Rupert Murdoch was wrong. The Australian media tycoon once deemed satellite TV to be an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere”.
That turned out to not be the case. Since then, social media-era technology powered by artificial intelligence has turned out to be more facilitator than threat to dystopian aspects of totalitarian societies.
It recognises faces and even gait; pulls down data from mobile phones to build up encyclopedic knowledge of those it tracks in China; and helps scrub the internet clean of anything considered untoward.
Nor is the damage restricted to dictatorships. Social media has posed threats to democracies; such as the ways Facebook was deployed by Russia to help influence the US elections or the role of fake news on WhatsApp as India goes to the polls. Critics warn that addictive games and videos are addling a global generation’s brains and eyesight.
The subsequent backlash, from regulators, investors and parents has pushed tech companies everywhere on to the defensive. Tech leaders have been dragged before congress — though often with more arrogance than humility — and others have posted online mea culpas.
Skewed dynamics mean things have always worked a little differently in China. The separation between the state, or rather the Communist Party, and privately owned companies is not a clean one. China’s internet companies, led by Tencent and Alibaba, carry out the government’s censorship on their platforms; many have in-house Party committees.
Now, after a period of being hammered by Chinese authorities, such as last year’s hiatus in approving commercial licences for online games, China’s tech sector is trying to seize the moral high ground.
“Technology for good is our new vision and mission,” posted Pony Ma, founder and chief executive of Tencent, a slightly more commercialised form of Google’s erstwhile “Don’t be evil”.
This is a step up from earlier efforts at portraying Tencent’s societal good: long before it was under pressure from regulators over gaming, the social media group was helping track down missing children. Alibaba adheres to government concerns too, targeting issues like rural poverty.
But Mr Ma’s statement illustrates an upping of the ante and rests on two bulwarks, both of which dovetail neatly with government aims: to make the internet a more positive force, and to use it as a conduit to promote Chinese culture.
As a member of the National People’s Congress, Mr Ma drafted legislative proposals for a more socially responsible, humane legislation in a written submission to the NPC in March.
His vision, according to one person familiar with the plans, is for an all encompassing law that spans devices, apps and companies. He also wants to see better welfare safety nets for gig workers, like drivers for ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing, in which Tencent has a stake.
That is useful, but also self-serving. Tencent has already sparred with smartphone maker Huawei over ownership of user data.
Blanket legislation means a level playing field. Signing up to a set of values while your unshackled rivals hoover up revenues does not make good business sense. Hence Google’s China rethink: what use is the high moral ground to shareholders when you are shut out of the biggest internet market in the world?
The second tool in China tech’s arsenal is championing national culture. Think internet and the temptation is to think shoot ’em up games and cat videos. Tencent now wants you to think virtual museum trips and historic national dramas.
In this vein, Tencent has linked up with overseas museums that have Chinese collections, showing the country’s artefacts to the world while helping the domestic audience to view collections online. It also has a tie-up with the Forbidden City that, among other things, lets users take a selfie dressed in Qing dynasty costumes.
Beijing has long chafed at China’s relatively small contribution to global culture, which pales beside the spread of South Korea’s K-pop and skincare or Japan’s J-pop and anime. The tech companies, with their huge audiences and inroads into overseas markets, are natural conduits for taking culture to the masses.
“Sometimes,” said one person familiar with its thinking, Tencent “likes to compare [itself] to Disney. [It] tries to develop more intellectual property, to leverage on that”.
Disney of course may hardly be a social good, but it is a lot cuddlier than violent video games. And if China tech has learnt anything, from both its own experience in the past year and that of its US peers, it is that cuddly beats threatening every time.
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