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What consequences do Chinese citizens face as a result of recent technological changes?

By Crofton Lee
web posted September 20, 2021

In its August 14th, 2021 addition, The Economist wrote an article conveying details of China’s technological present and future. While this article managed to cover many aspects of large technology companies, it did not mention the privacy violations these companies commit, and the opportunity costs of this breach in users’ privacy.

Many people know of the limits China holds on technological companies. Google, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook and many other western tech giants are blocked in China, and can only be accessed by going around China’s virtual firewall through a virtual private network, often known as a VPN. Among other reasons, the Chinese government blocks these companies because it has little to no control over their content, as well as the processing of this content. China is well known for its press’s lack of freedom, and the Chinese government cracks down on anything contrary to pro-China beliefs. Take Darrel Morey for example. On October 4th, 2019, Morey tweeted an image supporting the anti-China protestors. In response to this, the Chinese government blocked all NBA games, news and merchandise for over 10 months. Every single tech company operating in China was banned advertising anything related to the NBA. It was not until September of 2020, almost a year later, that China finally allowed broadcasting of NBA games on national television. Before that, however, a major Chinese company known as Tencent had already begun broadcasting NBA games, and viewership numbers had spiked.

Chinese tech companies have had a major impact on most Chinese lives for the last 5 to 10 years. Without leaving my house, I can order almost anything on an online shopping platform called Tao Bao. Using a food delivery app called Mei Tuan, I can order food from any restaurant of my choice in my city. I do not even need to download specific apps for these services. Instead, I can access them all under WeChat, a social messaging app. Users can set up bank accounts for payment through WeChat, and can directly pay for food or shopping deliveries through this “WeChat pay”. However, the opportunity cost of this convenience is that the government has unlimited access to your private data. Every text message, every transaction, remains glaringly visible to WeChat management and Chinese government officials. Because of this, people with “unpatriotic” views of the government must be very careful to not talk about these online, or else they face account cancelation, and in some more serious situation, interrogation or imprisonment.

Recently, large Chinese tech companies have faced pressure and an increase in regulations. As a result, these companies “have lost at least $1trn in combined market capitalization since February” (The Economist). Consequences of these regulations include decreased market share as while as a requirement to share data with smaller firms to prevent monopolistic practices. The Economist wrote “Data will pulse through the system, available to firms of all sizes, under the watchful eye of the government in Beijing.” Now, not only will large tech companies have access to user’s private information, but smaller firms will as well. Before, the average Chinese citizen knew of privacy breaches, and accepted these violations as a part of life. Some of my friends have told me about how WeChat uses key words to trigger data searches. For example, if one were to text any sentence containing “Tiananmen Square” or “Hong Kong protests”, WeChat would most likely trigger a sequence that would result in direct monitorization of that account. This sharing of information does not just exist inside communication or research systems. When checking out of a grocery store, boarding a train, or even going to the gym, Chinese citizens can now use facial recognition technology to create their own, unique “account”. Now, however, because of data share obligations, any small, official business can have access to this facial recognition technology, and therefore keep track of every place people have gone.

Many people might now start to suspect the Chinese governments motives with these new technological advancements, but this is nothing new. Since the beginning of the 21st century, everyone attempting to leave China has had to first go through customs. At customs, an online database processes those leaving, making sure the Chinese government does not have a specific reason to prevent departure. If the government were to blacklist someone, that person would have to stay in country. Then, whenever they boarded public transportation, used online payment methods or even passed a closed-circuit television camera, they would set off red flags that immediately alert the government to their location and actions. While technology has greatly helped convenience the lives of citizens, the Chinese government still maintains control over all technology. Now that regulations have changed who can access private information, privacy will become anything but private. ESR

This is Crofton Lee’s first contribution to Enter Stage Right. (c) 2021 Crofton Lee

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