Power of the Web

Posted 12/6/16

Your first time in China, don’t be surprised when you open your phone and try to share your travel photos and there’s no Facebook connection. You want to vent your indignation on Twitter. Boom! …

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Power of the Web

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Your first time in China, don’t be surprised when you open your phone and try to share your travel photos and there’s no Facebook connection. You want to vent your indignation on Twitter. Boom! Your operation request fails again. No Google. No Instagram. No Snapchat. It’s not your service provider’s fault; you are subject to Chinese Internet censorship.

“The Great Firewall of China” has blocked access to Western websites for years. Even though some young people in China try to get free or paid-subscription virtual private networks (VPNs) to climb over this wall, Chinese government feels it can no longer tolerate the existence of VPNs and intends to tighten social and ideological control. Chinese people do have a few government-approved social media options, primarily through one particular cell phone app: Wechat.

Wechat is Chinese-made app with all the features of Western apps such as Skype, Amazon, Apple Pay, Messenger and WhatsApp. The New York Times calls it a “super app.” We use it to connect with personal messages, images, videos and others to order services like Uber.

One day last summer in Beijing, I got a Wechat phone call from my best friend, who asked me to go to lunch. I used Wechat to order a taxi, and used it to let my friend know that traffic was terrible and I would be late. I used it to check her shared location. After lunch, we posted a selfie on Wechat Moments, and I transferred money through Wechat Pay to pay the food bill. To get a discount for our next restaurant visit, we wrote Wechat reviews before we left.

My own experience in Beijing is that as long as cell phone coverage works well, people rely on their Wechat for almost everything. Besides Wechat, there are other approved apps: For Google, people use Baidu; for YouTube, people use Youku; for Twitter, people use Weibo; for Yelp, people use Dazhongdianping; for Uber, people use Didi.

In China and here in America, internet privacy is a concern. Files and profiles get hacked. Personal data get shared, with or without permission. Cyberwarfare is real.

It’s a remarkable contrast. Nearly 21 percent of internet users worldwide are in China, according to internet live stats in 2016. Yet since an app like Wechat, for example, is so all inclusive, the government can monitor with so much going on in the same place.

Today, whether it’s inside or outside of technology's wall, we in China can get the latest news about the America presidential election, as a result of technological development that people could not have imagined 40 years ago. For the future, the most prominent feature of the information world is undoubtedly the internet's continuing expansion. However, having only a few hands holding such a staggering volume of data is a global issue. The third eye behind the screen may be watching you.

(Jocelyn Yang, 16, is a student from Beijing, China, who has been studying at Jefferson Community School in Port Townsend. She also writes a weekly blog aimed at students in China who may be planning to study in the U.S.)

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