In this new century, no matter where you live—the mountains of Tibet or the beaches of Tahiti—you will most certainly have a cell phone. This is especially true in China, a country whose citizens are widely known for their cell phone addiction. If you’re an expat in China, you’ll need to buy an unlocked phone, a Chinese SIM card, and a plan from one of the big three Telecom Giants: China Unicom, China Telecom or China Mobile. These three companies are also the primary providers of home broadband services and are, conveniently, state sponsored. The government has a hand in all modes of modern communication in China. The two biggest companies, Unicom and Telecom divide up their services geographically, while China Mobile is primarily an option for residents in larger, modern cities.
There are some small telecom providers trying to make inroads in China, but there is no real hope for them in a culture that eschews competition (despite Xi’s recent promises), so their services are cumbersome and inefficient. The wider problem of competing with the government underscores much of the general climate in China and is what so many local and foreign businesses struggle against. Take for example this experience: After our school cancelled a contract with a government-operated busing company and switched to a local, private company with electric buses (competition! clean air!), the police began ticketing the new bus drivers. Drivers were cited for a never-enforced rule stipulating that adults cannot ride on buses with children. Since the school has long used buses to carry teachers and staff along with students from their living compounds to their campuses, you can see how this might pose a problem. Of course the police knew exactly which buses to cite. If that’s what happens to private busing companies, imagine going up against the telecommunications giants.
With the government hovering, finding ways around the Great Firewall is a frustrating endeavor. Widely available VPN services that businesses, foreigners, and many urban Chinese subscribe to on their computers and phones, only work because the government recognizes some underlying benefit, primarily that (slow) international access to English-speaking sites is necessary for a small slice of society. Some businesses and international schools (which are banned from educating PRC passport holders) are granted access to institution-wide VPN services. But in some sections of the country, especially in rural or contentious areas of China, there are no extant VPNs available. Apple’s recent capitulation to China and Facebook’s censorship plan give good insight into how willing U.S. companies are to support censorship and how worried the Chinese government is about access to information. The Facebook–Russian advertising campaign that succeeded in influencing the American election has given China a compelling argument in favor of censorship for the sake of stability.
Yet China’s firewall isn’t only technological; it’s personal. The country makes internal migration difficult for its citizens by limiting access to government services when they move, and it is diligent about keeping track of foreigners within its borders, employing tactics the Trump administration can only dream about. There are written letters of invitation to foreign friends and family, police report filings each time tourists check into a hotel or visit someone who lives in China (unless you are granted a residence permit). If you do plan to live here, expect mountains of paperwork and a kooky government medical exam that requires its own, independent blog post. Foreign marriage and birth certificates must be notarized. When you finally do sign up for that cell phone plan, your account is linked to your passport number.
During the recent People’s Congress, which made October a month from Internet hell, Xi Jinping promised more “openness” saying that “seclusion leaves one behind”. At the very same time, my English-speaking CNN commentary was consistently blacked out. It’s doublespeak; China is actually becoming more, not less authoritarian.
At least there is humor to be found in a surveillance society. Cell phone addiction in China makes America’s addiction appear amateurish. Everyone is walking while texting. Everyone is dining while texting. Not only do Shanghai drivers routinely text on their cell phones, but they also ride scooters and bikes while looking at their phones. One Chinese city went to the trouble of creating pedestrian walking lanes especially for the cell phone-addled. While there are stories in the U.S. of distracted people dying while on their cells, the sheer volume of stories from China is shocking.
Strangely, I have an entirely different connection to my cell phone—a less dependent one— than I do in the U.S. Unpredictable VPN access means that I rarely read U.S. articles or watch U.S. videos on my phone. Yet somehow it’s my phone that gives me the greatest sense of belonging here. Without language skills, only my phone provides me with a citizenly feeling. Much of that comes from relying on WeChat, an app that functions as a combo of What’s App, Facebook, Twitter and my bank; it is used for everything in China. Nothing in the U.S. is as easy and seamless as this app for transferring money from bank accounts, between family or friends and paying vendors, delivery men, restaurants and, well, everyone. No need for cash or credit cards, which fewer and fewer businesses accept, anyway. Often I don’t carry anything with me except my phone. Paying with WeChat marks me as not-just-a-tourist.
But the citizenliest feeling I get from my phone comes from knowing that I am linked to not only the advertising network but also the government indoctrination system. Chinese text messages often inundate your phone, and since the majority are advertising or billing messages, most people I know ignore them. Who would bother to translate these?
“Dear customer now from the owner of the insurance policy can apply for a maximum of 50W, with the loan also available, please, please, please return to Y, unsubscribe back to TD.”
Or this completely unintelligible message:
“[Small elephant gifted] Ying double eleven elephant open the whole row of grain, wallet and doubled, more money more benefits, immediately receive benefits poke.”
Yes. I translate everything on my phone. And the humor of the advertising texts pales in comparison to the paternalistic, sometimes Buddhist sounding texts from government agencies of the Shanghai Municipal Authority. I like to make a guessing game about why a particular message arrives when it does. For example, this message arrived at the height of the California wildfire catastrophe, when photos of communities overtaken by fire dominated the international news cycle.
Focus on fire, [to give] peace to you and me. Please comply with fire regulations, safe use of fire, gas, electricity, and jointly maintain the city fire safety. To find a fire hazard, please call 96119. Shanghai Fire Department.
Let me pause here to suggest with a couple photos that focusing on fire in Shanghai does not actually offer peace of mind.
A different message arrived back in September during the frenzy of name-calling between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
“September 16 National Defense Education Day 11:35am to 11:58am in the city trial air defense warning. Feel at ease, enhance the concept of national defense and civil defense awareness. Shanghai Municipal Civil Defense Office, Shanghai Municipal Defense Education Office.”
For a half hour on September 16th, Shanghai sounded like WWII London. When the air raid sirens started, my daughter ran out of her room asking:
“Do I need to worry about that?”
“No, sweetheart, because I translate all my text messages. It’s a drill. Feel at ease.”
My absolute favorite text message this year coincided with the introduction of a new Orwellian social media rating system in China.
“Network security for the people is the network security by the people. Let us learn “network security law” to jointly enhance the network security awareness, effectively enhance the network security skills. Shanghai Municipal Committee Letter to do the Letter.”
The system will take effect slowly, but it will be law by 2020. I suppose the measured introduction is supposed to make it seem less reminiscent of North Korea’s mandatory regular critique. You have to admit that the Committee of “Letter to do the Letter” uses a familiar strategy here—it’s a perfect combination of U.S. Homeland Security fear-mongering and a Chinese version of the Gettysburg Address:
“. . . . government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It will be interesting to watch the effects (or workarounds) of this new “network security” experiment in a country whose citizens are now traveling the world in greater numbers and seeking education outside their country’s borders. Chinese citizens have grown used to making moderate critiques of their government online, but the authoritarianism is creeping. And while we westerners are pointing to China’s undemocratic government, we make our own deals with devils—Facebook, Google, Equifax, Trump. Our freedom, ironically, makes us subjects of Russian propaganda and undemocratic corporate monarchs, and we are monitored by our own government in less transparent ways. But, hey, at least we all have our cell phones.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell, In Front of Your Nose