An international perspective on privacy

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Consul General Hong Lei stands in front of a banner with his name and title on it.

Hong Lei, a diplomat in the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Consul General in Chicago, addresses students at Michigan State University on Oct. 6, 2017.

When Chinese students come to MSU, they have to adjust to a completely new culture. But one potentially unexpected difference is the way social media is used in America.

Chinese marketing senior Lily Fan said using social media in the U.S. is a very “different” experience than it is in China because the Chinese government has absolute control of the internet.

“People actually really don’t like it that much,” Fan said. “Because you can not see the truth sometimes because something will be deleted.”

In China, the government limits access to certain websites for all internet users. It also completely blocks most social media sites including YouTube, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, SoundCloud, and even WordPress. The photo-sharing app Snapchat is also blocked in China.

This censorship even extends outside of social media. Information related to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, for example, is completely blocked in China.

Economic geography junior Vincent Black said censorship in China is meant to “minimize the risk of protests and uprisings”. He said the US is a lot more open than China is.

“China on the other hand is censored to control and ‘keep peace’ among its citizens,” Black said. “It’s used to keep it’s citizens from seeing reality to make it seem like the reality they’re living in is better than the reality outside their country.”

Staying in control

Fan said she’s “not happy” with the level of censorship in China, but she also understands why the government does it.

“They control a lot of stuff, yes,” Fan said. “Sometimes control means bad because you lose part of your freedom, but sometimes it’s good because if there’s a crisis or something, they can control or they can fix it pretty soon. So they don’t have to wait for anything else.”

Although she wishes the censorship in China was less strict, Fan said she can see how it could be used to prevent fake news or internet scams from spreading on social media.

The Chinese government has used “the Great Firewall” to control the spread of information on social media in the past. After a series of deadly explosions at a container storage station on August 12, 2015, websites and social media accounts were closed and at least two internet users were detained for posting misinformation online.

Consul General Hong Lei stands in front of a banner with his name and title on it.

Hong Lei, a diplomat in the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Consul General in Chicago, addresses students at Michigan State University on Oct. 6, 2017.

Hong Lei, the Chinese Consul General in Chicago, described the Golden Shield Project as a “very important project for China”, which controls censorship in China, is used to keep Chinese citizens safe.

“We are now building a very solid foundation for an operation giving protection against crime,” Hong said.

Chinese doctoral student Ye Sun agrees that censorship by the Chinese government isn’t a big deal.

“For me, it’s not that different,” Sun said. “Because in China, I didn’t use anything illegal, so I just used the internet to watch some TV or something. So I think, for me, it’s the same. Maybe it’s hard for me to watch some Chinese TV, but I don’t think it’s that different.”

The Chinese version of Facebook

Sun and Fan both created Facebook accounts when they first moved to America. Fan still uses Facebook, but Sun eventually stopped using it once she realized there was a cultural divide that made the experience frustrating for her.

“Sometimes, I can’t understand,” Sun said. “Maybe they use some words or something from American culture, and I can’t understand. You can’t get the point. And secondly, some stars or some sports stars, I didn’t know them.”

There is one social media app that has had no trouble catching on in China. WeChat, or Weixin as it’s called in China, had a combined 500 million monthly active users internationally in 2015.

“I first downloaded WeChat to chat with family in China, since WeChat was free, easy to use, and has video calling capabilities, which was a lot better than paying for international phone cards,” Human Biology and Pre-Med junior Sunny Xia said.

Fan also said she uses WeChat to talk to her family in China. Fan described WeChat as the “Chinese version of Facebook”, and it functions a lot like Facebook does: users can make profiles, message friends, and post pictures for their friends to like and comment on.

Although WeChat is used widely in China, information shared on the app – including private messages – is still subject to surveillance by the Chinese government.

“I have heard that recently, WeChat updated and users are no longer to share articles from any news sites on the Moments,” Xia said. Moments is a feature of WeChat that acts like posting to a timeline on Facebook. “This was done to make it harder for people to spread news articles that the government wants filtered out.”

Although Xia is critical of the Chinese government, she is still careful about what she says about it over WeChat.

“I remember that one time, when I was calling my parents on WeChat, I started [to] say things about the Chinese government so my parents told me to hang up and call them using cellular service instead,” Xia said.

Looking ahead

Fan said that nothing “is really private”, and she also said she doesn’t mind if the government monitors behavior on WeChat as long as they don’t block anything.

“[The government doesn’t] really care what you eat today, where you’re going to eat, where you’re going to go,” Fan said, “They don’t care if your shoes or dress look pretty today or your hat. It’s just not something that is important to them.”

Black said the Chinese government seems “to have gotten worse in terms of restrictions and censorship”.

“What makes it worse is that the government is making it seem like they’re more open, but I could guarantee you if you tried to speak up against the government publically, you might just end up going missing,” Black said.

China has had the lowest Freedom on the Net ranking for two years in a row, and Xia, like Black, doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“I think that the censorship in China has gotten worse since Xi Jinping has taken office,” Xia said. “I don’t think that these restrictions/censorship will be loosened until a new ‘president’ takes office – but this depends on who takes office next – or with the fall of the Communist Party.”