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October 11, 2019

The China Syndrome

800px-The_Great_wall_-_by_Hao_Wei.jpgAbout five years ago, a friend commented that despite the early belief - promulgated by, among others, then-US president Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore - that the Internet would spread democracy around the world, so far the opposite seemed to be the case. I suggested perhaps it's like the rising sea level, where local results don't give the full picture.

Much longer ago, I remember wondering how Americans would react when large parts of the Internet were in Chinese. My friend shrugged. Why should they care? They don't have to read them.

This week's news shows that we may both have been wrong in both cases. The reality, as the veteran technology journalist Charles Arthur suggested in the Wednesday and Thursday editions of his weekday news digest, The Overspill, is that the Hong Kong protests are exposing and enabling the collision between China's censorship controls and Western standards for free speech, aided by companies anxious to access the Chinese market. We may have thought we were exporting the First Amendment, but it doesn't apply to non-government entities.

It's only relatively recently that it's become generally acknowledged that governments can harness the Internet themselves. In 2008, the New York Times thought there was a significant domestic backlash against China's censors; by 2018, the Times was admitting China's success, first in walling off its own edited version of the Internet, and second in building rival giant technology companies and speeding past the US in areas such as AI, smartphone payments, and media creation.

So, this week. On Saturday, Demos researcher Carl Miller documented an ongoing edit war at Wikipedia: 1,600 "tendentious" edits across 22 articles on topics such as Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and the Dalai Lama to "systematically correct what [officials and academics from within China] argue are serious anti-Chinese biases endemic across Wikipedia".

On Sunday, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, an American professional basketball team, withdrew a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protesters after it caused an outcry in China. Who knew China was the largest international market for the National Basketball Association? On Tuesday, China responded that it wouldn't show NBA pre-season games, and Chinese fans may boycott the games scheduled for Shanghai. The NBA commissioner eventually released a statement saying the organization would not regulate what players or managers say. The Americanness of basketball: restored.

Also on Tuesday, Activision Blizzard suspended Chung Ng Wai, a professional player of the company's digital card game, Hearthstone, after he expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters in a post-win official interview and fired the interviewers. Chung's suspension is set to last for a year, and includes forfeiting his thousands of dollars of 2019 prize money. A group of the company's employees walked out in protest, and the gamer backlash against the company was such that the moderators briefly took the Blizzard subreddit private in order to control the flood of angry posts (it was reopened within a day). By Wednesday, EU-based Hearthstone gamers were beginning to consider mounting a denial-of-service-attack against Blizzard by sending so many subject access requests under the General Data Protection Regulation that it will swamp the company's resources complying with the legal requirement to fulfill them.

On Wednesday, numerous media outlets reported that in its latest iOS update Apple has removed the Taiwan flag emoji from the keyboard for users who have set their location to Hong Kong or Macau - you can still use the emoji, but the procedure for doing so is more elaborate. (We will save the rant about the uselessness of these unreadable blobs for another time.)

More seriously, also on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Apple has withdrawn the HKmap.live app that Hong Kong protesters were using to track police after China's state media accusing and protecting the protesters.

Local versus global is a long-standing variety of net.war, dating back to the 1991 Amateur Action bulletin board case. At Stratechery, Ben Thompson discusses the China-US cultural clash, with particular reference to TikTok, the first Chinese company to reach a global market; a couple of weeks ago, the Guardian revealed the site's censorship policies.

Thompson argues that, "Attempts by China to leverage market access into self-censorship by U.S. companies should also be treated as trade violations that are subject to retaliation." Maybe. But American companies can't win at this game.

In her recent book, The Big Nine, Amy Webb discusses China AI advantage as it pours resources and, above all, data into becoming the world leader via Baidu, Ali Baba, and Tencent, which have grown to rival Google, Amazon, and Facebook, without ever needing to leave home. Beyond that, China has been spreading its influence by funding telecommunications infrastructure. The Belt and Road initiative has projects in 152 countries. In this, China is taking advantage of the present US administration's inward turn and worldwide loss of trust.

After reviewing the NBA's ultimate decision, Thompson writes, "I am increasingly convinced this is the point every company dealing with China will reach: what matters more, money or values?" The answer will always be money; whose values count will depend on which market they can least afford to alienate. This week is just a coincidental concatenation of early skirmishes; just wait for the Internet of Things.

Illustrations: The Great Wall of China (by Hao Wei, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.