To report on tech, journalists must also learn to report on China

October 22, 2020
The lobby of the Huaqiangbei International Maker Center in Shenzhen, taken during the author’s research project with Studio D Radiodurans. Photo by Jan Chipchase/Studio D Radiodurans ©

Six years ago, Americans wondered why China couldn’t “innovate.” Today, the question is laughable—Chinese technology, from popular apps including TikTok and WeChat to the hardware in our laptops and phones, is a fixture of everyday life in the US. Along with such influence come the messy complications of geopolitics—seen by both countries as an undesirable entanglement. The US State Department recently called for a “clean internet” free of foreign interference, while the Chinese government has long used its Great Firewall to foster a local technology ecosystem. 

Two years ago, Sean McDonald, cofounder of Digital Public, and I described a global internet landscape fractured by what we called digitalpolitik, or the political, regulatory, military, and commercial strategies employed by governments to project influence in global markets. Now technology stories are just as much about policy, diplomacy, and power as they are about society, engineering, and business.   

Through Western eyes, The Economist points out, China is often seen as an “Otherland that is as much an idea as a place on the map.” This orientation seeps into tech journalism. Recent reporting on TikTok has focused largely on the platform’s risks to data privacy; while this is indeed a concern, most coverage neglects to provide the larger context that data privacy is an ongoing problem for all major technology platforms. I recently met someone who, spooked by the reporting on TikTok, decided to remove the app from his phone, not realizing that the other apps he used daily also collected data. Reports on the use of facial recognition technology in China contain similar blind spots. Examining the applications of this tech in the repression of Uighurs and in how an authoritarian state polices is critical, and the early reporting on these issues should be commended, given the tremendous risks and consequences. That said, implying that China’s use of this technology is uniquely dystopian obscures the reality of a largely unregulated global facial recognition market that includes companies in China, the US, Israel, Germany, and Japan, among others, and whose connection to policing continues to be overlooked.

One problem I see is that many journalists reporting on Chinese technology have limited experience reporting within and about China. They might not fully understand the economic and media aims of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese language, or the underlying logic of global capitalism. China has a population of 1.3 billion people—more than the European Union and North America combined—but little of the tech coverage in the West recognizes the country’s complexity. Technology writers will argue at length the fine points distinguishing San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture but say nothing about the Pearl River Delta, a metropolitan complex whose population surpasses that of California and whose exports shape the global economy of electronic goods. 

Take, for example, the popular trope that Chinese phones are, universally, cheap knockoffs. While it’s true that many low-cost, down-market phones come from China, it’s also true that some of the most innovative phones come from China. That’s because most of the world’s phones come from China—well over 60 percent of the market as of 2019, even as companies are moving their manufacturing elsewhere. Important differences between Xiaomi’s community-driven r&d model, shanzhai production, startup-friendly incubators, and massive factories like Foxconn get lost in oversimplified descriptions of phone production.

It can seem impossible to balance the intersecting challenges of nationalism, racism, technology, and human rights when our current attention economy rewards simplified media narratives.

Imprecise use of language, furthermore, creates misunderstandings about how Chinese state politics influences tech products. While the Chinese Communist Party often acts in unison on major policy issues, it is also a party of nearly ninety-two million people, making it more populous than all but fifteen countries. It contains factions, competing interests, and disagreements, and it is not in fact very communist. As scholar Yuen Yuen Ang has written, the differences between the CCP’s internal response to sars in 2002, under President Hu Jintao, and its response to covid-19 under Xi Jinping suggests that the party has developed a new form of centralized information control. Xi’s system of rewards and punishment is focused more on stability than open sharing, and creates what scholar Zeynep Tufekci has called the blindness of authoritarianism. Covering Chinese politics is more difficult than democratic politics because of the CCP’s opacity in its proceedings. But dismantling the idea of a monolith is a start. 

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Another harmful tendency that bleeds into technology coverage is using the comparison of the Cold War to describe China-US conflicts. I’ve used this framing myself, in a work of speculative fiction for New York magazine, but it has no place in serious policy discussions because the historical analogy just doesn’t hold up. Companies in China and in the West are not at a standoff; they share technology, talent, designs, capital, and production. Graham Webster, a technology journalist, writes that the Cold War shorthand is “a convenient placeholder” to simplify the complex tale of “what’s actually happening: the unfolding of ideological and geopolitical tensions in a deeply connected and integrated technological environment.”

China, Russia, and the US are now engaged in what journalist Sarah Jeong has called information-nationalism, in which countries hide their own human rights abuses while exposing those of others. This makes reporting challenging, because often what states say about other states is, in fact, accurate, but with the purposeful omission of a fuller context. Journalists must provide this context. But what constitutes context? I think of context in three layers: proximate, policy, and systemic. A proximate context is bound in time; it might look like a disinformation actor spreading misleading narratives, a local police station issuing a censorship order, or an algorithmic feature that amplifies a pernicious meme. 

A policy context helps us understand government policy and enforcement. Censorship in mainland China, for example, has origins in the Harmonious Socialist Society, a governing and economic philosophy under Hu’s administration that emphasized stability over rapid growth and created the justification for a specific system of censorship that ebbs and flows with social issues and involves multiple stakeholders.

A systemic context helps audiences understand the larger factors—the attention economy, free-market forces, geopolitical headwinds—that inform a platform’s policy decisions. TikTok’s privacy violations, for example, are motivated by a larger economy of surveillance capitalism that creates monetary reward for user data through targeted advertising.

Since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US. Technology writers have a responsibility to help the general public understand US-China tensions by showing the complex dynamics behind power and technology, without replicating colonialist or xenophobic narratives that have historically been leveraged against China. As John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats write in Yellow Peril!, “Asian nationalist revolutions and ruling military regimes have defined themselves as responses to Western colonialisms and imperialist investments. In stark contrast, the American public’s understanding of Chinese and Asian histories is characterized by little to no knowledge of the Asian othered.”

It can seem impossible to balance the intersecting challenges of nationalism, racism, technology, and human rights when our current attention economy rewards simplified media narratives. In a world of rapid news cycles, many of my colleagues have pointed out how difficult it would be to make the changes I advocate. But it is precisely this confluence of factors that has shaped the systems that harm contemporary society.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we are globally connected and interdependent. Describing, with accuracy, the challenges of this moment is not just good practice for journalists—it is an absolute necessity for everyone committed to the right to free expression, public access to information, and a safe internet. 

Written with 感谢 (thanks) to Xiaowei Wang, Sage Cheng, Kira Simon-Kennedy, Phoebe France, and Xin Xin for their kind reviews and feedback.

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An Xiao Mina is an author and technologist. She is a coauthor of the forthcoming Hanmoji Handbook (MIT Kids Press) and the author of Memes to Movements (Beacon Press). She works on program strategy at Meedan.