IIn 2016, the human rights organization Amnesty International issued a report in which social media companies are ranked according to their performance in the area of privacy and freedom of expression. In the intoxicating pre-Cambridge Analytica days, Facebook came in first with a score of 73 and the Chinese game and investment company Tencent came last with 0. Amnesty said Tencent was the only firm that had not declared that it was government requests would refuse access data.
But last week, the company expanded its already significant investments in non-Chinese technology companies by plowing a reported $ 150m (£ 116m) to the discussion forum and aggregator Reddit, which has nearly 600 million users.
Tencent joins a long and diverse group of investors on the platform, including the rapper Snoop Dogg, the actor Jared Leto and the billionaire of Silicon Valley and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel.
About the Reddit discussion threads (known as subreddits) that focus on China, along with the dependable few jokes and political polemics, users worried that certain subreddits might contain discussions about the best ways to circumvent the country's strict censorship laws. Many pointed to the ultimate irony that Reddit itself is currently banned in China. Tencent also has a 10% stake in the social media company Snap (Snapchat owners), as well as Tesla and hundreds of other technology companies around the world.
Outside China, Tencent and its own social platform WeChat are becoming increasingly well-known. Tencent has offices around the world, including the American headquarters in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. WeChat, which now has more than one billion users, is not only hugely popular in China, but the ease of use and completeness of its services, including payment and banking, make it the standard social app for many Chinese speakers and immigrant communities. over the world.
The Toronto Star recently reported how the app was used in the Canadian elections to reach the Chinese-speaking electorate. It even attracted research into buying votes, as users of WeChat reportedly offered free rides to polling stations in one case when they voted for certain candidates.
The relationship between companies in China and Western technology companies, especially social platforms and search engines that claim that free expression and privacy protection are core values, is often contradictory and increasingly alarming for free speech and human rights defenders.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the investor and philanthropist George Soros described Chinese President Xi Jinping as the "most dangerous opponent of open societies," particularly in terms of China's growing dominance in artificial intelligence. "The tools of control developed by AI give inherent benefits to authoritarian societies," said Soros.
Silicon Valley's interest in money, however, routinely defies its interest in free expression. "China is just too big a market to run away from," a former Silicon Valley director recently said. Apple has a big investment in China, including production, Facebook has researched ways to enter the market, and human rights activists have protested outside Google's offices over Project Dragonfly, the Chinese search engine that meets the country's strict censorship requirements.
At a conference on platforms for digital media technology at Columbia University last week, co-organized by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism (disclosure: I am the director of the Tow Center), journalists, policy experts and human rights activists discussed increasing censorship in the country and the spread of Chinese political influence through business activities outside.
Becky Davis, Variety's office manager in China, helps to compile an annual overview of foreign correspondents there. In 2018 she said that the reactions of correspondents about press freedom were "the worst for 20 years", with the majority feeling that freedom of the press considerably decreased. 90% of the correspondents believed that they were monitored via mobile phones, and more than 65% thought they were being followed in their home.
A Toronto Star reporter, Joanna Chiu, described how the system of allowing tips in WeChat means that writers now write from their own accounts and can earn a lot of money, but "you always worry that your account will be closed ".
In her report on Chinese social media platforms, Chiu addressed the communist party's attitude towards the explosion of new entertainment and news apps: "There are companies that are really trying to take advantage of the app culture in China, but the government is emerging Ante to put pressure on companies to ensure, no matter how big they become, they are still under the thumb of the state. "
Xi Jinping toured two weeks ago by the new media agency People & # 39; s Daily. His message was that more integration of old media and new media was needed. Davis said that a new guideline for app companies requires one censorship for every 1,000 uploaded videos, and since "you can not censor that much video" this means "invest more in AI".
When Nobel Laureate for Peace, Liu Xiaobo recently died of cancer during a medical visit to a prison sentence of 11 years, Chiu said that any image of him in a WeChat message never reached his recipient – "even cartoon images" – to show how efficient AI is already working on finding out different opinions.
No one expects the Communist Party to expand its power directly through investments in companies such as Reddit, but the normalization of a repressive regime through the embrace of a kind of state capitalism deserves wider attention.
Setting up concentration camps for one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang was not enough to convince one of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to receive funds from Chinese companies to refuse the money. Nor does it seem daunting enough to stop US companies investing in China from stopping their plans to enter the market.
The trade tensions between the US and China revolve around tariffs and not around human rights. The most disturbing of all, against the background of demonstrable tightening censorship, internment camps and an expansion of totalitarianism, is the story of Western companies that their presence in China, and the presence of Chinese money in Western companies, alleviates these limitations. All the evidence says that this is not true.