This past summer, I took a thirteen hour journey across the world, to land in a nation with day and night cycle completely reversed from the one I had grown used to. In other words, I took a nine day trip to China with the Mandarin class from Massapequa High School. The trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but during my nine days overseas, one difference in their culture puzzled me. No, it wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t speak or understand the language, or the surprisingly high temperatures, but the lack of digital privacy the Chinese experience.
For centuries, China was almost completely walled off from the rest of the world. They existed, according to them, in their own world and had almost no interaction with other nations, until the past 200 years. Although China is now a far more open nation, to the point where it has almost the strongest hold on global economics, its treatment of its own citizens has only gotten worse. Censorship laws now dictate the culture and lives of the Chinese on a daily basis, and getting to experience it first hand was eye opening. Apps like Instagram and Snapchat are completely banned unless you have international data. Instead all online social interactions are funneled through a single app known as “WeChat.”
It’s not surprising if you’ve heard of this app before, as its massive user base has allowed its creators, Chinese mobile game and media giant Tencent, to launch a myriad of ad campaigns across websites and other online services. WeChat itself is a mess of an application that tries to be several other popular apps in one and that hides behind a layer of clean and simple menus to cover its flaws. Think a green and white amalgamation between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and, most importantly, the standard messaging app. Even its logo it the same as the Apple messenger app, but with a second, smaller icon, and little eyes on them. It’s one thing to have an app that’s equal parts nonfunctioning and utterly confusing, but the issues with WeChat run far deeper.
To most people, the fear of your private information being just a few clicks away on the internet is a very real threat. Although there are a plethora of web-based services that protect our information, there are even more hackers and criminals online that can easily break through. But what if it was your own government? While many here in the states believe that our own government has not only peeked, but has total access to each of our devices, that theory has never been proven true; on the other hand, the Chinese government ticks every box on the creppy, intruding, big brother list.
Not only does the Chinese government see what all their citizens say and do online, but they use apps like WeChat as proxies to track their people. And this isn’t a fact hidden by their leaders; it’s stated in the user agreement. During our time there, aside from when we had a shaky connection to WiFi, WeChat was our only source of communication to each other and our families back on Long Island, and it could not have been more of a necessity. The government itself has limited down the options so WeChat is the only viable app for digital communication.
While the introduction of a free, nation wide, texting app may seem like a perfect way to keep people on opposite ends of a country in touch with each other, China goes the step too far and intrudes on every conversation you have, blocking words they find inappropriate. While I could show you the over 500 words and phrases that are considered illegal on the platform, I’ll save you the trouble and name the biggest offenders. Any word that has to do with the Dalai Lama is completely blocked. Any word that refers to, or is the name of, an infamous figure in Chinese politics suffers the same fate. But most importantly, anything that is related to the events that occurred during the Tiananmen Square Massacre is banned. The event itself is obviously blocked, along with June 4, 1989, the date of the event, and anything else that happened on that day.
Now, while there is not really a need to use the app here, over in China it is one of the only texting apps that works, which, in turn, means that a majority of conversations between citizens are tracked. For us here, there is no consequence when a banned word is sent, as it does not appear on the recipient’s phone, but those who do the same in China may be charged as criminals, as it is seen as a slight against the government. It’s scary to think that an app like WeChat exists today to fill in the role of Big Brother, and by looking at its growing user base, it seems it’s here to stay.