Tag Archives: censorship

A Chinese American Thanksgiving

Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

My Chinese wife and I shared Thanksgiving dinner with several Chinese American families who live in the area. Most are naturalized American citizens and have teenage children born here. Nearly all are university professors or medical doctors.

We first came to know of this group because one of the people in the group is from the same hometown in northeastern China as my wife. They had never met, of course, and there is no relationship or acquaintance between their families. A common hometown, however, is enough to create an automatic social obligation in Chinese culture. You are almost family; particularly when that hometown is relatively small by Chinese standards (About 3 million residents as of the 2010 census.), and you both find yourselves in a foreign land 7,000 miles away.

This was not our first dinner with the group and I always enjoy them. They all speak fluent English, of course, although Mandarin is the language of choice for most of the evening. It is a warm and gracious group of people and all seem to share some self-imposed sense of responsibility to insure that the one foreigner in the group—me—is having a good time and not feeling left out.

It is a very light-drinking crowd although baijiu was brought out to allow everyone the chance to toast the health and prosperity of their friends, as is their custom. The bottle was capped and put away, however, after a mere quarter of a liter was consumed with the formalities of friendship.

There is zero interest in American football among the group, including the teenagers, and most of the evening is spent in small group discussions over tea, with a few of the men breaking off for karaoke and a few traditional Chinese ballads.

To a person, all of them feel blessed to be in America and to have the chance to raise their children here. None among them have any interest in leaving although all have family in China and stay in touch with all things Chinese.

The topics of discussion were and weren’t what I expected. There was, as I expected, some talk about Yingying ZHANG, the 26 year-old Chinese scholar who disappeared from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus on June 9 of this year. A local Caucasian man has been arrested and charged with kidnapping but has never admitted guilt and the whereabouts of Zhang or her body remains unknown.

Beyond the obvious fact that there is a human life involved, this is big deal for all Americans. There are roughly 900,000 foreign students studying at America’s universities today, and about one-third of those are Chinese. The Chinese student population in the US, in other words, is about the same as the entire population of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the monetary infusion into the US economy easily exceeds $10 billion per year. If those students, or their parents, collectively decide to stay home or go elsewhere out of fear that the American government will not or cannot protect them, the impact on our education system, our economy, and the educational opportunities available to our own children will be enormous.

What seems to perplex the Chinese about this case is not that one of their own came to harm. The Chinese know full well how dangerous life can be. It is that the police have not been able to solve the case and the man accused has yet to go on trial, now almost six months later.

Wherever you come down on the scale of personal rights, from libertarian to collectivism, the one job every government has above all else is to keep us safe and to punish those who violate the precept. And there is little doubt in most Chinese minds, or mine, that if an American student had disappeared in China, the case would have been solved long ago and the guilty punished, probably by immediate execution.

According to NationMaster.com, a global community of statisticians that The New York Times calls “astounding,” and the BBC refers to as “a statistician’s dream,” violent crime and murder occur at a rate 18 and 4 times higher, respectively, in the US than in China.

This, of course, is part of a larger discussion on the perceived trade-off between individual rights and freedoms and a strong government looking to protect collective stability and safety. The Western media, of course, has long treated the issue as a zero sum game in which government strength can only come at the expense of individual liberty. And both are inevitably measured, of course, by the freedom of the press. It is, however, a specious argument.

I have yet to meet the Chinese person that believes China should adopt the American political system. To a person they don’t believe it would work in China, not only because of the size and diversity of their country, but because it clearly doesn’t work here in the US. The 2016 election and subsequent events have only reinforced the conviction, although I don’t think a different electoral outcome would have had any impact on the observation of dysfunction.

On a related but very different aspect of strong government control, however, the part of the conversation that did surprise me related to the Internet.

The Chinese have long been chided by American media for the strict government control of the Chinese Internet. The Western media detests nothing quite so ardently as it does any attempt to make it responsible for what it reports.

In addition to controlling the use of social media for voicing political dissent and promoting social unrest, China has already taken strong steps to prevent digital anonymity, personal shaming, revenge porn, and the malicious spreading of rumors, gossip, and unsubstantiated accusations. (They do this, in part, they claim, by blocking access to Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have traditionally refused to allow any government regulation of their platforms.)

Porn, which some estimates suggest accounts for as much as 30% of all Internet traffic in the US, is strictly forbidden and censored in China. Identity theft carries severe penalties and the government actively protects its citizens against malware and Internet schemes that prey on the elderly.

It was noted over tea, however, that Americans may now be realizing that strong government regulation may not be so dystopian after all. Beyond the constant threat of identity theft, ransomware, religious radicalization, adolescent bullying, and attempts by Russian operatives to influence American politics, it has become increasingly clear that the very structure of the American Internet is dividing us and enflaming our distrust and animosity through self-reinforcing media feeds, biased reporting, and outright fake news.

In our case, however, it is not the government that is controlling the information that divides and enflames; it is the oligopoly of Internet giants that government regulators have allowed to achieve such enormous scale and unfettered power that their ability to influence public opinion now dwarfs the control of government censors in China, Russia, or elsewhere.

The only difference between China and the US in terms of digital censorship is that in China it is the government that yields the control and in the US it is the corporate states of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, among others. Whether or not the Communist Party makes good on its commitment to sound governance, we know by their own admission and behavior that the Silicon Valley elite is driven by the insatiable drive for profit and personal wealth. Perhaps even more dangerous and minatory is the fact that in China, at least, the censorship is transparent. In Silicon Valley it is anything but.

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It is doubtful, in fact, that even the engineers at companies like Google and Facebook have any idea how their algorithms actually work. How does anyone really know if their unfathomably complex algorithms aren’t themselves fanning the fires of racism and misogyny, for example, in the interest of getting more users to click on more advertisements?

Certainly no one would suggest that they are doing so intentionally, but who is to say what is really happening in the bowels of their server farms that they can only understand by processing test data and assessing the output against “rational” expectations, whatever those may be. Proxy causation, by definition, would be almost impossible to detect.

All of which might pose minimum risk if the US government regulated their activities and limited their scale and market dominance in the same way they regulate virtually every other industry. But they don’t. And one doesn’t have to think hard to come up with possible explanations.

Government dystopia comes in many shades and flavors. Nearly all, however, rely on controlling the flow of information. And whether that flow is controlled by an autocratic government or a free market oligopoly with little to no oversight, matters little. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

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The Science of Social Media is a False Dilemma

Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.

And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.

The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.

We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.


It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.

The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.

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It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.

Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.

The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.

Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.

What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.

Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)

Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.

War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.

It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.

Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)

Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.

To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.

But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?

None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.

At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.

Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.

In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.

The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.

It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.

Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”

The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.

Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.

If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.

In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.

If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”

“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.

Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.

In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.

As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.

The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.

The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.

header photo credit: iStock.com/mediaphotos

You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com

Here’s what legendary Kirkus Reviews has to say about the author’s new book: “More than a guidebook for managers, this is a manifesto for an intellectually deeper – and happier – world of business.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
click here

The latest in the Understanding Series is now available.
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Censoring the Internet

Author Gary Moreau

On August 25th, China’s Internet regulatory body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CPC), issued new rules to further limit anonymity and false identity on the net. The move immediately launched an outcry of “political censorship” among Western journalists.

But is the hue and cry truly warranted?

There is little question that while the Internet has opened the world to the individual citizen, it has also delivered the citizen to the crook. And, it seems logical, identity thieves and such are probably using false identities. And while it is theoretically true that you could outlaw the thievery without the identity restrictions, that presumes there is at least some overriding benefit to society of anonymity or false identity to begin with.

But what is that overriding benefit?

If you spend any time at all on any part of the web where public comment is possible, you’ll surely find a whole lot of angst. A lot of the people who use the Internet as their personal soapbox are just plain mean, uninformed, or both. And a good many of them, in fact, hide behind their anonymity. They can sit in their pajamas and give voice to all of their pent up self-pity and perceived ill treatment by the world.

And what good does it do? It’s doubtful they feel any better as a result. They certainly aren’t contributing to the kind of informed public dialogue we should be having. And they’re burning up resources in the process that could be put to better use.

The Internet and its infrastructure and administration, of course, do require energy to operate. Most of it, one can safely guess, is of the fossil fuel variety, which, one should point out, these town criers are not personally paying for. The collective net is paying for them through taxes, ISP fees, and the price of goods and services we buy from companies that use the net to promote their business. However we talk about it, the net is a public resource in the same way that utilities and regulated broadcasters are.

The scarcest resource for most Americans, moreover, is time. And we are all forced to waste far too much of it on news feeds like Twitter scrolling through the seemingly endless tweets and comments made by users seeking little more than notoriety. The law of the inverse, which serves to give the individual a voice, works in reverse as well. That voice has to cut through a very big mound of useless and often tasteless clutter.

The regulation-free net, moreover, quite clearly supports the idea of moral equivalency between all voices. And isn’t that what most of us rejected when President Trump commented about events in Charlottesville? I can think of few cases, in fact, where moral equivalency is anything more than a tool of obfuscation.

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As political divisions in America widen and become increasingly bitter, it appears that a majority of Americans are beginning to agree. Even companies that profit from Internet access are starting to police themselves. In response to events in Charlottesville, companies like GoDaddy, Paypal, Airbnb, Google, GoFundMe, and Discord all took restrictive positions against hate groups that use or could use their services.

That’s a good thing, I believe, but do we really want to turn the Internet over to private police in the same way we have turned over much of our military to private companies that are essentially accountable to no one? I, for one, don’t know the name of the CEO of any of these companies, with the exception of Google, and would bet my last dollar I could not get even one of them to take my phone call to discuss the issue of censorship.

The government is hardly an unbiased arbiter. Politicians, we know from experience, are often driven by their self-interests. I think we can say, however, just as we say about the US judicial system; it’s better than the alternative.

To many Americans, of course, China represents that dreaded political alternative. The Communist Party of China is in control and will ultimately be the one to determine what can and cannot be on the Internet there. As an Internet user, however, I would rather fight a known agenda than a hidden one, which is, in fact, what’s happening in the US. Big money, in the end, is what drives American regulatory practices today.

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As I have noted many times before, moreover, China has a built in self-correction device unavailable here in the US. Many of the critics of China’s recent move to restrict anonymity and false identity have complained that the new regulations are both vague and potentially all encompassing.

But that’s the good news. It’s intentional. Local government officials, for the most part, will be left to interpret the regulations as they see fit given local circumstances. Users and their lawyers cannot hide behind the loopholes inevitable when the translation of regulations is literal, as it commonly is in the US.

Beijing can and will step in at times, of course, and the approach does open the door to rogue and arbitrary behavior. Nonetheless, the average citizen can, without too much effort, meet with local government officials to plead their case. I’ve personally done it many times with a relatively high success rate. I’ve never convinced the local DMV, on the other hand, to compromise even a little on the paperwork required to transfer vehicle ownership, for example.

Local government regulators don’t have that kind of discretion in the US. They are programmed to follow the rules to the letter, even if it’s clear that justice is not being served in any particular case. “I don’t make the rules” is the classic bureaucratic cop out in most liberal democracies.

A rare independently minded government official may decide to stand up for justice in the US from time to time. Because it is not the norm, however, that only serves to undermine faith in the rule of law. It’s far better not to have a regulation than it is to have one that isn’t enforced. In the US at least. That’s not the paradigm. In China it is to be expected and, as a result, works reasonably well.

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About the only benefit to protecting anonymity on the net that I can see is the protection it theoretically provides to the noble minded whistle blower. If the issue is important enough, of course, the anonymity is questionable anyway. The NSA or other government agency, we can assume, isn’t really restricted from stripping away anonymity when it wants to.

And, of course, there are other ways to both blow the whistle and to protect whistle-blowers. Honest public transparency, in fact, is one of the most effective ways to provide that protection.

In the end, I believe, Americans will see the need to regulate the Internet in the same way that Elon Musk and others have called upon the government to regulate artificial intelligence. They are really just two facets of the same issue.

In the meantime, I doubt that many Chinese are really worried about the new regulations. Some will be, and they will be given the microphone by Western journalists. Most of the Chinese web, however, will buzz along just as it has.

If hate and misinformation continues to dominate the Western Internet to the degree it does now, we might just have something to learn from the Chinese Communists. God forbid.

You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
Author’s website:  www.gmoreau.com

Policing the Internet

Before Beginning: I’d like to bring your attention to my newest blog. It’s called, simply, Understanding. You can find it at www.gmoreau.com. You will find the same style of writing and kaleidoscopic perspective but the topics will be broader and the posts will be far shorter. (500 words max) At the table of food for thought, more of a snack than a meal.

Regarding this blog, Understanding China, I will continue to maintain it for now.

Apple recently came under fire for removing VPN apps that had not been certified by the government from its Chinese app store. That unleashed a torrent of complaints from privacy watchdogs and China critics in general.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with VPN’s, the techno-speak for virtual private networks that conceal your IP address from the websites you visit and allow users to bypass government firewalls. Most large companies use them to protect their internal networks.

In China, the Great Firewall, as it’s commonly referred to, prevents access to all pornography and Western social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Russia’s Red Web performs a similar function and within the last year has blocked access to LinkedIn, the popular social website for business professionals.

China and Russia are far from alone. Saudi Arabia also has firewalls that prevent its 32 million citizens from accessing pornography or other content that the government has deemed to be inappropriate. Many countries, moreover, block website service providers in order to protect local telecoms or promote local social media. The latter censorship obviously has economic and tax revenue implications, but many foreign governments argue a national security interest as well. They don’t want their social media and the data it thrives on to be controlled by servers sitting outside the country.

Thailand bans YouTube, as does Turkey. Both Singapore and South Korea, two democracies who are staunch US allies, block Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet providers). Belize blocks Vonage, Skype, Google Talk, and MSN Messenger. Even one of the major ISP’s and largest landline telecom in Mexico, Telmex, of Carlos Slim fame, reportedly makes it difficult to access Vonage and Skype.

A VPN can generally get you around government filters but, like any service provider, there are levels of quality and ability. And it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game as the VPN techies and government censors chase each other around the Internet.

I know because I used a private VPN when I lived in China, mainly to access blocked US news sites like the New York Times. While I tended to use the BBC and China’s own English-language CCTV for most of my news, I did crave a Maureen Dowd column from time to time.

I also know that the Chinese government was fully aware of the fact that I used a VPN. You assume the government knows pretty much everything there, although I sincerely doubt it knows half as much about its citizens as the US government knows about its own. In places like China and Russia, you see, people assume there is no privacy, so they take precautions. Most of my American neighbors, on the other hand, believe their communication is private and appear to take few precautions as a result. Perhaps that is why stolen identities are so easy to come by here. Another example of life’s great dichotomies—with individual liberty comes the potential for even greater abuse of those liberties.

The real irony here is just how upset Americans are about Apple’s compliance with Chinese law. As Apple’s Tim Cook has noted, Apple is merely following the law, as it does in every country it does business in. More than anything else I think the reaction to Apple’s policy is uniquely American—and another dichotomy. We pride ourselves on being the freest society on the planet. We are, however, a nation of rule followers. We can, in fact, be a bit retentive about it at times.

If someone violates a queue in the US, consciously or not, tempers will surely flair. And while our entertainment industry deals in the currency of raunchy sexuality most of the time, Americans are considered, on the whole, to be a bit prudish. We don’t touch much. While holding hands with friends and colleagues in public is common throughout most of the Western world, it is still relatively uncommon here outside of amorous relationships. When President Clinton was revealed to have channeled Freud with a young White House intern, similarly, many Europeans wondered what all the fuss was about.

The Chinese are much more like the French than the Americans where rules are involved. Queues are for the meek and sexually repressed; traffic signals are there to mark when best to step on the accelerator.

When my wife, daughters, and I visited a new treetop adventure park here in the US recently, we were given extensive instruction in how to use the “smart” carabiners on the harnesses provided, which electronically force you to keep one safety line attached at all times. When climbing a short rope ladder up to one of the tree stands on the course, nonetheless, my very fit Chinese wife chose not to attach the three security clips on her harness to the security cable provided. There was, in her mind, zero chance she would fall, and even if she did it would be from a modest height that was unlikely to result in serious injury.

My daughters, of course, quickly looked to me to put things right in the universe. While I privately lamented the contemporary American unwillingness to accept any and all risk in life, I did oblige and quietly explained to my wife that they would ask us to leave if she didn’t follow their safety protocol. “This is Mei Guo (America),” I noted. She got it.

That’s relevant here because it provides some context to the Chinese government’s new VPN regulation and Apple’s response to it. “Cracking down” is a relative term to most citizens and their governments. Being the American rule follower that I am, I refused to use a VPN during my first six months or so in China, out of concern that it would violate already existing restrictions on their use. It was members of the foreign diplomatic corps, however, who convinced me it was okay. The government doesn’t really care if you use a VPN for non-political reasons, they noted. It just wants to “slow people down” in case they are planning to use a VPN to incite civil or political unrest.

I became convinced when I upgraded the Internet connection in my home to broadband. I had a wireless network set up in my home, of course, and when the technician from the state-owned Internet service provider came to install the new connection he noted that it was against the law for him to provide such a connection to a personal network of more than one computer.

After he left I called the young Chinese guy I had used to set up the network to seek his advice and he instructed me to go to the router and tell him what I saw. “It is as you left it,” I noted, “except that the cable that the technician installed is lying next to it.” “As I suspected,” he said. “Plug that cable into the receptacle that it is closest to it on the router.”

Voila, I had broadband on my wireless network. The technician had followed the letter of the law but knew that I would use the network, decided that my family was probably not out to plot anything sinister, and courteously made it easy for me. And, no, I paid him nothing.

The point being that I believe that Western privacy advocates are making much ado about nothing here. As we Westerners are prone to do, they are failing to consider context. In the Western context, most decisions are binary—the choices are either/or. This is a false dilemma, however, since reality generally exists in an “and/but” context. Most choices come in a wide array of shades. This one is no exception.

I am not in China at the moment, so I don’t pretend to know what is actually happening on the ground. I am fairly confident, however, that the Chinese government is not so much changing the rules as it is just updating its policy to slow down the rapid proliferation of VPNs in light of new technology and new entrants to the field.

I am not sure I know anyone other than an American, however, who would go to the Apple store to download a VPN app. That’s just a little too obvious to liberty realists.

Apple is smart to comply with the new regulation. It has a huge business in China and wants to stay on the right side of its regulations. Don’t fret for Maureen Dowd’s Chinese fans, however. I’m sure they can still get their fix.

Please remember to check out my new blog at www.gmoreau.com

Contact: You can reach the author directly at gary@gmoreau.com

Available in paper and electronic formats.

Democrat, Republican, Communist?

I realize now that I made a mistake moving back to the US during the 2016 US presidential election. In so many ways I am reminded daily of just how broken our political system has become.

Let me state upfront that I support neither candidate, albeit for different reasons. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe either is the leader America needs today. In such a great nation I believe we can do better – much better.

What has struck me most about this election, however, is how little difference there is between how China chooses its leaders and how the US does. The US can no longer claim any kind of superiority – moral or ideological – for the political system now in place. It is not the legacy of the Founding Fathers by any stretch. (Or my own father, for that matter.)

The Chinese political system gets frequently criticized on several fronts:

  1. Non-Democratic
  2. Lack of Transparency
  3. Corruption
  4. Censorship of Media
  5. Concentration of Power

Now let’s look at presidential politics in the US through this same lens.

  1. If you define democracy as one man, one vote, the Electoral College alone disqualifies the current American system. Add in the arcane rules of the US primary system, including the power wielded by super-delegates responsible to no one, and it’s hard to argue that we have true democracy. Trump is right on this one: The system is rigged. Just ask the Bern’s supporters.
  2. Back-room politics has been around in the US for a long time. After thousands of internal DNC e-mails were recently released, however, it appears it has been taken to new heights. The DNC claimed impartiality when it clearly wasn’t. How is that not a lack of transparency?
  3. Corruption is all about buying influence. Why would Goldman Sachs pay a candidate $400,000 for two short speeches to an industry she has absolutely no experience in? (Besides, whatever knowledge she had the taxpayers already paid her for.) Campaign finance reform has clearly failed. Money is obviously critical to getting elected and the electorate, in the end, has no idea where it’s all coming from or what the motivation is. Big donors don’t have to stand for election.
  4. Whenever a Western media outlet covers a story in the Chinese media supportive of the current Chinese administration the Western media always starts with the derogatory observation that such and such news outlet is “state-owned”, “government-run”, or “a mouthpiece for the Communist Party.” The implication, of course, is that this makes the report biased and untrustworthy. Any objective analysis of the media coverage of this election, however, would make it clear that if the electorate were motivated solely by the media, Bozo the Clown could beat Donald Trump. The media ownership structure may be different but the result is the same. (I personally don’t think this bias has anything to do with ideology.)
  5. If nothing else, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders accomplished one thing. They have unveiled the longtime truth that politics is not about Democrats and Republicans. It’s all about the insiders and the outsiders – the incumbents (the establishment) and the change agents. What does it mean to be a member of a political party that got you elected if you turn around and support the other side when a disruptor threatens the status quo?

I have no idea who will win the 2016 presidential election. It all comes down to how tired the American people are of eating cake.

Whichever candidate wins, however, the US has lost any right to tout its political system as the best of the best or to claim any kind of moral or populist superiority over China or any other country.

The system is rigged; ‘corruption’ is rampant; power is concentrated in the hands of the few, many of whom never leave the back room and show their faces; and the average citizen is governed by nothing close to a representative government.

How else could we be limited to a choice between two candidates, neither of whom the majority of Americans really wants to vote for?

By the way, in the last poll I saw President Xi Jinping enjoyed a 95% approval rating, the highest among all of the countries surveyed, including the US and many European powers.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com


Jumping the Great Digital Wall

An article which appeared in The New York Times on January 29, 2015, entitled China Further Tightens Grip on the Internet, stated, “China has long had some of the world’s most onerous Internet restrictions,” perhaps shedding some light on why The New York Times website is blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall and thus unavailable to anyone in China.

It has always been relatively easy to get around the GCF, however, by subscribing to one of the many VPN’s available here for a small subscription fee. Known colloquially as ‘fence-jumpers’ these VPN providers typically don’t hide your ISP address (Talking about censorship, many U.S. retailers, as I have so frustratingly learned through first-hand experience, will not accept online orders, even with a valid U.S. credit card and shipping address, if the ISP originates in China.) but they can get you access to pretty much any website.

We can rest assured that the government knows these providers exist and could shut them down at any time. They haven’t historically, however, simply because, one can assume, the websites they offer access to are generally in a language other than Chinese and thus not of interest to most of the population.

The NYT, however, suggests that the government is starting to crack down on these fence-jumping providers and thus frustrating some artists, academics, and foreign investors who rely on them in their line of work. Gmail, in particular, has become difficult to use here in recent months, although the government denies any involvement in disrupting it.

Generally speaking, the Chinese government, as the article points out, defines the issue as a quest for cyber sovereignty rather than censorship, an ideal, I’m sure, many other governments would support. At the very least, I’m sure there are websites blocked by the security services of most Western governments, although I can’t name one for the simple reason that I have no interest in them.

And as the father of two daughters I do think it’s difficult to make a convincing case against the government for blocking access to all Internet pornography. Despite having no redeeming social value there is a social cost to pornography, since society as a whole pays for the Internet and it is estimated that as much as 30% of the Internet bandwidth available in countries like the United States is consumed by the online distribution of pornography.

But if The New York Times is correct and the government is clamping down on some of the fence-jumpers, why the change in heart? Not being a member of any political inner circle, of course, I can only conjecture.

I suppose you have to start with Hong Kong. The government has consistently noted that the pro-democracy movement that paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for a couple of months was enflamed by outside agitators with an agenda beyond the popular vote. In the end the demonstrators never really offered an alternative plan. As a practical matter, therefore, they were, by definition, largely protesting for the sake of protesting.

And contrary to Western myth, the government is not attempting to isolate the Chinese people from the world, as is the case in North Korea. I have yet to discover a single instance where my Chinese friends and colleagues weren’t fully informed about world events. (My fence-jumping provider has not been blocked, so I still get my news from Western sources.) And their take on events is largely the same as my own. There is no obvious slanting of perspective.

But what about the news about China? Is the government censoring news about itself that might be more legitimately reported by foreign news media.

I’ll answer the last part of the question first. I do not, in fact, believe that the foreign news media is in a better position to report the Chinese news more impartially than the government itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the opposite. If the world relied solely on foreign media for its news on China I believe it would get a very biased view indeed.

Not by intent, mind you. I am not accusing the Western media of intentional bias. We all have a perspective, of course, and journalists are no exception, but that’s not my point here.

My point is that everything about China, including the news, must be taken in context. And you cannot provide that context unless you fully understand Chinese culture and the inductive worldview on which it is built. Most foreigners don’t.

To the second question, of course the government does censor the news. As do all newsrooms. But the Chinese do not go to the official news outlets for their news. As is the foundation of their culture, they go to each other. They get their news from bloggers and We Chat (the Chinese version of Twitter) and the other personal interactions that dominate their time away from work.

When it comes to context, however, I believe there are two over-riding issues that come into play here.

The first is that I have yet to experience a people, OR a government, that is more self-aware than the Chinese and the government of China. They know full well what their short-comings are and they talk openly and candidly about them. You will find not a single Chinese person who is less informed about the issues facing China than even the most ardent and critical Western Sinologist.

The second is the importance of the individual versus society as a whole. As Westerners, we are consumed with individual rights. We are all libertarians to a degree. It is the foundation of liberal democracy.

The Chinese, by contrast, and with some notable exceptions, are collectivists. They are more concerned with social progress and cultural leadership than they are with individual rights.

For all of these reasons, therefore, I hear no general outcry over the existence of the Great Firewall or the inability to access certain foreign websites. To their inductive thinking, it simply is what it is. There is no cause and effect.

And while I am certainly a proponent of open debate and the Socratic Method (which I believe has been largely lost in today’s pop culture) I believe every organizational leader would agree that there has to be a point at which the debate draws to a close and action is taken.

While some would argue that constant and ongoing criticism keeps everyone honest, I would further argue that it can lead to complete and total paralysis. You need look no further than the current American political process. We change the players but the game remains the same – nothing happens.

So, to what extent is the government’s control over foreign Internet access impeding the country’s development or actually promoting it? You’ll have to decide for yourself where you come down on the issue.

The Chinese, I’m quite sure, will come down in favor of balance – the harmony of yin and yang. And for now, I believe, there are relatively few who believe there is more need for a foreign perspective regarding events occurring in China or elsewhere.

In order to interpret the news about China you must first understand the context within which it unfolds.
In order to interpret the news about China you must first understand the context within which it unfolds.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.