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Chinese carrier deliberately censors content in the US? Stop the witch-hunt.

On July 4, The Washington Post published an op-ed headlined “China’s biggest cellphone company censors content — even in the United States,” revealing that users of China Mobile — a Chinese state-owned telecoms carrier — are unable to access websites banned in China while roaming in the US. The article characterizes the case as evidence of China’s deliberate meddling with America’s freedom of expression, warning against Americans becoming “accustomed to living in China’s world.”

The author addresses a valid concern: as the Chinese government willfully attempts to infiltrate US academia and private sector, American people and industries must be protected. However, the article overlooked a key fact: the Chinese carrier is simply abiding by common international roaming practices.

The LTE guidelines permit two roaming architectures. The home-routed model allows the subscriber to access sites through their home network, granting the home carrier more control over the end-user’s data traffic; the local-breakout model directly delivers services to the end-user, giving the visited network almost complete control over user data. The latter, albeit faster, is only used when a trusted partnership is present between the two operators.

China Mobile utilizes home-routed architecture for users roaming in the US, as do many other carriers — including T-Mobile, which allows me access to American websites while I’m in China. Because China Mobile’s home network is located in China, users cannot access blocked websites as a result — even when they are physically abroad.

If a close partnership is established between China Mobile and an American carrier, both parties shall adopt the local-breakout structure. That being said, the data traffic of American users will be subject to Chinese surveillance, which is an even bigger problem.

Chinese state-owned operators, including China Mobile and China Telecom, do sell SIM cards with unfettered access to Google, Twitter, and Facebook to Chinese expatriates through their respective subsidiaries in the US (CTExcel) and the UK (CMLink).

The Chinese government’s political influence is undeniably growing, but the technical side of the issue should be investigated. At the end of the day, we must not let witch-hunts to distract us from the genuine challenges in the landscape of US-China relations.


Originally published on Medium.

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Stranger (Sestina)

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I always, always found myself wander-
ing in the Boston streets, staring at pedestrians whose faces
differed from one another—what’s her name?
Where is he from? Why are they here?—I asked myself,
As I disembarked onto this foreign land
Standing next to the convenience store inside this mysterious, unknown world.

Vaguely I was reminded of my childhood, always asking “what is the other part of the world
like?” Yet my parents, who were migrants to a Chinese metropolis, also wonder-
ed. We’d heard much of America: McDonald’s, Disneyland,
and the country that embraces all humans although their faces
are not of the same color. There I found it, an American dream for myself
Knowing nothing but its name

that seemed enigmatic but charming, the name that sparkled in my mind, the name
that over all these years, brought me away from home, to the other side of the world.
Then I found myself in America. But no, I could not find myself
where I blunder-
ed my almost perfect but always imperfect language to the faces
those are alien to me, that belong to this foreign land.

Through the display window I saw passersby, one with a bland
smile on his face, and a toddler thrice yelling his mother’s name.
Vaguely, the glass throws back the face
that I recognized no more, because in this swarming new world
I seemed to be the only wander-
er, alone, struggling to find a niche for myself…

But yes, I have an autre self
in which I was born and raised. To the childhood homeland
I returned, as a stranger whose name
the local folks could not recollect; the homeland that was left behind the other side of the world,
that taught me Li Po and Tu Fu, whose poems had I forgotten, although still fasc-

inated by the language in which I have not handwritten for years. Facing
the ocean, above I looked and a pigeon I beheld, navigating itself
flying across the cloudless firmament—or was it an eagle? I rubbed my eyes to see the world
yet I couldn’t. Rather, I sat on a wooden bench, enthralled by the land-
scape of the picturesque sunset, while in the scene people joined. Their names
I shall not know, but they sure are my fellows, wander-

ing on a Saturday afternoon, facing our respective struggles, on a land
where we keep asking ourselves who we are. That, the end-game
of America, portrays a painful but beautiful world in which I wandered.

Tianyu Fang
November 2017

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On Using the Western Name Order

Media outlets consistently refer to people with Asian full names in the Eastern name order (i.e. last name, then first name). I soon found that there was a reason behind this: The AP Stylebook, a grammar style guide which most American journalists follow, states that Asian (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese) names should follow the Eastern name order.

While the Eastern name order is used in aforementioned native languages, things are different for Asian people in the West. Personally, I have always been bothered by this. In the U.S., Asians and Asian Americans today generally prefer using the Western name order (i.e. first name, then last name), even when their first names are romanized from an Asian language. So when I pulled out a news article that referred to me in the Eastern name order, I felt bizarre. In fact, I have never used the Chinese order to address myself in the English context.

So I asked a journalist. He told me that using Chinese names in the Western name order would be a form of racism, as white people don’t reverse their English first and last names upon arrival in China. I absolutely did not know I had been a racist – to myself – my entire life; how ignorant was I!

When one discusses racism, it is crucial to bring the context to the table. Things that are embraced by Asian people living in Asia might deliver offensive messages to Asians in the West.

After coming to the U.S. as a teenager, I decided not to adopt a Westernized name. As time moved on, I realized such decision had an undertone: by choosing Tianyu over Johnathan, I have kept my pride in my ethnic origin but lost an opportunity to make myself more American. However, I questioned myself, what constitutes an ‘American name?’ The eurocentric undertone beneath the widely-accepted interpretation that an ‘American name’ has to be Christian, European, or both, is often unaddressed. In other words, why can’t Tianyu be an ‘American name?’

My name was no longer merely Chinese, but also ‘American.’ I use the Western name order at school, at work, and on official documents. If so, there would be no point of spelling my name in a way different than John Appleseed’s.

I found out by chance an opinion piece by Michelle Tsai from the Slate from a decade ago. Tsai discussed media outlets’ choice of name orders when they mentioned Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean-American mass murderer who later committed suicide. Tsai wrote: ‘… Some Korean-Americans felt media groups were playing up Cho’s foreign-ness, according to the Asian American Journalists Association, which advised reporters to use the American [Western] order.’

The AAJA Guide to Covering Asian America states that while Chinese names usually follow the Eastern name order, ‘many Chinese Americans, however, change the word order to conform to Western practice.’

My suggestion is that journalists, writers, and Wikipedia editors should always ask and respect one’s preference. If Kim Jong Un isn’t Jong Un Kim, and Marco Rubio isn’t Rubio Marco, why would you rearrange the order of my names?

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Tianyu M. Fang.
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TechNode: Why QR codes trump NFC in China

© Jonas Leupe/Unsplash.

Among the ten customers lining up inside a Starbucks store in Beijing, I seemed to be the only one who showed up at the cashier with an iPhone, ready to pay for my breakfast with Apple Pay. It was my turn: a grande-size latte, and a ham and double cheese bagel. “WeChat or Alipay?” asked the barista.

Apple Pay did not enter the Chinese market until 2016. The two homegrown Chinese payment services were released much earlier: Tencent’s WeChat Pay in 2014, and Alibaba’s Alipay in 2004. While WeChat Pay and Alipay rely on QR codes, the American tech giant opted for the solution that turns your phone into a virtual tap-and-go bank card with NFC, a technologically more secure alternative. When Apple signed a contract with China’s UnionPay – which owns the QuickPass contactless technology similar to Visa’s payWave – mobile payments had already been commonplace in China. Many had asked: Is Apple Pay able to compete with WeChat and Alipay on their home turf?

Today, Apple Pay holds 90% market share in the Chinese contactless payment sector, outshining its competitors in China including Samsung Pay, Huawei Pay, and Xiaomi’s Mi Pay. But the larger context is, the NFC payment sector only holds less than 10% of the entire Chinese mobile transaction market (in Chinese). Moreover, research from 2017 Q1points out that 67 percent of customers use WeChat Pay or Alipay to shop in a convenience store, while NFC-based payments remain in the zero-percent range; 47 percent of convenience store staff have no understanding of Apple Pay. The QR code model of WeChat and Alipay apparently takes the lead in the Middle Kingdom, and there are clear rationales behind that.

NFC chips are a luxury

Often overlooked, but important to remember: Shanghai isn’t a miniature of China. While it would not be a stretch to see hundreds of customers lining in front of Apple Stores trying to get the newest iPhone models at the earliest possible time, such high-end smartphones are not as popular in lower-tier cities around the rest of the country.

In fact, Apple is only the fifth most popular smartphone brand in China, following four indigenous manufacturers – Huawei, the Oppo-Vivo duo, and Xiaomi. To many Chinese users, cheaper smartphones from domestic brands priced below a thousand yuan – also known as qianyuanji (千元机) – are often more favorable options than high-end products that would cost fivefold.

Although many homegrown brands have released their own NFC-based payment features, they are often only available on upscale products. Among the smartphones with the highest sales volumes on JD.com, China’s leading e-commerce website, I have examined five smartphones that are below two thousand yuan from the aforementioned brands: Huawei Honor 9, Oppo A57, Xiaomi Redmi 5 Plus, Xiaomi Redmi Note 5A, and Vivo X9s. It turns out that none of them is shipped with NFC chips.

QR code payments, on the other hand, demand no such extra hardware requirement. It is for sure that NFC chips come with an additional cost, and that is a luxury for many Chinese customers who have little incentive for paying an extra price to opt for NFC-based payments.

POS terminals aren’t cheap

Many vendors, mostly local small businesses, are hesitant to support NFC contactless payments due to the underlying costs. While it is reasonable to expect McDonald’s to accept credit cards, a vendor at a local farmers’ market in a Chinese city is less likely to own a POS machine that supports contactless chip cards.

QR codes are seen as a more convenient alternative to costly POS terminals. If you are a small business owner, you would have to follow a much more sophisticated, and pricey procedure to obtain a POS terminal than printing a QR code to request funds on WeChat or Alipay.

The absence of credit cards

Consumers in many Western countries are incentivized by the benefits and promotions that credit card holders enjoy. Although credit cards are ubiquitous in major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, they are not at all commonplace in rural parts of the country or even lower tier cities.

There are also roadblocks for college students, freelancers, retired citizens, and stay-home parents to apply for credit cards. According to a 2017 report from The People’s Bank of China, the average number of credit cards owned by each person in China is 0.39. In the US, the number is 2.6.

While the majority of Chinese people don’t get cash back from credit card companies, they can from Alipay. As third-party services, both Alipay and WeChat Pay have frequently offered (link in Chinese) promotions, cashback rewards, and “red packets” to users, including those who have only added debit cards to their accounts.

Instead of waiting for traditional financial institutions to advance China’s credit system, Chinese internet titans have introduced their own credit rating systems – Sesame Credit from Alibaba and Tencent Credit – to reward citizens based on an assessment of their shopping behavior and financial credit history. Ant Check, a feature on Alipay, offers overdraft and personal credit line services to qualified users. While WeChat and Alipay have already established a new model of online financing, NFC-based payments still largely depend on banks and credit card companies.

Notwithstanding that NFC-based payments are still taking the lead in many Western countries, I look forward to seeing the QR code model to be exported to developing regions like Southeast Asia, where it would allow people with a $99 smartphone to benefit from mobile payments – or online financing in general – in a convenient, economical and secure fashion. Moving forward, we should continue to expect a growing presence of QR codes in more scenarios of cashless transactions not only in China but also worldwide.

This article was originally published on TechNode, one of the largest English-language outlets covering tech in China.

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