Man in mask walks under Olympic rings mural
Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

The hope and hate around China’s Olympic tech

Protocol China

Happy Lunar New Year! Whatever happened in the past month, here’s your second chance to begin 2022 right. But China’s festive news cycle is going to end early this year, as the Winter Olympics will dominate headlines as of, well, now, if this newsletter is anything to go by.

In this week’s newsletter: the Olympics reveals Beijing to be a good or evil tech superpower (depending on your point of view), the FBI takes a hard-line stance on Chinese espionage threats, and ByteDance’s generous red packets for laid-off employees.

This Winter Olympics, should Chinese tech be celebrated or feared?

With the 2022 Winter Olympics just two days away, all eyes are on Beijing. The Olympic Games have always been an opportunity for host countries to brag about their strengths, and that’s especially appealing to China, which seeks to raise its cultural and political status whenever it can.

This is a moment for China to assert its image as a tech superpower. There’s no better stage than the Olympics for China to show off how it can revolutionize things that have stayed the same for decades.

  • China clearly wants to upstage Japan and the Tokyo games in terms of bringing sci-fi robots to life. Robots are everywhere in the Olympic Village, mixing cocktails and shaming people into wearing masks.
  • The highly adjustable, remote-controlled beds in the Olympic Village have also captured the imagination of foreign athletes and journalists.
  • Beijing is labeling this Olympics as a “Green Olympics” (those snow-making technologies are allegedly carbon-neutral) and “the first Olympic Games on the cloud” (all event-related data is stored on Alibaba’s cloud infrastructure).
  • It will be the first international test of China’s central bank digital currency, too. All vendors in the Olympic Village support eCNY payments, Beijing says, while popular mobile payment apps like Alipay and WeChat Pay cannot be used.

But could this backfire? After all, it’s the Chinese government’s tech-savviness that has made other countries wary: What if all these fancy technologies were used in surveillance and espionage?

  • This is the kind of concern that prompted cybersecurity experts to look into the mobile app that every foreign individual needs to have installed to participate in the Olympics. Researchers and observers have debated how big a threat it really is.
  • The Canadian research group Citizen Lab first reverse-engineered MY2022, an app required by China’s Olympics COVID-19 protocols, and sounded the alarm on a few security flaws.
  • Then, independent researcher Jonathan Scott took the accusation to a much higher level and said the app is actively spying on users. His claims have since been retweeted by prominent figures like Joe Rogan and Josh Rogin.
  • But the infosec community largely rejected Scott’s accusation as unsubstantiated claims or misinterpretations of the reverse-engineering software.
  • Citizen Lab’s communications specialist Miles Kenyon told Protocol that, upon further inspection of a Jan. 28 version of MY2022, the loopholes it flagged had been fixed. But the group also lost access to an account on the app that’s needed for deeper analysis.

And broader skepticism toward Chinese tech remains, even if the debate over this app is settled. Governments can’t help but worry about other apps and technologies with ties to the Chinese government that could compromise the security and privacy of Olympic contenders.

  • The U.S., U.K. and Netherlands have advised their athletes to bring only a burner phone to the event in order to prevent any information leaks.

Ultimately, the Winter Olympics is just going to be one more opportunity for opposing sides to build their own narratives about China’s status as a tech superpower.

— Zeyi Yang (email | twitter)

What will be 'informatized' first?

If you don’t have hours to read through China’s recently released “Five-Year Plan for Informatization,” a detailed blueprint for what will be “informatized” in the country, we’ve got you. Protocol tracked mentions of key sectors and technologies in the document using DigiChina’s translation, and the Central Commission for Network Security and Informatization, the author of the plan, clearly anticipates AI, 5G and (to a lesser extent) blockchain to change the way people use and access information. Given the twin crises of aging and the pandemic, it’s no surprise that health care, especially for the elderly, is also a priority sector. And creating “cybersecurity defense lines” is high on Beijing’s list, too.

Graph: AJ Caughey

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On Protocol China

“996” may be gone, but overtime culture remains. A young Tencent employee’s impassioned resignation letter exposed a persisting culture that encourages working overtime. And not just at Tencent: The feeling is echoed by Chinese tech workers across companies. Shen Lu explains why.

Tesla China sued a mega influencer for defamation. Unlike in the United States, Tesla’s China office has a combative legal and PR department that often strikes back at claims of Tesla’s security concerns. Its latest legal action was against a car influencer with 14 million followers. Zeyi Yang has more.

Big Brother Beijing

Anticorruption campaigns come to big tech. Two weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that Alibaba’s fintech spinoff Ant Group is implicated in the corruption scandal of high-level provincial official Zhou Jiangyong. Then, last Wednesday, the formal charges against Zhou were made public. Zhou was accused of “colliding with capital” and “supporting the disorderly expansion of capital,” two phrases that match the language Beijing uses when regulating big tech companies.

Anything can be blockchained. On Sunday, 16 top ministries in China collectively released a list of 164 “blockchain innovation trials” that the state has approved. These trial programs cover pretty much everything from manufacturing to finance, education and health. And they’re destined to happen: Local governments are mandated to offer financial and operational support to the selected blockchain programs.

China goes global

The FBI’s director hit out over China’s security threats. In a Monday speech that — among other loaded Cold War language — directly compared China to the Soviet Union, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the threat posed by the Chinese government is “more brazen [and] more damaging than ever before.” The speech came after the FBI’s “China Initiative” was recently criticized as ineffective and xenophobic.

ByteDance’s ed-tech ambition survives outside China. The tutoring ban of 2021 may have killed ByteDance’s ed-tech products at home, but it can’t stop the company from exporting them overseas. According to Chinese publication Chuhai Post, ByteDance’s overseas ed-tech app Gauthmath has gained over 100 million downloads in a little over a year and temporarily topped the education app chart in 50 countries, including the United States. Sources told the publication that ByteDance is hoping to recycle its ed-tech experience and recreate the domestic success.

Straight from China's web

Small banks are going virtual. Two small Chinese banks announced in January that they plan to suspend most physical activities in a few months. Instead, clients will only be able to access their checking and savings accounts through the web and mobile portals, 21st Century Business Herald reported. Along with the digitization trend of financial services, becoming a virtual, tech-heavy institution may be the only way for small private banks to survive, analysts said.

ByteDance’s red packet for laid-off employees. In a bitter winter season that has witnessed massive layoffs across the tech industry, at least some workers have gotten a little comfort from their ex-employer. Social media users expressed their jealousy when recent emails sent by ByteDance promised anyone laid off by the company in the past year a cash gift of between $90 to $1,000 this Chinese New Year, the exact amount determined by their employment duration.

One more thing

An inauspicious red. Red is traditionally considered an auspicious color in China for holidays like the New Year. But it caused a wave of panic in Shanghai last week when subway riders collectively found their commute QR codes turned red — which indicates “high risk” in China’s QR-code-based contact-tracing system. The subway company later apologized for the festive design change that turned out to be more alarming than celebratory, and has reverted all QR codes to their normal black.

Thanks for reading — see you again next week!

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