The Week In Tech: Infowars and China’s Great Firewall

“The Chinese apps have got everything,” said Shen Yanan, 28, who works in Baoding, China, and has no interest in politics.CreditGilles Sabrié for The New York Times

By Li Yuan

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Hello, readers! Greetings from Hong Kong. I’m Li Yuan, Asia tech columnist, and it’s my turn to write the newsletter. This week, the tech world on both sides of the Pacific got embroiled in the topic I’m most passionate about: censorship. Allow me to indulge a bit.

In the United States, Apple, Google and Facebook removed the bulk of the content of the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars site from their services for hate speech and other violations. Twitter left Mr. Jones’s posts untouched.

The actions created a hubbub over free speech. My colleagues laid out in this article what some of the tech giants allow and ban on their sites. These Times opinion pieces from Kara Swisher and from David French on the topic are also worth reading.

But as exhausting and exasperating as the debate about tech companies’ role in policing content may be for many Americans, I often watch it with envy and wish we could have similarly vigorous discussions about free speech and due process in China.

As many of you may know, China has the world’s most sophisticated and brutal internet censorship system called the Great Firewall. Over the past decade, the Chinese government blocked Google, Facebook and Twitter, along with thousands of other foreign websites. In their places rose the homegrown search engine giant Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter called Weibo, and the Facebook-like app called WeChat. The government also carried out many crackdowns on tools that help circumvent the Great Firewall.

I think a lot about how this affects China. This week I wrote a column about how a younger generation is growing up in China without Google, Facebook or Twitter. I found that many young Chinese have little idea what these websites are and have little interest in knowing what has been censored online. They are also genuinely patriotic and optimistic about theirs and China’s future.

I was surprised by the reactions (good and bad) to the column. Some readers were sarcastic. Not having access to Google, Facebook or Twitter? “Lucky them!” wrote one Facebook user. “They have not missed anything important!” said another.

The point of the column wasn’t about access to those websites, which, as flawed as they are, constitute much of the internet in many countries. It was about access to information and what happens when a government controls the flow of information.

As my colleague Ian Johnson put it, the column aimed to explain “the disconnect one feels in talking to Chinese people — it’s not about different cultures, but different ways of perceiving reality due to different sources of information.”

I’m especially surprised that the column went viral on the Chinese internet. Censorship is a tired topic to many Chinese, who live it everyday. Since both The Times and its Chinese website are blocked in China, people made screenshots or PDF versions of the column, then posted it on social media timelines or shared it in chat groups. I posted the links on my Weibo account but the tweet got blocked quickly.

“After reading your article, I’m very worried about China’s future,” a lawyer in Beijing messaged me. Her family has been using tools to bypass the Great Firewall for years. She said her son was considered “weird” by his high school classmates because he shared information he learned from some blocked foreign websites. Now he’s studying at a college in the United States.

“He had to leave,” she said. “He was too different.”

There were some discussions about how representative the young people in my column were. Some readers, especially expats, said they know plenty of Chinese who scale the Great Firewall. Some of my closest Chinese friends also said they will have to send themselves into exile if the government blocks all censorship-bypassing tools. It will be the last straw for them.

But outside of these circles, it’s often a different picture. Some people — even those who have many ways to get out of the Great Firewall — decide to stay in and defend it.

That leads me to a book that touched me deeply because it depicts in great detail the effects of brainwashing. Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, tells the tale of a young woman escaping her survivalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. Her parents home-schooled her and her siblings and taught them their versions of the world and humanity. When I read about her struggle to unlearn what her parents had taught her, I kept thinking of my own struggle to undo all the brainwashing I grew up with in China.

So my column wasn’t just about the young generation of Chinese. It was about all Chinese who grew up without access to uncensored information. Once inside the wall, it’s hard to escape because often you don’t even know what you don’t know.

In other news this week:

■ My colleague Jack Nicas reported that days after Google, Facebook and Apple removed video and podcasts from Infowars from their sites, its app became one of the hottest in the United States. Among news apps on Wednesday, Infowars was No. 3 on Apple and No. 5 on Google, above all mainstream news organizations.

■ The outspoken Elon Musk may have spoken too much. In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Mr. Musk said he was considering taking his electric vehicle company Tesla private and had secured funding. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission was examining whether Mr. Musk’s statement was truthful and why the disclosure was made on Twitter.

■ After last week’s report that Google was working on a censored search engine for China, the head of China’s dominant search engine offered a response this week. Robin Li, founder and chief executive of Baidu, declared on his personal social media account that he will fight fiercely and “win again” should Google decide to return to China, Bloomberg reported.

■ How is the U.S.-China trade war likely to end? Where is it going? My colleague Keith Bradsher reported two likely end games: a stalemate and a negotiated truce. He wrote that China’s stance now is that a resolution of trade tensions must not block its further economic progress, but adjustments to its industrial grand plan Made in China 2025 could happen.

Li Yuan is the Asia tech columnist for The Times. She previously reported on China technology for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter here: @LiYuan6.

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