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How China’s tech scene is shaped by the government

A look at how the Chinese authorities shapes the country’s tech industry

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

In most parts of the world, it’s unimaginable for a popular app or an online trend to disappear overnight just because the government wants it to.

In February this year, China’s hottest mobile trend was HQ Trivia-like quiz apps. More than a dozen sprung up in a month. The best-performing ones had millions of people tuning in daily, with the record of 4.3 million for a single game. Developers were excited -- one believed that they were “ the future of television”.

And then it came to a halt. Right before Chinese New Year’s Eve, they all stopped operating after the state’s media watchdog told 17 trivia app makers to clean up their act, because they were “attracting eyeballs and traffic with abnormally high prizes” and “confusing junk information with knowledge.”

Quiz apps never made a comeback after that.

How people are cheating in China's live trivia games

This isn’t unusual at all in China -- even though people don’t see a tech CEO questioned by lawmakers in front of the whole country, the products and services they use are constantly scrutinized by the state.
China’s visible hand shaping tech across the country is one of the four big overarching themes from the China Internet Report 2018.
The state’s internet watchdog -- the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), was created in February 2014 to build China into an “ internet power”, aiming at improving cybersecurity, controlling online information flow and “cleaning up the internet space”.
Since the beginning of 2015, the state has shut down more than 13,000 websites in clean-up operations that also targeted apps, online forums, social networks, and live streaming.
Several government institutions including the CAC have also jointly cleaned up thousands of games that has “misleading values”. After the state criticized PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds for having too much “gore and violence”, China’s mobile clones of the game decided to put up socialist banners, changing the game’s theme to military drills where players don’t actually “die”.

In April, a humor app that had 17 million users was permanently shut down for containing “misleading and vulgar content”, even though its users argued otherwise. They believed that authorities cracked down because the app’s users had formed a tight-knit community that organized offline activities.

China’s banned humor app built a huge community online (and offline)

Incumbent tech giants have learned to play by the rules. Meipai, one of the most popular short video apps made by selfie giant Meitu, pulled itself from app stores for 30 days after regulators called it out for hosting inappropriate content. Weibo pinned state propaganda articles at the top of the Hot Search section after authorities criticized it for failing to censor content on its platform.

China’s biggest news and content aggregator Toutiao, whose 120 million daily active users spend an average of over an hour on it everyday, was repeatedly accused by authorities of hosting “vulgar” content and letting algorithms decide what to show users, and has been taken offline for 24 hours, or even removed from app stores.

As responses, Toutiao has promised to hire thousands of censors and apologized for “publishing content that was inconsistent with core socialist values.”

What Facebook and Toutiao’s troubles say about the US and China

Apart from keeping a tight rein on online information, the country also strictly regulates the tech industry at large. China has banned cryptocurrency trading completely amid a crypto craze that swept the country.
But at the same time, it has endorsed the use of blockchain, with state media signaling that China should be a front runner. A local government invested in a blockchain-focused fund and even opened a “Blockchain Industrial Park”.
China has also rolled out guidelines for it to catch up on self-driving cars, and has laid out plans for the country to become the world’s leader in AI by 2030 -- and it’s improving by gathering data from AI-based technologies already in use, like a national database for facial recognition.
“If you see the situation clearly and move in sync with the state, you will get great support,” Wang Xiaochuan, the CEO of search operator Sogou, said in an interview in March this year. “But if it’s your nature to say, ‘I want freedom, I want to sing a tune different from the state’s,’ then you might suffer, more so than in the past.”
The interview was reportedly deleted later by the publisher.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.