Chinese bank accounts. You can also use WeChat to pay your utility bills, book a hotel, give to charity, reserve a flight or buy a movie ticket.
There are strict regulations now on ID verification that weren’t there a few years ago. Many apps ask you to take a selfie holding a passport next to your face and also send a picture of the passport to the app.
Frank Shyong: It’s like you’re immigrating on their internet too, like you’re passing through customs to go on their internet.
AS: You can think of it as the apps needing to make sure everyone’s using real IDs, because there are so many scams in China. But another way to think about it is that everything you do is saved on your device, linked to your face, location, bank account and ID. It’s one more trove of information for government surveillance, in addition to the cameras and facial recognition technology already set up all around.
Q: What about members of the Chinese community in the U.S.? Are they using a Chinese version of the internet?
When I’m using internet in the U.S. to cover the Chinese community, I’m on the U.S. internet, just in the Chinese language part of it. This is sort of a bifurcation that’s self-created.
Entrepreneurs in the San Gabriel Valley developed ETAcar, which is Chinese-language Uber, or 2redbeans, a dating service. Instead of Yelp there’s Chihuo, a foodie site. There are also websites like ChineseInLA.com and newspaper sites. There’s a message board service, MITBBS, and it’s popular with alumni organizations of major Chinese and Taiwanese universities.
AS: Why do people use WeChat in the U.S. to talk to each other when they have iMessage and Facebook?
FS: It’s what they use to talk to all their Chinese friends. So if you’re on iMessage, only your Chinese friends and family in the U.S. are on that. You can’t message everyone at the same time.
Q: Does information flow or manipulation thereof affect the way people understand the news?
AS: In China, the majority of news is state media, state news. Everything is kind of the same. You see the same headlines in 10 different papers.
There’s this joke that if you read or watch the news, it’s always 20 minutes of good news about China and 10 minutes of bad news about the rest of the world. People make fun of it, but it does affect their worldview.
I hear Chinese people say all the time, “It’s really safe here.” If you’re going to the U.S., they’ll warn, “Be careful, it’s dangerous.”
What distinguishes WeChat and Alipay from things like ChineseInLA.com is that the Chinese government has access to the apps from China.
In China, they’re obviously censored and everyone knows. It’s a common experience to post something and in 10 minutes it disappears, because it’s sensitive. Or sometimes you attempt to post something, but it won’t post.
In some cases, people self-censor, refraining from sharing anything sensitive.
Q: One fear Americans may have is about the Chinese government’s reach into Chinese tech and media, whether it’s to censor information, spread propaganda or spy on users. Do you see that happening?
FS: It’s tough to say. I haven’t personally observed any censorship, but you do hear rumors claiming Chinese censors influence some Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S., or that some local WeChat-based site is started by a former intelligence official. You do observe editorials in some Chinese-language newspapers taking pro-China stances and criticizing the U.S. The rumors are all but unverifiable, but they are persistent.
Those closely following the divide in the Chinese American community over affirmative action have speculated privately that Chinese national interests may be involved in shaping Chinese American political identity. That can’t be eliminated as a possibility, but I think there’s another factor to consider: Chinese immigrants, depending on when they arrived, come from different historical and political eras of China, which could lead to contrasting political identities here in the States.
AS: Researchers say WeChat censors chats differently depending on where the user registered the account.
Chinese accounts are more censored than foreign accounts, but even if a Chinese account later updates to a foreign phone number, it’ll still be censored as if it was in China, according to researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab that have analyzed WeChat censorship trends.
If a U.S. account sends sensitive messages to a group with Chinese accounts, the Chinese users won’t receive them. All censored articles are erased from WeChat everywhere, so you won’t be able to see them even from U.S. accounts.
Q: What about in China? Who’s on VPN?
AS: One thing Chinese people are concerned about is that there’s no good search engine in China. There’s Bing, but more people use Baidu — and the results are often really bad.
People searching for cures for diseases would get ads for fake medicine. A lot of information on there is not verified and you have no way of knowing if it’s true.
In terms of politically sensitive information, you can’t get it. Unless you have a VPN, which in the past you could download in China. But nowadays you can’t get one unless you bought and installed it outside China.
You can’t find straightforward information about, say, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square unless you really go out of your way. If you search on Baidu, you’ll only find a brief official explanation saying there were anti-party and anti-socialism riots.
There are people who are climbing over the firewall and using VPN, but it’s a minority. And state media such as New China News Agency and the Global Times use Twitter and Facebook for propaganda. I don’t know if they're using VPN or have special access, but they post on banned social media platforms all the time.
Q: As information worlds split and distrust between the U.S. and China grows, what does that mean for your job as a journalist straddling both sides?
FS: It just makes it all the more important to tell stories. As human beings we tend to fill the void left by the absence of truth and facts with even scarier fictions. But explaining the motivations that exist on both sides of a cultural divide can bring us closer together.
The current state of U.S.-China affairs doesn’t help. But the risk for xenophobia existed before this political situation; people of Chinese descent have faced hostility, seen by some in the U.S. as perpetual foreigners or as competing for the same economic opportunities. Now there are new wrinkles to this, based on new kinds of nationalism.
For me, when I think about split information worlds, I think about the ways that all the different communities of Los Angeles use the internet. All these unique apps and websites are a reflection of fascinating diversity as well as persistent language barriers.
Going on the internet of Chinese immigrants or the internet of Japanese or Filipino immigrants is just more evidence that there are all these conversations occurring that we’re not really aware of in English-speaking Los Angeles.
Here, the dividing line is language, and the segregation is somewhat voluntary. These are just people trying to interact in a modern society, to use tech and apps tailored to their needs. It’s a reflection that there’s another universe. You go into the San Gabriel Valley, go on Valley Boulevard, and it already feels like you’re in a foreign country.
Then you go on the internet and it’s a foreign internet. The news people read, the algorithms guiding them, the apps they trust, the way they use social media, what kinds of news goes viral — it’s all really different.
AS: You’re reporting on a separate world that’s voluntary and self-created. I need to be careful to point out that the world I’m reporting in is controlled.
I might be interviewing a lot of Chinese people and the majority might think in a certain way. If I’m quoting something from the social media platform Weibo, I need to be aware that much of that is carefully manufactured.
There’s also a separate Chinese world here, but the reason it’s separate is because there’s a party and government that’s directing it, laying down the boundaries and deciding what can or can’t be said.
That’s tricky. Sometimes I’ll see on Twitter, maybe a Chinese person says what they think and gets accused of being controlled by the Communist Party. But their opinion may also just be a product of the environment they’re in and based on the only information available to them.
I don’t want to invalidate their opinions, but want to make readers aware of the context.