Last year, the Chinese government made me open a Yahoo account. Well, sort of. I was headed to China for the first time in four years, and I knew I would have a difficult time accessing Gmail and Google and Facebook and the numerous other sites that are blocked in China but essential to my digital life in the U.S. I asked around, and somebody told me that Astrill, one of the better-known VPNs out there, no longer worked on iPhone. The government had managed to squash it, too.
At that point, since I was only going for a week, I decided I didn’t feel like paying for a VPN, and besides, I’m always aspiring to spend less time on my phone. Just before my flight though, I received a few work emails, and had second thoughts about going off the grid. So, I opened an email account with Yahoo (which is not blocked in China) and set my Gmail to forward to it.
Off I went to Beijing—and into the parallel universe that is the Chinese Internet. Behind the filters that collectively make up the so-called Great Firewall, I would be unable to access huge swaths of the rest of the web, and restricted to (mostly native) apps and software and websites approved and monitored by the Chinese government. And I would find that, thanks to China's homegrown digital ecosystem, life behind the firewall wasn't exactly the exercise in deprivation that I'd expected.
Upon landing, I take the airport express into central Beijing. As in the U.S., everyone on the train is engrossed in their smartphones. I don’t have a SIM card yet, so there’s nothing for me to do except stare at them as they stare at their phones.
Had I been planning to stay behind the firewall forever, I might have occupied myself by pulling out my phone and deleting Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack, Venmo, Paypal, Snapchat, Skype, Uber, Lyft, Shazam, and Google Maps. If it were possible, I could have deleted my text messaging and voice call buttons, too. That’s because in China, there’s one app that does what all of those apps do: WeChat.
Owned by the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, and modeled off Japan’s LINE, WeChat’s integration of social media with free messaging and calls has won it 650 million users. (It has also benefitted from increasingly strict censorship of Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, which has sent tens of millions of former Weibo users into WeChat's perhaps less overtly censored embrace.) Most of WeChat's users are within China, but close to 100 million are elsewhere around the globe. This has raised security concerns in the U.S. and other countries, given the likelihood of Chinese government surveillance of users.
My first day in Beijing, WeChat—in Chinese, Wēixìn (literally, "micro message")—is how I get in touch with old friends and colleagues in the area. One of them, a Chinese friend named Carol, I haven’t heard from in a while. We used to keep in touch via Facebook, especially during the year she studied abroad in England, but in recent years, she’s stopped using it much. We also used to email a little, but she stopped answering emails at a certain point, too.
Now, Carol replies to my WeChat and invites me to come to an exercise class the next day. I say yes. Then I ask if she can recommend a good VPN for iPhone. She replies that she doesn’t have a VPN on her phone and, at the moment, doesn’t have one on her computer either. The last two she installed were eventually blocked by the government. She ends this message with a frowny emoticon.
I’m jet-lagged all day and am back in bed by early evening scrolling through my "Moments" on WeChat. It’s much the same as my Facebook feed—food photos, links, philosophical rambles—but with a higher proportion of drunken karaoke photos.
Day two in Beijing, I wake to a pollution red alert. My WeChat Moments is full of sad faces and screenshots of the air quality index. There’s a message from Carol. Her exercise teacher has written on the class’s WeChat group that class is canceled. We agree to do dinner instead.
I turn on my old China phone from 2011 and text a few people, "Is this still your number?" Nobody replies.
Then, I mass email some old friends to suggest Thursday drinks. One person writes back, "You should start a WeChat group for your drinks. That’s how folks roll in Beijing these days." Right after that, I receive a bounce-back message—my email to Carol failed.
In the evening, I strap on a pollution mask and go meet Carol. We wander through an electronics store, and I look at a Mi 4 phone by Xiaomi, the top smartphone brand in China (and fifth in the world), followed by Huawei, then Apple. The Mi 4 seems an awful lot like my iPhone, but half the price. Carol dismisses it, though, as inferior to Apple's device.
Later, over shredded pork and orange soda, I ask Carol for her new email address.
"Email?" she says, sounding as if I had just switched to Icelandic, or started talking about theoretical physics. "Well . . . I used to have a yahoo.cn account, but then China Yahoo closed. Then I had a Gmail account, but Gmail got blocked." Carol spells out her new email—it’s with Aliyun, the cloud computing unit of Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba. Its founder, Jack Ma, is now the country’s second-richest man, and inspires Steve Jobs-like reverence in China. One of his biggest coups was landing a $1 billion investment from Yahoo in 2005, for 30% of the company. After a (probably much regretted) 2012 sellback, Yahoo now owns 15% of Alibaba. Alibaba subsequently acquired China Yahoo’s email service, while Yahoo's investors would come to see the now $30 billion stake as the company's most profitable asset.
By the end of the evening, I’ve managed to lose my mask, and walk home through the hazy air without it.
Wednesday, I go meet my friend Julian. He runs an education company in Beijing. It’s way out in the suburbs, where a lot of the international schools are located, and my cab driver gets lost. Of course, my phone is out of battery. We stop a few times to ask directions and eventually find our destination.
If my phone had been working, I could have entered the destination in Baidu maps, and given the driver directions. Baidu is the most popular search engine in China, due in large part to Google being blocked, and Baidu maps, like Google Maps, provides driving and public transport directions, satellite maps, and street view options.
Alternately, Julian could have sent me his location via WeChat, much like sending a Drop Pin in Google Maps. We also could have used WeChat’s "Live Location" function, which invites everyone in a Group to reveal their locations to each other and would have showed both me and Julian as moving dots on a map. (That said, I’m creeped out by the idea of letting WeChat—and by extension, the government—track my location, and have never turned on location services in the app.) Julian also could have sent me a WeChat "Sight," a six-second video of his surroundings, to help me recognize his street.
After showing me around, Julian pulls out his phone and shows me the school’s WeChat group. His students’ parents write messages in Chinese, which appear like text messages in a stream, and Julian reads them by tapping on "Translate," courtesy of Microsoft Translator. Then he responds in English, and the parents in turn use Translate to read his messages.
Most communications with parents, however, are done by Julian’s business partner, Zhu Bei. This task has become much easier for her with the recent rollout of WeChat for desktop. Through the rest of the week, I will encounter many more people who spend their entire workday on WeChat for desktop.
At the end of my visit, Julian pulls out his phone and loads up Uber. "Can we just take a cab?" I ask. "Or is it too hard to find cabs out here?"
"Even if a cab came," says Julian, tapping at his phone, "I never carry cash anymore." (Side note: Credit cards barely exist in China. So, until the recent rise of mobile payments, cash was king.)
Julian spends the ride enthusing over the awesomeness of WeChat. I have to admit I’m impressed. I lived in China from 2006 to 2011. Back then, I worked at a magazine without a working website, where we weren’t allowed to publish articles criticizing the creaky homegrown 3G standard the country was trying to roll out, and edited on computers installed with pirated copies of Windows XP on which you had to constantly uncheck the browser update box, because bank and business websites wouldn’t work on anything past Internet Explorer 6.
If I’d had to define digital progress, I would have framed my answer in terms of the American Internet and the freedoms I had often taken for granted: the ability to make Skype calls that didn’t cut out, to load up Google and Gmail quickly, and to access Facebook, where all the fun stuff was happening. (According to GreatFire.org, which tracks Chinese Internet control, of 930 of the top 1,000 websites on Alexa, 148 are blocked in China.)
Beijing's control over the web doesn't just involve filters. A massive censorship apparatus issues strong directives to Internet providers, web hosts, and digital publishers ("Delete . . . reports on the Panama Papers. Don't follow up on related content, no exceptions," reads a recent missive), and provides strong incentives for digital operations to censor content themselves by holding them liable for their users' posts. By introducing uncertainty about what's allowed online, the government has also encouraged everyday users to censor themselves.
"I think the assumption would be if we got the right technology in the right hands, old bureaucracy and powerful organizations couldn’t keep up," Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Fast Company in a recent interview. "What we’ve found is they brought significant resources to the table, and they were able to structure their Internet in ways that significantly restrict online freedom."
But it never occurred to me that in walling off the digital world I knew, the country was also buying itself time to build inside those walls a thriving, parallel ecosystem that could enthrall a giant, quickly digitizing audience—an ecosystem that by a number of measures easily surpasses that of the U.S.
Broadband penetration in China is already around 50%, or about 650 million people, and the country’s smartphone penetration is the highest in the world . While the country’s Internet giants are often described in comparison to those American companies by which I once would have measured digital advancement—"the Google of China," "the Amazon of China," etc.—they are, by certain measures, actually far bigger and more successful. Alibaba can make $5 billion in 90 minutes, WeChat has convinced 200 million people to link their bank accounts to the app, and while Amazon’s rollout of same-day delivery in 14 U.S. cities made headlines last year, people in major Chinese cities have enjoyed same-day delivery for years.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government announced last October that it will spend $22 billion by 2020 to extend broadband to underserved areas of the country, and is pretty much commanding telecoms companies to make data cheaper and faster for users. That means that many of those already superlative-sounding numbers will only get bigger.
Our Uber drops us in Sanlitun, a popular shopping and nightlife neighborhood, and we meet up with friends at a tapas restaurant. I ask one of them, "Did you get my text? I was checking if your number is the same."
"Oh yeah, I did," she says. "I didn’t answer because I haven’t gotten a text in like two years. I had no idea what it was." I can’t tell if she’s joking.
It’s day four. Time for breakfast. I go outside and get a jianbing—a sort of eggy crepe—from a street cart. The vendor is engrossed in a giant smartphone. She puts it away to make my food, then returns to her phone.
I meet a friend for lunch, and complain that I’ve just found out I need to find a gold dress for an upcoming wedding. I had no idea there was a dress code, and packed the wrong color outfit.
"Just order one on Taobao," says my friend, referring to a Chinese shopping site best described as eBay plus Amazon on steroids. "You can get anything you want for super cheap, and it’ll arrive in like, two hours."
China is the largest e-commerce market in the world. All week long, I’ve been seeing motorbikes marked with the logos of e-commerce sites like JD.com, Tmall.com, and DangDang.com zipping around town, delivering goods. Outside of large office towers, I’ll often pass a courier sitting on his bike by the curb, yakking on his phone or smoking a cigarette, with packages scattered across the sidewalk, and a stream of office workers coming in and out to pick up their deliveries.
In the evening, I finally make it to that exercise class with Carol. Afterwards, I ask if she’s coming along to drinks. She looks confused. I tell her I forwarded an email about it to her Aliyun account. "Oh, I never check my email," she says. (As it turns out, according to Quartz, only half of Internet users in China regularly use email.)
Friday, I have dinner with Carol at a popular rice porridge joint in the Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood of Beijing. It’s filled with hip young Chinese, and like many Beijing restaurants these days, it has free Wi-Fi, which I use to kill time on WeChat until Carol arrives.
After the meal, Carol asks the waiter if she can pay with her phone. He gestures at a QR code posted on the tabletop, and Carol scans it, then announces, "We get a 15 kuai discount from Dianping!" Dianping is a sort of Chinese Yelp (food delivery plus user reviews), which merged last year with the group-deals startup Meituan. The new company, Meituan-Dianping, announced in January that it had raised $3.3 billion—the largest non-IPO funding round raised in the tech world ever.
Meituan-Dianping isn’t the only Chinese company being showered with money. E-commerce site JD.com just raised $1 billion for a finance unit. China's government-backed venture funds now manage the biggest pot of money for startups in the world: In 2015, Chinese VCs raised about $231 billion, according to data compiled by the consultancy Zero2IPO Group. That's triple the sum under management the year before, and five times the amount raised by other venture firms last year globally. Chinese startups overall attracted $37 billion in VC funding in 2015, more than double the year before, though that’s still far less than U.S. companies, which raised $68 billion in 2015. And due to recent market turmoil in China—not to mention in Silicon Valley—that wave may be slowing.
Nonetheless, the Chinese government recognizes the importance of nurturing tech companies, and announced last year that it would create a $6.5 billion venture fund for startups. (The government has emphasized finance and biotechnology investment, but it has also periodically frozen IPOs, which limits venture capital investment.)
I give Carol some cash for the meal. She paid with Alipay, but if I had my WeChat Wallet set up, we also could have used the app’s "Go Dutch" function, and split the bill digitally.
Afterwards, we’re off to see a play. I’m not sure where the theater is, but my roommate, who directed the play, has sent me the theater’s name card on WeChat. My roommate lives in New York but periodically returns to China for theater projects, and communicates with productions via WeChat. (China Daily reports that a Chinese court has even started using WeChat to remotely conduct trials.)
I tap on the theater’s name card, hit "follow," and find the address. Carol uses WeChat to call us a car on Didi Dache, a Chinese equivalent to Uber. In 2013, WeChat introduced mobile payments, and now users can send each other money, pay utility bills, and even invest in a wealth fund through the app. It also partners with third-party platforms like Didi, which enable users to do things like buy movie tickets, shop for group deals, or order a car without ever leaving the app.
One of WeChat’s most popular monetary features is the ability to send "red packets," based on the Chinese tradition of exchanging red envelopes filled with money on Chinese New Year. One of the theater bosses likes to send red packets to my roommate’s WeChat group. The packets have a gambling-like surprise element to them, because you don’t know how much you’ve gotten until you click on it, and because the packets can be set to disburse either equal funds to everyone in a group, or unequal randomized amounts.
While they seem to be sent for fun, my roommate notes that they have a secondary, Pavlovian effect of causing everyone to check their messages more frequently. Imagine if your boss sometimes left the contents of his wallet on the table at meetings—you’d probably make it to more meetings.
When the play ends, the actors come out and take a bow, then one of them invites the audience to join the production’s WeChat group and give feedback. Carol joins immediately. The group is location-based, so she needs to join at the theater and enter in a password given out by the actors.
It's time to leave Beijing. In the taxi on my way to the airport, I realize I haven’t checked which terminal I fly out of. I’ve already returned my Chinese SIM card to the friend who loaned it to me, so I turn on my data, for which I’ll later pay $25 (thanks a lot, Verizon), search Beijing Capital International Airport, and get a fail message. Of course—my browser defaults to Google search. I pound in Baidu.com, the Chinese search engine, and try again. There’s the answer: Terminal 2. (At the time, I didn't think of other working alternatives, like Yahoo, or Bing, which I'd never used before.)
As usual, I leave the country excited to get back to an uncensored Internet, and eager to access Instagram and Twitter and the other blocked sites that I use. Perhaps I’ll celebrate with 20 consecutive Google searches of the infamous tank man photo.
But for the first time, I don’t have the feeling that, upon landing at JFK, I’ll be stepping forward in time, digitally speaking. In some ways, I may even be stepping backwards.