It feels like we are living inside a movie with an unclear ending. Who will win and how will we know? Who are the good guys and the bad guys? What should we do?
The gigantic issues of tension and conflict are many: Covid-19, communism vs. capitalism, censorship vs. freedom, disinformation vs. truth.
This movie, in progress, is as intriguing to us as a Hollywood thriller.
But thinking about it that way is exactly what those who want more control and less freedom for our world hope we will do: “Westerners,” they seem to think, “you keep talking while we reshape the media infrastructure of the world”.
We are digital strategists and advisors to the U.S. government on media, and this is what we call “Chinawood”. China believes that control of the world’s media and technology can help them create their version of the “world’s movie”. An ending where they are #1 economically, socially and culturally.
The set is being built right in front of us. The Chinese scriptwriters are deploying content, censorship, surveillance and arranging the quick disappearance of any off-script occurrences. In the West we tend to focus on the outrage of the day, which plays right to the script.
Controlling the world’s narrative takes a combination of time, patience and cash. Chinawood manages all three well.
The outcome of this narrative will determine how we will learn, entertain and do business worldwide.
The physical stage is the entire 193 countries of the United Nations. Here’s how it works.
Access to Companies, Citizens & Content
Access matters, and money buys access. Chinawood invests to influence our stories. Through internet colossus Tencent, it is a major investor in Snapchat (17.5%); Riot Games (100%), the owner of League of Legends, the most popular PC game globally; Epic Games (40%), the company behind world famous Fortnite ; Activision Blizzard (5%), owner of World of Warcraft; and Universal Music Group (10%, with partners), plus an investment of $150 million into Reddit. Meanwhile Alibaba owns almost 3% of Lyft . The list goes on. Whatever you are interested in, China probably wants part of it.
For Chinawood, influence means being featured in a positive manner. Content is almost certain to be deleted in scripts created by such companies that may offend this major investor and the national government they must always heed. Censorship is not always overt. Why upset the “boss” who may provide more cash when needed? This type of “economic censorship” changes how movies and games and communities are shaped.
That matters when nearly three billion people alone play computer and video games. And, of course, Hollywood has had a huge influence on our world for a century.
The next step is to own the phone. For perspective, the average age of getting one’s first phone is now 10 years old. The apps on the phone are where people spend their time. Over 98 percent of users worldwide access Facebook via smartphone. The phone is the center of the universe, the real stage.
And sure enough, five Chinese companies (Tencent, ByteDance, YY, BabyBus, and Alibaba) are consistently on the list of the top 20 mobile app publishers, according to Sensortower. And that’s just the start. China’s leaders realize that real domination of the phone can be achieved through expertise in live streaming apps (LiveMe), ecommerce (AliExpress), video conferencing (DingTalk), short video apps (TikTok) and more. All of these we mention are Chinese companies or apps.
TikTok is a perfect example of what’s happening, and the risks of influence. It has now reached two billion downloads. India is its #1 country, with 611 million total downloads, China is second with 196 million and the U.S. is third at 165 million. In terms of money spent on the site, the top three countries are China, US and the UK. Who cares how crazy the content is when gaining mobile access and influence is a core national objective?
Meanwhile, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is under U.S. scrutiny for how it handles user data.
Dominate the mobile media infrastructure of our world and you win. Chinese companies can deal with fines, investigations and the threat of regulation as they happen, but won’t let it distract them from the goal of influencing and, ideally, dominating the media infrastructure of our world.
Chinawood is also preparing for the future by taking a page from Disney. The world, which on balance is relatively young, can use BabyBus, a Chinese education app developer that provides educational games for preschoolers, such as “Baby Panda Care” or “Little Panda Restaurant”. The FTC warned BabyBus about potential violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 2014, and it was temporarily suspended by Google Play, although now it is back.
All of this remarkable progress would be something to envy and celebrate if it aimed purely to improve our world and give us more ways to learn and play. Unfortunately, that is not much a part of the Chinawood narrative.
Control matters far more. And those who want to control think strategically about how they do it.
Chinawood is creating a sophisticated mix of surveillance systems, social media channels and e-commerce platforms. They need surveillance in case we stray away from our games.
It incorporates drones, robots, facial recognition, satellite systems, 5G networks, and health sensors and combines it all with leading-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning data models.
It has a built-in advantage since it can practice on its own population without the threat of limits on privacy, security or other niceties getting in its way. This allows China to accelerate how it builds the right mix of surveillance and censorship tools and then exports these new models and technologies to other countries that wish to track their citizens.
Unfortunately, Chinese suppliers are finding customers for these kinds of technologies in a growing number of undemocratic countries where citizens are vulnerable. Freedom House reported last year that the world has experienced a decline in net freedoms for the past 14 years.
Chinawood pushes as far as it can go. If we aren’t paying attention, we can assume our privacy and our personal data will be impacted.
Censorship & Control
Censorship and control go hand in hand, of course, for Chinawood.
In the Western World, we are often desensitized to words, but they may be more impactful than they sound. It may seem annoying when words that might offend China or repressive governments allied with China are removed. The problem is it also involves people being removed.
Censorship can involve hunting down suspects, silencing dissent or accessing an American’s personal data.
Maybe a Westerner is playing a game with a counterpart in China and having fun. But your counterpart can only access this game by providing their phone number, which connects to their National ID. Their playing time is being monitored, as is their location and what they share with you via chat. Maybe you start talking about sensitive issues in China. Your counterpart joins in. One week later, they aren’t around anymore. Maybe the account was shut? Maybe something worse? The world’s most popular PC game, League of Legends, owned by Tencent, appeared to forbid users from changing their status messages to certain words, such as “Uyghur” in 2019. This led to protests from users and caused an uproar. Meanwhile, 1.5 million Uyghurs remain in “re-education” camps in China. Imagine if all of the citizens of Philadelphia or Munich, cities of a size similar to the population of the camps, were being “re-educated”.
TikTok is being scrutinized for “shadow-banning”, meaning down-ranking topics so users don’t see them in their feeds. A comprehensive review of such behavior by 23 of China’s tech giants continues via the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Chinawood’s reach and ambition is so vast and growing.
The principles, however, are simple:
- Gain access to companies, citizens and technology platforms and devices to control the stories we hear.
- Shape the behavior of citizens worldwide.
- Censor and control the citizens of your country so you can prevent anyone from going off-script.
We know the script. Those of us in the democratic world have to decide how we want this to play out and ask what we can do to fight back.
Bob Pearson, author, advisor and entrepreneur and Franak Viacorka, Digital Media Strategist, US Agency for Global Media