Landing : Athabascau University

Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App Is WeChat. - The New York Times

This is a terrifying article on the all-powerful (in China) WeChat app, revealing some fascinating insights into the ways it is organized and policed - very literally - by Chinese authorities. As one source puts it,

"The filter bubbles on WeChat have nothing to do with algorithms — they come from China’s closed internet ecosystem and censorship."

The article is full of useful links and revealing detail. What I find particularly fascinating about it, though, is that, like Facebook, for many people, WeChat membership is not really optional. If they want to stay in touch with friends and family, or if they want to connect with other Chinese people in their local community, it is essentially the only game in town despite the existence of all the old ways of connecting (phones, letters, news, etc) as well as countless newer ones (albeit, in China, likely facing similar monitoring and censorship). What makes it essential is Metcalfe's Law (and more subtle variants like Reed's Law, or more qualitative variants like Beckstrom's Law), which pretty much rules out other options for most people. Complex adaptive systems are easily disrupted and manipulated by centralized authority. The Chinese goverment has deliberately engineered things this way and, in the process, has gained a fair measure of monitoring and control of not only its own people but also the vast hordes of Chinese-origin people around the world. As the article notes, it has brought Chinese censorship to the world.

I have often lambasted Facebook for its single-minded, vicious, underhand assaults on the open standards and protocols that would enable a more distributed and human-centred social web. For Facebook, though, the ugly and repulsive motive is simply greed, unfettered by morality. It does meddle in politics, for sure, but the motive is simply money (well - maybe with a bit of power hunger and certainly a weird compulsion to dominate). The Chinese goverment's motives are far more dangerous and sinister because it is doing it to spread its ideology and to sustain/enhance its political power: it's almost an evangelical mission. People who believe in something are often far more dangerous than those who believe in nothing. The Chinese government may therefore be an even more significant and powerful enemy of an open, safe, user-controlled web, and it has means of enforcing it, including incarceration and threats against family, that even Facebook would be wary of using (though I bet it would if it could). For those of us fighting for a more distributed, devolved, decentralized Internet, this may be our most formidible enemy.


  • Jenny Chun Chi Lien September 12, 2020 - 7:07pm

    Thank you very much professor Jon for sharing this topic.

    I stay away from using any technologies developed by companies in China since they are China government controlled - wechat, tiktok, huawei, alibaba...etc.

    I grew up in Taiwan where the government and most Taiwanese citizens value basic human rights especially in the areas of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, LGBTQ equality, women rights...etc. Many people there have been actively fighting against being influenced or potentially controlled by China mainly because they do not want to lose their basic human rights. They know China too well to not trust China. 

    Since 2019, Reddit- the most popular forum and the 5th largest website in the world (right after Google, Youtube, Facebook, and Amazon), is funded by Chinese investors, which resulted in a large backlash as people worried about potentially censorship that can happen in America [1].

    China's controls of technologies and their growing influences these years are scary, but part of me is happy that finally the rest of the world are starting to see the problems and threads China is bringing to all human beings in the entire world- and we have to do something about it, or one day we can lose our freedom right here in Canada as well. 


    [1]  "Reddit: Censorship fears spark criticism of Tencent funding reports". BBC News. February 11, 2019. Retrieved September 30, 2019.


  • Jon Dron September 13, 2020 - 2:52pm

    And thanks for this, Jenny. As a long-time Reddit lurker (and very occasional contributor) I had not realized that it was funded by Chinese investors, nor did I know about that backlash. Having visited both Taiwan and China I know which system I prefer! Even walking on the street in Beijing last year I was hastily silenced by a local when I (without directly expressing an opinion or offering a critique) alluded to the troubles in Hong Kong. Quite scary. I loved Taiwan - wonderful place, so much to be proud of.

  • Jenny Chun Chi Lien September 18, 2020 - 11:30pm

    I do feel I am very lucky to be born in Taiwan and to be living in Canada! :D 

    China is so big with 20 percent of the human population so I truly hope one day their political system would change!

    I also use Reddit a lot to read information - I find opinions posts on Reddit tend to be more honest and reliable compared to other sites (at least for now) . I don't think any censorship has happened on Reddit yet but Tecent - the Chinese company invested in Reddit is the owner of WeChat, so I think reddit users' worries are very legit!