Protocol | China
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Chinese social media is still a social force

Kris Wu

Happy Wednesday. Tuesday was a busy day in Chinese tech, so we'll cut to the chase. In this week's Protocol | China: the power of social media resurfaces, an article comparing video games to opium goes viral, and Chinese researchers rank No. 1 at a major AI conference.

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The Big Story

Chinese social media shows its teeth

On its face, this isn't a tech story: 30-year-old Chinese megastar Kris Wu was arrested Saturday on suspicion of rape. But the unraveling of the silence around Wu began on Chinese social media, and the growing uproar over his years of alleged conduct happened there too — even while the #MeToo hashtag remains censored.

  • 19-year-old Du Meizhu, who first came out to say Wu had coerced her into having sex with him while a minor, made all her accusations on Weibo.
  • Other victims, feeling empowered by Du's revelations, also posted their own similar stories on the platform to corroborate Du, and screenshots of WeChat dialogues between Wu and his victims became important proof for their accusations.
  • Finally, thousands if not millions of social media users demanded that China's legal system take action, which in the end happened faster than anyone expected, given the Chinese legal system's earned reputation for slow-walking accusations of abuse levied against powerful men.

The takeaway: Chinese social media still has the power to set the social agenda and, sometimes, force authorities to act. It's virtually silent when it comes to the (ever-expanding) set of issues the Party deems forbidden, but that means it's held in check, not that it's disappeared.

  • There was a massive outcry on social media in early 2020 after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, China's original COVID-19 whistleblower whom local police originally tried to intimidate into silence. Many at the time felt that the online tumult — which occurred despite Xi Jinping's strongman rule — offered the most frontal challenge to Party power in decades.
  • Then in late 2020, "Xianzi," the nickname of Zhou Xiaoxuan, who accused another powerful media figure of harassment and had to answer in court on a defamation charge, topped the Weibo charts before being censored.

A quick history lesson: As recently as eight years ago, Chinese social media was a major social force that authorities hadn't quite figured out how to tame.

  • Early in Xi Jinping's tenure atop the Party structure, social media platforms like Weibo were still used to debate major geopolitical issues, air complaints against the local and central governments, and expose corrupt officials. (It was also used for shopping, humble-bragging, celebrity gossiping and all the other standard nonpolitical functions.)
  • Starting with a 2013 crackdown, Beijing began to turn social media from a place for complaints into an engine for crowdsourced nationalism.
  • The formula for control comes down to a grim but effective combo: Stop "big V" opinion leaders from saying anything the government doesn't like, use intimidation and criminal penalties whenever necessary, flood the zone with shareable pro-Party fare and encourage users to report one another. The latter, particularly, has been a feature nationalists have used (and abused) with gusto to silence groups that speak out for women or the LGBTQI+ community.

But a big question lingers: Where did all the unapproved opinions go? Those voices are silent online now. It doesn't mean that they're gone. Social media is still a force, just one the government has learned to manage.

On Protocol | China

  • China's ed-tech crackdown isn't what you think. The mandated conversion of for-profit (and once very lucrative) online tutoring companies into nonprofits has spooked investors and caused many analysts to link the move to Beijing's larger (and indisputable) thirst for tighter ideological control. But this crackdown is more about rectifying social inequality in China's education sector, one where the country's unequal wealth distribution is keenly felt. Shen Lu has the experts' take.
  • Welcome to the next techno-battleground for China's ultranationalists. At first glance, livestreaming ecommerce — think QVC for the digital set — seems like it would make a poor host to the type of ideological struggle that's come to characterize the rest of Chinese social media. But no. In the wake of the horrific flooding in Henan province, livestreamers supporting Western and even Chinese brands that donated too little, too late are hearing it from trolls during their performances. Zeyi Yang has more.

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Big Brother Beijing

  • An article called video games "opium," and investors promptly lost their minds. One newspaper piece sent the entire Chinese video game industry into chaos on Tuesday, when the Economic Information Daily, a state media affiliate, published an article with a headline that called video games "spiritual opium." The article discussed gaming's "negative influence" on China's youth, who are apparently becoming a bunch of addled, alienated slackers. There was no new regulatory action here, but investors interpreted the article as a sign that the booming video game industry was Beijing's next bête noire. Shares in China's two top companies, Tencent and NetEase, promptly tumbled. The now-famous article was briefly deleted before reappearing with the tendentious "spiritual opium" language removed.
  • Regulators (try to) curb chip hoarding. The global chip shortage is not ending any time soon. Some companies have found a way to profit from this shortage. On Tuesday, Chinese antitrust watchdog SAMR announced it had begun an investigation into car chip distributors that had hoarded its product to drive up prices. Chinese finance publication Yicai cited an unnamed source in the business saying that "chip speculators have earned 10 years' worth of income in just six months." The market regulator didn't name which company it is investigating.

China Goes Global

  • Chinese researchers strut at a global AI conference. Chinese authors notched the highest number of submissions and acceptances to the Association for Computational Linguistics annual meeting, one of the premier international conferences on natural language processing. ByteDance's Volcano Labs won best paper for research on machine translation. China's 153 accepted papers trumped the U.S.'s 129, which tech site Synced (机器之心) reported is a reversal from just five years ago at ACL-Beijing, when U.S. researchers outshined Chinese researchers in both submissions and acceptances. The papers are in, but ACL 2021 is going on right now.
  • Chinese game developers lead the world on getting you to pony up. There's been a global surge in smartphone users' willingness to spend money on mobile games, in large part thanks to Chinese gaming companies. According to a market report released this week by Google and App Annie, China bests the U.S. and Japan in making the popular games that people around the world will pay to play. Of the top 2,000 mobile games that have generated the most profit outside the Chinese market, 23.4% are made by Chinese developers, while the Americans claim 18.8% and the Japanese 17.6%. China is also seeing the fastest growth in its market share.
  • Huawei will plow $100 million into Asia-Pacific startups. Huawei announced Tuesday plans to launch three funds totaling $100 million to entice entrepreneurs to use Huawei Cloud while they scale. The Spark Developer Program, Spark Pitstop Program and Spark Innovation Program are all part of Huawei's continued efforts to grow its cloud business as it deals with declining smartphone sales. The company has moved into the No. 2 spot in cloud in China over the last two years, trailing only Alibaba Cloud in market share.

Straight From China's Web

  • Tencent gets non-fungible. Chinese tech giant Tencent has joined the NFT party — albeit very, very late. On Monday, the company launched an NFT trading service called Huanhe (幻核) as an Android app and also released 300 copies of its first NFT merchandise: an audiobook archive of a popular talk show produced by Tencent's entertainment arm. Tencent has been careful not to associate its NFT with cryptocurrency, since the latter faces strict regulation in China.
  • China's biggest banks agree on 4Paradigm. WeChat account QbitAI reported Monday that 4Paradigm, a Beijing-based artificial intelligence company that helps enterprise clients use AI to improve business operations, has begun initial preparations for a Hong Kong IPO. Dai Wenyuan, founder and CEO, has reportedly been planning to take the company public for at least a year. The company is backed by notable investors such as Sequoia, Tencent and Goldman Sachs, and it is the first Chinese startup to have raised funding from each of China's five biggest banks — the Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank and the Bank of Communications.

JOIN US

Join Protocol's Biz Carson for a conversation with Atomic's Swathy Prithivi, Accel's Rich Wong and Asana's Oliver Jay during our upcoming event. We'll dive into the ups and downs of going global with a panel of VCs with global expertise as well as B2B and B2C leaders at tech companies who've successfully navigated going global.

Learn More

One More Thing

Is Huawei exporting censorship?

At least 72 countries are using telecom middleboxes — a piece of equipment that theoretically enables telecoms to filter and censor internet traffic — made by Huawei. That's according to a Tuesday report funded by cybersecurity company PrivacyCo. The researchers were able to identify 1,799 Huawei-manufactured middleboxes around the world and confirm that in 18 countries, at least some boxes are in fact being used to block content, from LGBTQI+ content to news sites.

Should Huawei be held responsible for how governments use their equipment? The debate goes back at least a decade, when Cisco came under fire for providing equipment to power China's growing surveillance system. Valentin Weber, the lead researcher of the report, told Protocol, "Every supplier of technology that could be abused needs to make a credible effort to show that they did the due diligence to investigate their customers and find out if they might abuse it."

A special thanks to Zeyi Yang this week. We'll see you again next Wednesday.

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