The Great Wall of China That I Built

IMG_1236For half of each year, if I have totted up and accounted for the days correctly,  I couldn’t care less that every piece of electronica in my life is spying on me.

The rest of the time I sink into techno-paranoia: I put stickers over the cameras on my computers, I unplug Alexa,  I cast aside my Apple watch, turn off the location tracking on my mobile phone,  switch on my VPN and change all my passwords.

And then life gets really complicated. I can no longer shout “what time is it?” from my bed but instead have to reach for the watch that I forgot to wind up. I demand to know how the weather is but like the school disco of yore I am relentlessly ignored. With a groan I am forced to turn my head to the window and look outside. And after all that strain and effort it is still grey.

Eventually I switch it all back on. I mean, really, what have I got to hide? And who cares? Who’s watching and weighing and scrutinising? Get real! I shake my head and embrace the tech. I ask the AI what film I should watch and it says: “I’m pretty sure you’re the kind of person that will like the Edward Snowden film”.

A few hours later I am taping up all the cameras again and longing to go back to a  time when things were more simple. Way back, like that time I helped build the Great Wall of China.

This was in the 1980s. I had taken a bus and a cab and a bicycle from Beijing to the Great Wall. There was a sketchy car park, very few people and a very long line of steps. I climbed the path to the top of the hill and along the ascent posed for photos for people who did not seem much used to exotic folk like your correspondent. When I reached the wall I strolled along the curving, turning, undulating and magnificent path. Once I had passed a few hundred metres I had it all to myself.

I walked past a string barrier with a mysterious sign written in Chinese and eventually came across a handful of labourers who were laying stones on a broken section of the wall. Undaunted by the absence of a mobile phone, an ipad, a smart watch, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, wifi or a google translation app I waved. They waved back.

Not long after that I laid a few stones and played my part in building one of the wonders of the world. It didn’t take long because no-one had ever heard of “Stopping for Selfies”. It would have been a good one, though. But as I say this was the time before Instagram not to mention WeChat, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Pinduoduo, Meituan, Huawei, Xiaomi, DJI, Ant Financial or any of the other formidably giant and fast paced Chinese tech companies that are making Silicon Valley look sluggish.

If these companies are unknown to you it is not surprising. Just as the Great Wall seperated the Middle Kingdom from outsiders, the Great Firewall (in combination with cultural, political and economic barriers) have kept many of these businesses out of the West.  Such unfamiliarity does not mean they are not enormous or influential. The combined turnover of the first three of these companies alone was about $120 billion in 2018. Like the Paypal mafia in the US, the Baidu-Alibaba-Tencent mafia are at the heart of almost all innovation and investment in China.  So what do they do?

Baidu owns search

Alibaba leads e-commerce

Tencent dominates gaming and social networking

We are, according to Rebecca Fannin’s book and other observers, approaching a technological cold war (Silicon Dragon versus Silicon Valley) so you might want to know more. This is a spare and utlitarian guide to what China’s helter skelter tech industry.  What you learn is that we may be entering a time when what happens in China, rather than America, presages what happens elsewhere.

Not only does this suggest you read the book it also means that you might want to prepare for the all-seeing Chinese social credit system that “judges a citizen’s trustworthiness through technological surveillance and encourages compliance by giving ratings that can determine access to loans, jobs, schools and travel.”

Switch off Alexa while you can…

 

I read: Tech Titans of China

By: Rebecca A. Fannin

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