How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Li Yuan, a technology columnist in Hong Kong, discussed the tech she’s using.
You write about Chinese tech. What tech tools do you rely on to do your job, and what do you like about them?
It’s not an exaggeration to say I live in and work on WeChat, the messaging app that’s the equivalent of WhatsApp plus Facebook plus PayPal plus Uber plus GrubHub plus many other things. As my iPhone battery use record shows, I spend about one-third of my daily nine-hour phone time on WeChat. That doesn’t include the two to three hours I use WeChat’s web version.
I’m not alone in my heavy WeChat use. There are 800 million internet users in China, but over one billion WeChat accounts. Just about every Chinese online has at least one account, and some more than one. Over one-third of them spend four hours or more on the app each day. The prevalence has made WeChat an indispensable part of many people’s lives and work. Two years ago, I met two people who refused to use WeChat, and I thought about writing a story about how people like them navigated work and life. Before I got around to it, both became my WeChat friends.
So as a journalist, I have to hang out on WeChat. I message and call my sources on WeChat. I keep an eye on WeChat Moment, which is similar to Facebook Timeline, and group chats so I’ll always be on top of what’s going on in China. When others pretend they are too busy to get back to me, I comment on their Moment posts and group chats to tell them that I know they aren’t so busy.
By now, some readers must be screaming, “How about the censorship and government surveillance on WeChat?” Sadly, it’s just the way of life in China. I’m not trying to make light of the issue. I’ve been very critical of how the tech companies work with the government to censor and monitor the Chinese public. But the reality is that ordinary Chinese often feel powerless and fatalistic when it comes to censorship and surveillance.
I’ve tried to persuade people to get on encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp but haven’t had much success.
I also use Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. I used to be an active Weibo user and still have a few million followers there. But after the government cracked down on Weibo a few years ago and shut down many of the most provocative and influential accounts, I don’t use it too often because the conversations are often dominated by celebrity news instead of discussions of current affairs.
But Weibo is still a good place to check out the hottest topics and trends. That’s where I found people to talk to for a column I wrote about the generation that grew up without Google, Facebook or Twitter.
How do people in China use tech differently, compared with people in the United States?
The first thing many visitors to China notice is how mobile the Chinese are. Many Chinese never owned a laptop or a PC, and their first computer was their smartphone. Email never really took off in China. Some big corporations do use it. But people usually resort to WeChat for a quick response.
Because of WeChat’s prevalence, few Chinese carry business cards any more. At many meetings in China, there’s a time when everybody takes out his or her phone and scans the WeChat QR codes of others to become “friends.” I personally like having contacts on WeChat rather than on business cards. Because it’s a social media platform, you learn about your contacts as individuals beyond their business titles.
Many businesspeople I know have two or more WeChat accounts because WeChat allows only 5,000 contacts for one account. A young venture capitalist told me that it had taken him only two years to reach the limit. I don’t know how they manage so many contacts.
Generally, Chinese are more receptive to new things and more tolerant of imperfect products, including mobile apps. Some commentators here say Facebook is almost a Chinese company because of its “move fast and break things” mantra. Many people in China’s internet industry work super-long hours to make sure they beat competitors to roll out new features first.
Why are mobile wallets so popular in China?
When I moved from New York to Beijing in 2008, China was still a cash-based nation. Not many people had credit cards, and it wasn’t easy for small businesses to get approval to install the machines. I used to have to go to the A.T.M.s all the time. Going to the banks, mostly giant state-owned enterprises, was torturously time-consuming.
Then came WeChat Pay and Alipay, the mobile payment services from Tencent and Alibaba. Since so many Chinese were already on WeChat and were trained to scan QR codes, it took the two giants only some cash-bonus campaigns at grocery stores to convert people like my mom to mobile payments.
Mobile pay is now available in almost every place I visit in China, including small towns. I’ve been carrying a 100-yuan ($15) bill in my wallet for months but haven’t found an occasion to use it. Everybody — hotels, department stores, taxi drivers, noodle stands — takes Alipay or WeChat Pay or both. Even tollbooths accept mobile payment.
What are some hot new apps, tech products or internet services in China?
The hottest app is a short video service, Douyin, which is called TikTok outside China. As my colleague Kevin Roose aptly put it in a recent column, it’s “a quirky hybrid of Snapchat, the defunct video app Vine and the TV segment ‘Carpool Karaoke.’”
To be honest, I’m too old for the app — Douyin targets urban teenagers and 20-somethings — and have not spent much time on it. But I’ve seen some viral Douyin videos on Weibo and WeChat that are fun and goofy. Some young Chinese told me that they spend hours watching Douyin videos every day, which I would argue is the downside of the app. Its parent company, Bytedance, is very good at using artificial intelligence to push content based on users’ viewing history.
The short video app that I check out from time to time is Douyin’s rival, Kwai. Kwai is popular in small towns and the countryside. You can watch young people chasing geese and getting married in white gowns in front of mud houses. I call Kwai the “Hillbilly Elegy” of China. It’s where you can get a flavor of what China is like outside the biggest coastal cities.
Outside of work, what tech product are you into right now?
I’m a very low-tech person! While my iPhone feels like an extension of my left arm, I don’t use many other electronics. I didn’t own a TV until a year ago and only watch Netflix sometimes. I bought a microwave this year, and it’s the simplest model because I knew I would use it only to reheat food.
My biggest tech wish is for Google, Facebook, Apple or another company to build a technology that can break the Great Firewall, the system of filters and blocks that prevents Chinese from visiting thousands of foreign websites. Instead of kowtowing to the Chinese government’s demands in order to gain access to the market, American tech giants could do something heroic: Liberate hundreds of millions of people from information darkness.
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