Big brother is watching: Social media and communication in China

In recent months, news articles have pointed out developments in censorship and communication in China, and I have been asked many times for advice on how to communicate with Chinese people, both here in Australia and in China. There is no easy answer to these questions, but let me try and lay out some of the known facts and then consider what options are available.

Mobile Phones are popular with Chinese

We should first note that Chinese people of all ages have embraced online communication and social media. China has one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership in the world with 94.5% of the population owning at least one[1]. Even middle aged and elderly people use their devices on a daily basis and mobile phones are conspicuously obvious in Chinese daily life.

One ‘app’ to rule them all

In Australia there are a large number of apps in use and you need to be proficient with several in order to manage your online life. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, eBay, Amazon, Uber, Paypal and Apple Pay are examples of this. In a similar way there are choices in China, but one app has become popular because of the way it provides most of these services in one simple to use app: WeChat. WeChat provides messaging, sharing, news, shopping, ridesharing and a cashless payment system that we could only dream of in Australia. When Apple threatened to pull Wechat from the iTunes store because it was crushing their Apple Pay app, the Chinese response was they could easily live without an iPhone, but they couldn’t live without WeChat – Apple quickly relented[2]. Those involved in ministry to Chinese students in Australia know that they all use WeChat, and this is almost the only platform to use when communicating with them.

Three key issues with Chinese online communication

Like the Trojan horse, along with all this convenience comes the fact that it is now much easier for the government to monitor the lives of average people. Let’s consider what we know about the current situation:

1) Big brother is watching, and notices

It is common knowledge that for decades in China, the authorities have been monitoring and controlling all media and any voice that can be heard in society. Censorship is not new in China, it is only the scope that is changing. China intends to implement a system of monitoring and rating all its citizens and although this sounds very Orwellian, current technology means it’s possible[3]. At a fundamental level China expects all aspects of society to serve the party and this includes social media. Xi Jin Ping recently stated “All media must love the party, protect the party and serve the party.”[4] It is not a case of the Chinese government may be monitoring it’s population – we need to accept that this is the intention and current practice.

2) Some apps work and some don’t

It is helpful to realize that online tools and social media platforms fall into two categories: 1) Those who cooperate with government monitoring and allow full access to user data whenever request by authorities. These services continue to function in China; and 2) Those that do not allow monitoring. These platforms are blocked completely or choked so that the service is too slow to use. The goal of this is to push people towards the platforms that allow monitoring. In recent weeks the popular secure communications app “Whatsapp” has been blocked, and this has seen many people move to WeChat for their communication needs. It should also be noted that continuing to use blocked services by employing technology like a VPN can draw unhelpful attention and suspicion. It leads to the question – what do you have to hide?

3) Your online history will follow you – forever!

It is important to remember that apps like WeChat run through servers based inside China where all user data is stored ‘forever’. What you post or comment on today may not be a problem and may not draw an immediate response, but it is stored away in case it is needed at a later date. Most Chinese students are totally unaware of this and cannot see it as a problem. They have grown up during a prosperous time and have never been exposed to persecution or pressure from the government. They never experienced events like the Cultural Revolution and know little about the darker history of their country. Most don’t realize that some day in the future when they are applying for a position or opportunity that is important, then their file will be opened and examined carefully, so suddenly those things they did a long time ago will become very important. Even in Australia long term data storage means that not-so-smart posts from long ago can come back to haunt us. Recently an Australia political candidate discovered this when he was sacked for inappropriate Facebook posts he had made years before.[5]

Some advice

What advice can we give to Chinese students and those working with them?

1) Boldness versus unnecessary risks

We should remember that it is a normal part of the Christian life to suffer. The apostle Peter says[6] we should not be surprised when we suffer but instead rejoice. He says it is a blessing to participate with Christ in suffering. However, he advises that we should avoid the suffering that comes from being a criminal or even just a meddler because there is no value in that. I think the application of this is to avoid unnecessary risks that come from inappropriate comments. There seems to be no good reason for Christians to publicly criticize China, her government and policies. Writing and commenting on sensitive matters is unlikely to make much change and is only going to bring unnecessary trouble for a believer. Yet, not all trouble can be avoided because at the end of the day a true Christian is one who trusts God for their future and is not ashamed of being identified as a disciple of Christ.

2) Wisdom

It is wise to be careful and more circumspect when publishing comments, pictures and videos online. It is worth carefully weighing up the positive and negative outcomes of any particular post before putting it online. It may not be a problem now, but how will it look in the future? Sometimes “less is more[7]” when it comes to online posts. Just because we can publish something with a few clicks, doesn’t mean we should publish it. Praying for wisdom and waiting a few hours before posting would be helpful habits to develop.

3) Type of communication

It is important to realize that there is a difference between one-on-one or very small group communications and large group communications or posts to the general public. Large group chats and pages that are visited by many people will be more likely to be carefully monitored than individual communications between two people. Using WeChat to call a student friend in China to read the Bible together, pray and encourage them is probably not going to create a lot of trouble, but being identified as a student leader who manages and influences several groups of hundreds of others probably will be recorded for future reference. Recently the government has said that they will hold chat group moderators responsible for what is posted in their chat rooms.[8] For this reason it seems that large group chats should be handled with a great deal of care.

Conclusion

When I first went to China in the early 90’s it took three weeks for a letter to come from home and a phone call cost dollars per minute. Now I can have a video call with a friend on the other side of the planet instantly and for free. Online technologies allow us to stay regularly connected with our friends even when they move away. Many students have shared with me how meaningful it is to have a friend in Australia keep contact with them when they first returned to China, and following-up with them until they have settled into a church in China.   We should give thanks to God for this amazing provision and continue to do all we can to use it wisely in the service of His kingdom.


[1] Xinhua, ‘China’s Mobile Phone Users 94.5% of Population’, China Daily, 20 July 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/tech/2015-07/20/content_21330773.htm.

[2] Jennifer Ruther, ‘Apple Pay Overpowered by Tencent’s WeChat Pay’, Bank Innovation, 29 August 2017, https://bankinnovation.net/2017/08/apple-pay-overpowered-by-tencents-wechat-pay/.

[3] David Bandurski, ‘The Great Hive of Propaganda’, China Media Project, 16 September 2017, http://chinamediaproject.org/2017/09/16/the-great-hive-of-propaganda/.

[4] Bandurski, ‘The Great Hive of Propaganda’.

[5] Isabel Dayman, ‘Xenophon Candidate Sacked over Controversial Photos with Waxworks’, ABC News, 7 October 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-07/xenophon-candidate-rhys-adams-sacked-over-facebook-photos/9026442.

[6] 1 Peter 4:12-19

[7] Wikipedia, ‘Less Is More’, Wikipedia, 2 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Less_is_more&oldid=793579513.

[8] Bandurski, ‘The Great Hive of Propaganda’.

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