In 2016 the human rights organisation Amnesty International released a report ranking social media companies according to their performance on privacy and freedom of expression. In the heady, pre-Cambridge Analytica days, Facebook came first with a score of 73, and the Chinese gaming and investment company Tencent came last with 0. Amnesty said Tencent was the only firm one that had not stated it would refuse government requests to access data.
Yet last week the company expanded its already voluminous investments in non-Chinese technology companies by ploughing a reported $150m (£116m) into the discussion forum and aggregator Reddit, which has nearly 600 million users.
Tencent joins a long and diverse line of investors in the platform including the rapper Snoop Dogg, the actor Jared Leto and the Silicon Valley billionaire and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel.
On the Reddit discussion threads (known as subreddits) that focus on China, along with the reliable smattering of jokes and political polemics, users expressed concern that certain subreddits contained discussions of the best ways to avoid the country’s stringent censorship laws. Many pointed out the ultimate irony that Reddit is, itself, currently banned in China. Tencent also has a 10% stakeholding in the social media company Snap (owners of Snapchat), as well as Tesla and hundreds of other technology companies around the world.
Outside China, Tencent and its own social platform WeChat are becoming increasingly well known. Tencent has offices around the world including US headquarters in Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley. WeChat, which now has more than a billion users, is not only wildly popular within China, but its ease of use and the completeness of its services, which include payment and banking, make it the default social app for many Chinese speakers and immigrant communities across the globe.
The Toronto Star recently reported on how the app was being used in Canadian elections to reach Chinese-speaking voters. It even attracted investigation into vote buying as WeChat users were, in one instance, reportedly offered free rides to polling stations if they were voting for particular candidates.
The relationship between corporate China and western technology companies, particularly social platforms and search engines that profess free expression and privacy protection as core values, is often contradictory and increasingly alarming to free speech and human rights advocates.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the investor and philanthropist George Soros described the Chinese president Xi Jinping as the “most dangerous opponent of open societies”, particularly in terms of China’s growing dominance in artificial intelligence. “The instruments of control developed by AI give inherent advantages to authoritarian societies,” said Soros.
Silicon Valley’s interest in money, however, routinely trumps its interest in free expression. “China is just too big a market to walk away from,” a former Silicon Valley executive recently told me. Apple has a large investment in China, including manufacturing, Facebook has been exploring ways of entering the market and human rights protesters have, within the last month, protested outside Google’s offices about Project Dragonfly, its Chinese search engine, which complies with the country’s stringent censorship requirements.
At a conference about digital media technology platforms at Columbia University last week, co-hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism (disclosure: I am the Tow Center director), journalists, policy experts and human rights activists discussed increasing censorship in the country and the spread of Chinese political influence through corporate activity outside it.
Becky Davis, the bureau chief for Variety in China, helps to compile an annual survey of foreign correspondents there. In 2018, she said the responses from correspondents about press freedom were “the worst for 20 years” with the majority feeling that press freedom was materially declining. 90% of correspondents believed that they were being monitored via mobile phones, and more than 65% thought they were being monitored in their homes.
A Toronto Star reporter, Joanna Chiu, described how the system of allowing tipping within WeChat means that writers now write from their own accounts and can make quite a lot of money, but “you are always worrying that your account would be shut down”.
In her reporting on Chinese social media platforms, Chiu has covered the Communist party’s attitude towards the explosion of new entertainment and news apps: “There are companies who are really trying to take advantage of the app culture in China, but the government is upping its ante to put pressure on companies to make sure, however big they become, they are still under the thumb of the state.”
Two weeks ago, Xi Jinping toured the People’s Daily new media bureau. His message was that there should be more integration of legacy media and new media. Davis said a new directive to app companies requires one censor for every 1,000 videos uploaded, and since “you can’t have humans censoring that much video” this will mean “more investment in AI”.
When the Nobel peace prize-winner Liu Xiaobo died of cancer recently while on medical leave from an 11-year prison sentence, Chiu said any image of him in a WeChat message never reached its recipient – “even cartoonified images” –demonstrating how efficient AI already is at screening out dissent.
Nobody expects the Communist party to extend its power directly through investments in companies like Reddit, but the normalisation of a repressive regime through its embrace of a type of state capitalism deserves wider attention.
The creation of concentration camps for a million Uighurs in Xinjiang has not been enough to persuade any of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs receiving funds from Chinese companies to refuse the cash. Neither is it apparently enough of a deterrent to stop the US companies investing in China to stop their plans to enter the market.
Trade tensions between the US and China revolve entirely around tariffs and not around human rights. Most troubling of all, against a background of demonstrably tightening censorship, internment camps and an extension of totalitarianism, the narrative of western companies is that their presence in China, and the presence of Chinese money in western companies, is helping ease those restrictions. All the evidence says this is not true.
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