China’s Matrix: Coming to a Western Theater Near You

Robert W. Kang, Stanford University

In the 1999 film the Matrix, a groundbreaking conceptual universe was introduced where reality, as perceived by most humans, is actually a simulation. Though the Matrix is a work of pure science fiction, China has come closer than any nation on Earth to actually creating a reality similar to the Universe of the Matrix.

China has the world’s most elaborate censorship program.  The program is far reaching and includes essentially all media capable of reaching a wide audience: television, print media, radio, film, theater, text messaging, instant messaging, video games, literature and the Internet.

China’s censorship of information is so extensive and elaborate that it is actually a part of Chinese culture. Unlike the old style censorship of Soviet Era Totalitarian Regimes, China has created an entire civil society that maintains a facade of freedom, while building a “bubble” for its people that is similar to the Matrix.

In China, the Internet is a closed domain that is cordoned off from the rest of the world. Beijing has completely walled off any Western Internet sites that it cannot control from being able to tap into the Chinese market. Western Internet sites such as Google, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook are blocked in China. Back in August, Uber actually sold its China Operations.

In the absence of Western Internet sites, Chinese companies have been hard at work creating some of their own innovative Websites. Chinese companies fill the void by creating distinctly Chinese versions of these services such as Weibo, WeChat, YouKu, Baidu, and Alibaba.  The Internet in China, then, is more or less an Intranet service with its users mainly visiting sanctioned sites that can be controlled by the government, a Matrix reality. Further, companies like WeChat and Alibaba heavily rely on the Domestic Chinese Market and have not been able to penetrate the Global Market.

However, sites like WeChat have benefitted from this intranet setting in China by creating a social media platform that is based not only on social interactions, but also commercial and virality applications that can provide transaction services at a touch of the button.  Virality is defined as “the tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another; the quality or fact of being viral.” Chinese sites such as WeChat utilize virality by combining the capabilities of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Yelp, and PayPal into one application instead of several different ones. In fact, the bar code connectivity used by Snapchat, the payment feature on Facebook, and the video live streaming options offered by Twitter are all inspired by Chinese sites like WeChat, Alipay, and YY.Com.

Facebook and Twitter are now following suit, trying to develop similar capabilities to WeChat, and to utilize virality.  However, this new virality social media platform was developed behind the “Great Chinese Firewall,” and that has consequences. The social media service that WeChat has created makes it possible for big data to be collected on an individually tailored level. Since WeChat allows social media interactions to be coupled with commercial interactions, it is now possible for companies and government entities to collect huge amounts of data, based based on one’s day-to-day activities. This is important, because it gives companies and government entities the power to monitor ones’ activities and preferences online, and it gives them a powerful tool to directly target and identify individuals. WeChat’s virality mechanism also opens up a Pandora’s Box that enables Governments and private companies to predict individual citizens’ actions based on their social media posts.

The big data collected by WeChat or Weibo can be used by the Chinese Central Government and the Chinese State Security Agencies to issue subpoenas. And due to the increasingly personalized features of WeChat and Weibo, big data collected by these social media companies contains all the information one would need to spy on someone without ever meeting them face-to-face. In turn, this gives the Chinese Secruity Apparatus the means to keep tabs on nearly all of its more than one billion citizens on a strikingly individualized basis. All Chinese and foreign Internet companies are required to follow China’s strict laws on censorship and data-sharing with the State. Because of this stranglehold, Google decided to end its business with China after no longer wanting to comply with the requisite intrusive Internet policy.

On one hand, the big data collected by the theses social media companies does give the public security bureaus in China the means to effectively maintain law and order within its borders, and help catch criminals/terrorists. This, however, is a double-edged sword; it also gives the Chinese State Security Agencies the means to directly target any citizens who they deem as “threats” to national security. Given China’s history, it is not hard to imagine how this tool is used as a cudgel to crush dissent.

A tool like this can be troubling for privacy concerns, particularly if the US Companies decide to follow their Chinese counterparts.

Outside of massive privacy intrusions, Chinese Companies like WeChat have essentially created a parallel reality in China, separate from the outside world. And because of China’s strict censorship of the Internet, WeChat and other Chinese Internet Service/Social Media Companies face virtually no competition from outside companies such as Facebook or Twitter. This is concerning from a free trade standpoint, because China is unfairly growing its domestic industry by shutting out competitors.

There is another reason to worry about U.S. companies replicating the viraity capabilities of Chinese sites like WeChat. As I stated earlier in the column, Western Social Media Companies are taking notice of the innovation of virality from what their Chinese Counterparts has created. Western Social Media Companies are interested in also taking advantage of real-time virality and offer multifaceted services. For example, Facebook could partner with Uber, and Twitter could link with Periscope to offer live video broadcasts. But we must ask if these partnerships are worthwhile. By using these multifaceted services, we are allowing companies unprecedented access into our lives, and sacrificing much of our privacy in the process. The services offered by WeChat and similar sites are a goldmine for advertising companies, as they can directly track their customers’ every interaction on social media. And in a country like China, where human rights abuses are rampant, the regime uses big data collected by companies like WeChat to monitor and suppress Chinese citizens.  These are the concerns that we as Americans need to seriously grapple with. If we don’t, we risk unwittingly sacrificing our privacy, and possibly our personal security.

This Matrix reality is in full force in China, because Chinese companies like WeChat have opened the floodgates for our digital footprints to become personalized and tracked on an individual level. China’s Matrix reality should make us all think about the current capabilities of our social media sites and whether it is healthy or safe for a society to have so many multifaceted services.

If we are not careful, China’s Matrix might become ours.