Anyone travelling to China knows that they need to employ a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass the Middle Kingdom’s Great Firewall. Applications that we use back home such as YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp won’t work otherwise. In a bid to insulate its citizens from “undesirable influences”, the People’s Republic of China has banned said apps alongside several others. In their stead, the Chinese use their own versions of these apps and services that, if you scratch just a little beneath the surface, also allow their government to monitor and exercise control over the population. Here’s social engineering at its finest, in a closed ecosystem with a captive audience.
Access To Information: Google Vs Baidu
Baidu is China’s version of Google. Domestically, it boasts 74.6 per cent of the nation’s online search queries (as of February 2019). Google China, a subsidiary of Google, pales in comparison at only 2.03 per cent. A key difference here is that Baidu’s hits are biased towards China’s local market, while Google China’s results are global.
Although Baidu is compliant with the censorship laws and restrictions imposed by the state government, Google China actually also practises self-censorship – the Chinese variant of the world’s leading search engine blocks results that are contrary to China’s sensibilities, including Tank Man, and communicates this explicitly to users when they make these sensitive queries. Alas, a half-baked search engine offers only the worst of both worlds – according to Google’s own usage reports, Chinese citizens who use its search engine tend to access the unadulterated version via VPN instead.
Communications: WhatsApp Vs WeChat
Globally, WhatsApp has far more users than WeChat, the size of China’s population notwithstanding. WhatsApp primarily serves as a communication platform, while WeChat facilitates a number of other activities besides messaging, from making payments to splitting the bill after a meal and even editing photos. It’s an all-in-one app aimed at making life easier.
Despite WeChat’s convenience, WhatsApp offers something that it cannot: privacy. WeChat users have absolutely none of that on the application, as everything from calls to messages are state monitored. It isn’t uncommon for calls to get cut-off and messages to miraculously disappear should sensitive topics be discussed.
Entertainment And Social Media: YouTube/Twitter Vs Tencent Video/Weibo
YouTube and Twitter obviously trump their counterparts when it comes to censorship. Unfortunately, YouTube is blocked in China as a result. Similar services like Tencent Video and iQiyi have developed to fill this void.
Videos on China’s streaming platforms are heavily censored though. Anything deemed “inappropriate” is swiftly removed, and the content creator punished accordingly. Pricing structures differ too. China’s video streaming platforms charge a subscription fee for “premium” experiences not unlike YouTube’s option. At US$2 per month on average, however, they cost just a fraction of what YouTube charges.
Twitter is, unsurprisingly, also blocked in China. In its place is Sina Weibo, China’s top microblogging site. As of November 2018, Twitter’s active users numbered 326 million per month, compared to Weibo’s 430 million active users. While Twitter may be the choice for celebrities, sports icons and even the 45th US president, it lacks several of Weibo’s selling points, including a heavily streamlined experience that’s also more user-friendly. Weibo also offers customisable layouts and employs a medal-based reward system to encourage user participation and engagement.
Ride Hailing: Uber Vs Didi
Many people have taken to booking their rides instead of street hailing cabs nowadays, and it’s all thanks to fuss-free smartphone applications. In Singapore, we have Grab; in America, there’s Uber; as for China, it’s DiDi.
In 2018, DiDi was the world’s most valuable start-up with a valuation of US$56 billion, which surpassed Uber’s figure by US$8 billion. It’s a triumph of sorts for the Chinese firm, which had bought over Uber’s business in China in 2016 after a bitter price war left both sides reeling from heavy losses.
DiDi currently has 400 million registered drivers across over 400 cities in China, and delivers roughly 25 million rides a day. The figure is about double that of Uber and all other ride-hailing services in the world combined.
While DiDi doesn’t have food delivery services, its fares are more than affordable and it doesn’t charge any book fees. What’s more, getting a ride takes no more than a minute or two. It’s a convenience that Uber and Grab will struggle to match.