The successful social platform Tiktok got into hot water when it comes to its relation with China, now the company goes international. Former Baidu communication director Kaiser Kuo looks at The Ringer how Tiktok thrived, like others, in this climate of uncertainty, fuzziness and unpredictability that is key for China’s internet.
“I just remember it was like yesterday that we were all so disparaging of China’s ability to innovate,” Kaiser Kuo, a journalist who has worked in the Chinese tech industry and cohosts Sinica Podcast, told me. “Freedom was not only the necessary condition for being innovative, but it was also even, more hubristically, a sufficient condition.” But in recent years, China has gradually disproved that theory with its mastery of dockless bikes and mobile payments. The two countries are now competing to control the growing sectors of artificial intelligence and global telecommunications. And in May, the Trump administration moved to essentially ban the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from the U.S. market. ..
From its launch, this lack of clarity has been apparent to TikTok users. Many teens have complained about being surreptitiously booted from the app. Others suspect their content has been intentionally kept away from the all-important “For You” feed. In late November, a 17-year-old Afghan American high-schooler named Feroza Aziz tucked a political message into a standard TikTok beauty tutorial. “Use the phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China,” she says in the clip, while curling her eyelashes. She then criticizes the Chinese government for keeping Muslim Uighurs in mass detention centers in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang. The video was briefly removed from TikTok, and Aziz was temporarily unable to access her account. But after the incident was picked up by news outlets, TikTok apologized, overrode her ban, and brought back the video, claiming these issues were due to a “human moderation error” and a separate, unrelated issue with Aziz’s account. Whatever happened, Kuo says this kind of lack of clarity keeps with standard Chinese censorship practices. When loading a forbidden website in China, users often encounter the same standard error page you might find with a weak Wi-Fi signal. “The line has always been sort of deliberately blurry,” Kuo said. “They deliberately keep it fuzzy so that the idea is if you’re not sure whether you’re going to step over it, you’re going to self-censor. You’re going to be more careful about what you say.”…
Kuo, who worked at the Chinese search engine Baidu, says companies’ willingness to censor is often just a means to an end. “When the Cyberspace Administration of China sends somebody over, or when they’re having these conversations about what videos, or search terms, or topics need to be censored, it’s not like these companies are saying, ‘Oh, hey, let me suggest a few more to add to this blacklist,’” he said. “They’re trying to comply as minimally as possible. What goes on that list will be different every time and it will change day to day.”
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