Beijing put on a spectacle at the Olympics opening. But is it getting its message across?
Greetings! If you didn’t watch the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, we’ve got you. In this week’s newsletter: Beijing articulates its vision for the future through the Olympics opening, Eileen Gu sparks controversy in China, and the sudden death of a Bilibili content moderator that enraged the public.
Beijing’s futile Olympics messaging
China went big the first time it hosted the Olympics. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Games showcased the nation’s rich history and traditions, kicking off with 2,008 drummers pounding on the traditional fou and a huge fireworks display. This year’s Olympic opening ceremony was a chance for China to boast its technological sophistication and its vision for the future.
- The deployment of AI, 5G, AR, naked-eye 3D, cloud computing, LED and other cutting-edge technologies replaced the armies of humans who appeared in the 2008 opening ceremony, bringing the number of participating performers down from 15,000 to just 3,000.
- China Media Group, which has the Chinese broadcast rights to the Olympics, broadcast the 2022 Games with 5G-powered 8K Ultra-HD transmission — a global first.
- During the ceremony, a giant snowflake-shaped sculpture held a small Olympic flame at its center, replacing the traditional Olympic cauldron. The flame was fueled by clean hydrogen energy, highlighting Beijing’s support of climate tech and its pledge to reach carbon neutrality before 2060.
It’s not just about China’s future, but the future of humankind, Zhang Yimou, director of both the 2008 and 2022 ceremonies, told state media. The Olympics' messaging — evident in the games’ official motto, “Together for a shared future” — emphasizes globalization, rather than Chinese exceptionalism, Zhang said. But few in China interpreted the high-tech showcase of the opening ceremony as technological progress made by humankind. Rather, state media and tech bloggers alike perceived it as a showoff of China’s technological advancement.
The stunning show received raving reviews at home, but across the pond, it barely struck a chord.
- “I have seen zero people talking about it,” our editor, Kate Cox, observed. “Even on my regular-hangout Discord server, which has an #olympics channel and a hundred people always willing to chat about what they just watched. Nothing. Nada. One line about how the American commentators were handling it on broadcast and ... that's it.” (Editor's note: They have, however, talked a lot about Eileen Gu.)
Zhang’s image of the giant snowflake — composed of smaller snowflakes, each bearing the names of the 91 participating countries — as well as his framing of the image as a community of "Human Destiny" were tender and sweet choices. But the reality betrays the sentiment.
- On the same day as the opening ceremony, China’s leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin released a lengthy joint statement to “oppose further enlargement of NATO” without mentioning the mounting tensions at Ukraine's border with Russia.
- China and the United States are locked in race to see who’s going to lead the global tech future. And a top Chinese think tank's analysis of China’s technological gap with the U.S. was pulled ahead of the Olympics.
The Olympics opening ceremony is all about imaging. But who gets the message?
Loud and clear: CAC's growing public voice
Does it seem like the Cyberspace Administration of China is always in the news? CAC was only founded about eight years ago, but it has become more influential every year — and last year, it was more active than ever. The number of CAC notices, guiding opinions and authoritative releases published each month has boomed.
Before 2019, the powerful internet regulator rarely issued more than 20 official releases a month. But CAC started weighing in more regularly just before COVID-19, and in the last several months, it has averaged more than 40 notices each month. Not all of these notices are substantive; many detail Xi Jinping’s speeches, meetings and calls with foreign diplomats. Although the pace has dipped slightly since November, we can expect it to pick up again soon; CAC is most active in the summer and fall.
A MESSAGE FROM ENVOY
The concept of flex work isn’t new, but its widespread adoption is. Flex work helps all of us find some semblance of control in the middle of an uncontrollable pandemic. Giving options makes people happier and less stressed. This leads to a greater desire to participate, which helps us build our communities and culture.
On Protocol China
“China will come out worse than the U.S. from a tech decoupling.” Just days before the Lunar New Year, Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies published a report that details the technological gap between China and the U.S. and asserts China will suffer more than the U.S. from a full-blown decoupling. The report was pulled from the internet. Shen Lu has the story.
Beijing wants to keep deepfake providers in line. CAC recently released a draft rule that would place new oversight obligations on providers of deepfake technology. The regulation would cover "deep synthesis internet information services,” including any technology that generates text, images, audio, videos or virtual scenes based on deep learning. Popular AI tools like GPT-3 would also be covered. Zeyi Yang unpacks the new rules.
Big Brother Beijing
The more cross-border ecommerce, the merrier. On Tuesday, the Chinese State Council added 27 more cities to a trial program that incentivizes building local, cross-border ecommerce industries. The latest addition, which consists of mostly cities in China’s far-flung western region, pushed the total number of cities in the program to 132. In recent years, cross-border ecommerce has become a rising star in the Chinese economy: Brands like SHEIN have made their name globally, while smaller sellers have dominated Amazon’s third-party marketplace.
Study Xi app gets a ride in EVs. China’s EV industry has become increasingly characterized by constructing automotive IoT. Weltmeister, a Shanghai-based EV maker, recently boasted its innovative feature that connects its EV models to the propaganda app the Communist Party uses to push nationalism, “Study Xi, Strong Nation.” China’s millions of civil servants are mandated to use the app to study Xi Jinping Thought and take quizzes. Weltmeister’s IoT automotive Study Xi app supports audio playback through voice interaction while the car is in motion and projects the content of the cell phone on the car’s screen. It also offers users free, unlimited 4G.
China goes global
33 Chinese companies and universities are now banned from purchasing U.S. goods. The U.S. Commerce Department on Monday added 33 Chinese entities to a list of foreign companies whose end use of American goods couldn’t be verified by the U.S. government. Entities on the list are mostly optoelectronic companies, which manufacture machines used in laser cutting or microchip production. But the list also includes two Chinese universities and a publicly traded biomedicine company that makes ingredients for AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine.
TikTok updates its policies as the U.S. weighs new rules to restrict it. The Biden administration is reviewing public comments on proposed rules that could expand federal oversight to ban foreign apps, such as TikTok, that could be used by “foreign adversaries to steal or otherwise obtain data.” Biden previously revoked a Trump-era order banning Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat. TikTok on Tuesday announced a series of policy updates to build “a safe and secure entertainment platform.”
Straight from China's web
Eileen Gu defended China’s internet freedom on Instagram, and her message was censored on Weibo. Controversy has swirled around U.S.-born skier Eileen Gu ever since she said she would compete on China’s Olympic team, and all the chatter got louder after she won a gold medal on Tuesday. Though state media and the general public raved about her success and loyalty to China, her Instagram comment intended to defend China’s internet freedom — "Anyone can download a vpn is free on the App Store” — irked a small crowd on Weibo, which criticized her for not being aware of her privilege. Authorities not only have blocked many VPN providers, but also have punished Chinese citizens who used VPNs to circumvent the Great Firewall. “Literally I’m not ‘anyone.’ Literally it’s illegal for me to use a VPN. Literally, it’s not fxxking free at all,” one Weibo user railed. Ironically, the screenshot of Gu’s VPN comment was censored on Weibo after 3,000 shares.
The death of a censorship worker. A 24-year-old content moderator for Chinese video platform Bilibili died from a brain bleed while working an extra shift during the Lunar New Year holiday, the company confirmed in an email to some employees. The tragic death sparked heated discussions about the demanding nature of low-level work in Chinese tech companies, as well as the intensity of censorship in China. Applicants to censorship worker positions are often publicly warned of 12-hour shifts and other demanding schedules. Bilibili’s response to the unexpected death and public criticism was to hire 1,000 more moderators to reduce individual workloads.
One more thing
He-who-must-not-be-translated. Baidu Translate, the online tool that specializes in Chinese-to-English translation, was recently found by researchers studying China to be blocking out full sentences containing Xi Jinping’s name and only showing “***” as a replacement in the results. Other state officials, like the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, don’t get the same treatment. What do you make of this, ***?