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ChinAI #105: A Slow News Approach to TikTok's Forced Sale
Plus, More Fuel for Chinese Techno-nationalist Voices: Luke Wen
Greetings from a land where Slow News exists…
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Reflections: TikTok, Fast News, and the Technonationalism Dilemma
ChinAI is a newsletter in name only (NINO), and I intentionally try to stay away from the “fast news.” This is partly because of value-add/division-of-labor considerations — there’s no shortage of people who will go for the clout attached to the latest hot topic — but it’s mostly for personal wellbeing reasons. Chasing headlines adds so much stress and pressure to always be up-to-date and “first” on some issue. That’s why we’ve featured so much history on ChinAI lately. Slow news presents a nice check on the presentist bias we all suffer from.
This week I do want to tackle a fast news topic — Microsoft’s potential acquisition of TikTok — but in a slow news way. One good test to see if someone has taken the time to deliberatively think about the TikTok situation is if they can hold all five of these views at once:
via Alex Stamos, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
It’s clear that the Trump administration is narrowly focused on one of these ovals — the risks of Chinese ownership. As with the Houston consulate decision and so many others, the Trumpian approach to China is to make fast news headlines rather than effective, sustainable policy. This critique is not new nor difficult to hammer home, and others have already laid out pathways for a more deliberative approach to TikTok.
Instead, in this issue I want to show how the Trumpian approach to China fuels a troubling trend I’ve pointed out in previous issues of ChinAI: the growing clout of techno-nationalist voices on the Chinese Internet. This week’s feature translation is of Luke Wen’s (卢克文) writing on the TikTok-Microsoft sale, which has racked up 100,000+ views in just a day. He’s one of the most prominent techno-nationalist voices, or what Ma Tianjie of Chublic Opinion has called “development bloggers” — an emerging, formidable force on the Chinese interwebs. Another rough heuristic of an article’s influence: As you can see from the screenshot below, 15 of my Wechat friends read his blog post on this issue on the TikTok-Microsoft sale. ***Very rarely do I see more than 10 of my friends having read a particular article when I scroll through my subscriptions):
Feature Translation: Why is TikTok being forced to sell to Microsoft?
After working in e-commerce operations for a decade, Luke Wen set up a WeChat public account in March 2019 that has gained millions of readers. Aiming to provide “the most in-depth breakdown of international politics,” the account frequently features writings on technological competition and great power relations. Often writing in a genre I label “techlore,” his style involves generalizations about the fates of nations from personal anecdotes and dramatic stories.
On why the U.S. is so opposed to TikTok: “Since the United States is powerful, it has always been the master of martial arts, with many younger disciples. Therefore, if there is a public opinion showdown in the world, we have no chance of winning at all, just like the Chinese Navy if it encounters the US Navy in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. But around China’s territory, we still have a certain chance of winning a fight with the United States, and this is also true for the war over the mobile Internet.
The international public opinion platform is the Pacific Ocean where the United States has the discourse power, revealing the soft power of the United States. It has always been a place where the United States’ mouthpiece is invincible. However, a Chinese nuclear submarine has suddenly charged in, destroying everything it sees.
Tik-Tok is this nuclear submarine.”
Playful slang is peppered throughout the pieces, attempting to appeal to netizens. In this piece, for instance, he uses the disparaging nickname 蓬胖 (Fat Peng) to refer to Sec. of State Pompeo (who’s name is usually translated as 蓬佩奥 (Peng Pei Ao ).
He writes, “I beg you Pompeo, can you show me some evidence? If there is no evidence, I have to sue you for libel. (But this guy has a thick-skinned face, so it's probably useless to sue.)”
My aim here is not to give Luke Wen more of a platform. This would be akin to what people do when they “debate” the Global Times editor to get more Twitter points. Many Chinese commentators have denounced Luke Wen’s posts for lack of systematic research, sensationalism, and even making up stories. Rather, my aim here is to present two key takeaways:
Reading the full translation gives you a sense of the one-dimensional-thinking of these techno-nationalist “development-bloggers.” I’ve commented in some fact-checks and flaws in the thinking. And sadly, it also shows how many of the same tropes are mirrored in the logic of the Trump administration and its enablers.
It highlights the dangers of a technonationalism spiral. Is there anything that empowers the impoverished thinking of hyper-nationalists more than the ability to point to the writings and actions of hyper-nationalists in another country? Let me be clear: there are still a lot of diverse voices on the Chinese Internet that hold five-oval, multi-dimensional views about issues like TikTok. In this post, Luke Wen even positions himself against all of China’s public intellectuals (公知): China’s public intellectuals serve as fanatical missionaries of universal values in the West, taking on the "heavy responsibility of awakening the foolish people.”
But there’s a risk that Trump’s “fuck China” strategy lends further legitimacy to voices like Luke Wen’s. Back in May of 2018, Ma Tianjie wrote in a Chublic opinion blog post, “If Donald Trump’s trade war has any effects, one of them would be uniting the Chinese internet under the flag of industrial self-armament.” To borrow the words of Cardi B, “it’s not a threat, it’s a warning.” Be careful — I plea.
FULL TRANSLATION: Why is Tik-Tok Being Forced to Sell to Microsoft
ChinAI (Four to Forward)
Must-follow: all these people
ChinAI provides a biased, limited cross-section of the ChinAI space. To develop a multidimensional view, get a balanced diet of all these journalists and researchers who've spent years undertaking sharp & difficult work on China plus AI & tech — including Christina Larson herself.
Sheena Greitens expertly takes apart this piece. I won’t say more other than I remember leaving a get-together with friends to talk to Ross about this piece. Let’s just say there’s a reason none of the nuance I tried to add made it into the story. He clearly had a frame he was already committed to writing within the bounds of.
Shen Lu in Politico notes a new wave of Chinese language podcasts and newsletters — positioned in-between Chinese state media control and American-centric Western media. These include: In-Betweenness, Loud Murmurs, News Lab (a newsletter run by Kecheng Fang, a journalism professor based in Hong Kong.
Should-read: National Security, Antitrust, and AI
How are national security considerations likely to affect US antitrust decisions on AI? Cullen O’Keefe investigates the question by looking at historical cases in a new FHI technical report.
Thank you for reading and engaging.
These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.
Check out the archive of all past issues here & please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).
Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jjding99