When #MeToo started gaining traction in China, Weibo, one of the country’s biggest social media platforms, blocked the hashtag. So Chinese feminists found another way to engage in the movement using a homophone that read # rice bowl emoji, bunny emoji. When the words 'rice bunny' are spoken aloud they’re pronounced 'mi tu'.
This is just one example of how people in China are using technology to exercise personal freedom in the face of widespread state control. Author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, Leta Hong Fincher has been following the progress of some of the country’s most prominent feminists for years, and admires their dexterity at getting around the law. "It’s astounding how they were able to mobilise across China despite the incredible censorship," she tells me, "but going forward, it’s going to be much more difficult."
China has been in the news a lot recently with stories about international trade wars, the country’s supersonic rise to the forefront of the global tech race, and the loudly criticised Social Citizen Scores (SCS). The latter, a sort of rating system which allows the government and companies to score citizens based on their behaviour, could potentially make it hard for anyone with a dissenting voice to travel or even participate in everyday life. Black Mirror, anyone?
The Chinese government’s SCS is currently voluntary but will be mandatory by 2020. Rachel Botsman is a tech expert and author of Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together – And Why It Could Drive Us Apart. She is watching the system unfolding in China with apprehension and professional curiosity. "It’s fascinating observing how the Chinese government has positioned the citizen scoring — the economic rationale behind it," she says. "They’re pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance 'trust' nationwide and to build a culture of 'sincerity'."
This isn’t something we’d ever dream of emulating in the West, of course. Or is it? I was in M&S the other day when the woman serving me complimented me on my outfit. I thanked her and paid for my shopping, thinking 'We don’t say nice things to strangers enough'. And then she handed me the receipt, asked me to go online, rate her performance and leave positive feedback. Ah.
Companies and institutions are learning to control and monitor human behaviour. And is it so different from China’s Social Citizen Scores? "Just look at the outcry when we discovered the NSA were listening and collecting information on regular citizens or even the recent Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal," Botsman points out.
"The Chinese could make the argument that at least their system is transparent. At least people know that they're being rated," she continues. "It’s a frightening vision that life is becoming one endless popularity contest, with us all feverishly vying for the highest 'trust scores' that only a few can attain. It’s basically gamified obedience."
The censorship the Chinese feminists are rebelling against and this sort of "gamified obedience" aren’t a million miles from each other. We think we have free speech, but if you write something that goes against the status quo on Twitter, you run the risk of getting trolled or even receiving death threats (mainly if you’re a woman). And so we end up censoring ourselves. It all boils down to homogeny and control; expecting the 'right' behaviour and not allowing for human differences or mishaps. So we rate our Uber drivers, our TaskRabbit electricians and our Airbnb hosts. And they rate us.
Then there’s the matter of who’s collecting this data, and what they’re doing with it. "The fact is, many companies are not transparent about the data they take or clear about how they monetise our personal information," says Botsman. "And this applies to everything from headphones, to running shoes, to sex toys like We-Vibe. When you dig in and look at the level of surveillance going on in the West, from governments to companies, and how much they know about us, it is staggering. There are all kinds of ways we are being judged and assessed that would make us extremely uncomfortable if we knew."
The world is watching China now, more than ever. It’s home to 1.38 billion people and is the world’s largest economy, with the European Union coming in second and the US in third. Human resource is inexpensive there, and this is helping the country in its bid to be the world’s biggest tech superpower. This is acutely evident in Shenzhen, a city that 30 years ago was a fishing village but is now touted as the 'Silicon Valley of the East'. With 60,000-person campuses belonging to the likes of phone manufacturer Huawei (a hugely ambitious company in its own right), it really is like seeing into the future. Tree-lined avenues are filled with electric vehicles and towering skyscrapers overlook miles of new buildings. You could also be anywhere in the world; the city would look as at home on the west coast of America as it does on the tip of southeastern China.
The similarities between China and the West are not limited to the architecture and aesthetics, they extend to the internal workings of these companies too. One 25-year-old woman who works as a product operation and marketing manager at Baidu – the Google of China – thinks so. "Do I think the West still dominates in equality? Yes. Although I feel like my male counterparts and I are on an equal scale, it does not mean that in China how men view women or how women view women is as progressive as the West. Some of the conversations I’ve had with my colleagues still show me that women feel like they need to be babied and that they need to reproduce and the men should care for the family."
"Technologists are stewards of some of the most powerful tools ever created who are driven by multiple motivations including consumer attitudes and the political climate," says Botsman. "For example, in Israel, there are widespread technologies that allow the police to bypass encryption and monitor almost anything. In the US, police officers' uniforms now contain body cams to apparently help in investigations. In Xinjiang in China, everyone is supposed to have a spyware app on their phone that tracks all online activity. It’s a country’s norms, political conventions and regulations that determine not whether these technologies should be invented, but how they should be used."
Technology can subvert governments; it can be used as an incredible tool of communication and lead to change from the ground up – as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring and with the #MeToo movement. But if we lose our power over it, it can also be used against us. "If you’re concerned about growing global authoritarianism, China is a huge part of that," says Hong Fincher. "That’s why we should be watching what’s going on with feminism in China right now."
Botsman has a more sinister warning, pointing back to the Social Citizen Scores. "We are getting closer to the Chinese system – the expansion of credit scoring into life scoring – even if we don’t know it is happening. Barring some kind of mass citizens' revolt to wrench back privacy and personal information, we are entering an age where an individual’s actions will be judged by standards they can’t control and where that judgement cannot be erased."
Call it Black Mirror, or social conditioning, or whatever you want. But technology is only going to take over more and more of our lives, so even if it just means opting out of someone’s database or being more careful about who you share personal information with, it’s up to each of us to protect our independence – both online and off.