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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 U.S. (CTExcel) and the U.K. (CMLink).

CTExcel, China Telecom’s U.S. subsidiary, uses the T-Mobile network, whereas CMLink, China Mobile’s U.K. subsidiary, uses the EE network.

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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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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The Problem with Trends

I was fortunate to be born in the era of the internet. I grew up hearing all the tales of Facebook, Google, Apple, and their founders… and of course, Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba. As a child, adults often asked what I wanted to be in the future. I could not give an exact answer. So they told me, “why don’t you become an entrepreneur, like Jack Ma?” I thought it was a really good idea. But It wasn’t just me; almost every teenager had the same thought. Then at some point, everyone built their internet startup company, a lot of which got backed by VCs. Experienced as well as inexperienced VCs put their money into good as well as shitty products. The outcome dovetailed with a simple principle in the market economy: the shitty ones were worth nothing so they died, and the good ones survived. “That was a bubble,” people began to whine on the cyberspace, blaming “internet entrepreneurship”.

The Chinese government launched a campaign to promote mass entrepreneurship and innovation. A few of my friends bought the idea so they started their own business on the internet right away after graduation, and most of them did not work well. The problem is, many of them wouldn’t even be able to get a decent job in the career market. When others with better educational backgrounds, more extensive experience, and more professional expertise were struggling with their startups, my friends did not even get a chance to join the game after working for years. However, there were some companies did thrive when Chinese VCs were wasting their money on overvalued products: local ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing beat their US competitor Uber, and food delivery service Eleme became a billion-dollar unicorn. The Chinese startup environment has been turning healthier thereafter as both VCs and entrepreneurs began to understand what makes a valuable product.

Overvalued products are definitely bubbles, but without the trend of entrepreneurship, it would be impossible for investors and entrepreneurs to distinguish the good ones (probably < 1%) from all the others that are shitty.

Today, blockchain projects are facing the analogous problem. Kodak’s stock price skyrocketed as they decided to make its own blockchain product, although nobody knew exactly what the project was. Many people have realized the great momentum of blockchain, yet the vast majority of people do not understand how it works, and only very few people could see what some possibilities are. As a result of this mindset, investors began to make speculations and put large amounts of money on overvalued crappy projects (professionally known as “shitcoins”). So that being said, we are going to invest >99% in overvalued shitcoins, and <1% in good blockchain projects, and we are going to lose money. But the idea isn’t wrong, it’s just that it takes time for us to tell the goods and the bads apart. During another “trend” that took place around 1849 — the Gold Rush — people came to the Sacremento Valley in search of gold, but many people returned home with nothing and only a few people actually became wealthy.

As entrepreneurs, it is also important to realize that strong trends are signals of change. Labeling yourself as a blockchain company will not prevent you from being knocked out, but ignoring emerging technologies is definitely not going to be a smart approach. If Sears had looked into e-commerce in 1993, it would probably have looked different today than getting close to shutting down almost all of their stores throughout the USA.

Edited 1/11/18: An earlier version of this post described Kodak’s blockchain project as a cryptocurrency. Thanks to Gee Law for pointing this out.

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Paul Graham: What You’ll Wish You’d Known

January 2017, Boston Common. Photo credit: Tianyu Fang.

Paul Graham is definitely one of my favorite essayists. He wrote a piece which was originally a speech draft to a group of high school students in 2005. As an American high school student, I personally resonate greatly with many of his points in the essay as I juxtapose my own blueprint with Graham’s thoughts.

If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I’d say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.

It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it’s hard to get an accurate picture of most jobs. Being a doctor is not the way it’s portrayed on TV. Fortunately you can also watch real doctors, by volunteering in hospitals.

The curricula of most high schools are shallow. However, it is crucial to get an extensive understanding of different sectors, disciplines, and occupations. I was interested in tech entrepreneurship in my freshman year, so I ended up working at a startup over the summer because I had a lot of spare time. That was a good opportunity for me to get to know what these intangible ideas actually were.

But there are other jobs you can’t learn about, because no one is doing them yet. Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.

It’s very hard to foresee our society’s employment demands in the next decade. I was born in Manchuria where my mother went to high school. Because everybody in her hometown thought that the Soviets would be the superpower at some point, my mom chose to learn Russian instead of English as her second language. No one had anticipated the breakdown of the Soviet Union, but if one had mastered the methodology of learning languages (not just learning one specific language), it shouldn’t be hard to pick up a new language.

It’s hard to predict the trend, so be adaptive, get ready & be prepared for new things. Don’t waste your time on how to pass a calculus test (computers can easily solve the problems for you), learn to understand how to logically solve a problem instead. Be ready to surprise others, and don’t wait for the world to surprise you.

The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t. Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard enough. There has to be suspense.

Spot on. Challenge yourself.

If you’d asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I’d have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It’s that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.

Yes! Responsibility. But I think it’s not just about intellectual responsibility. I go to a private school with many upper-middle-class Americans of my age, and many are not conscious of their privilege of attending an “elite” independent school in Massachusetts. I believe that we should take the equal amount of social responsibility as the privilege that our society has bestowed upon us.

When I ask people what they regret most about high school, they nearly all say the same thing: that they wasted so much time. If you’re wondering what you’re doing now that you’ll regret most later, that’s probably it.

The only way not to waste your talents is to try your best and stop wasting time.

You may be thinking, we have to do more than get good grades. We have to have extracurricular activities. But you know perfectly well how bogus most of these are. Collecting donations for a charity is an admirable thing to do, but it’s not hard. It’s not getting something done. What I mean by getting something done is learning how to write well, or how to program computers, or what life was really like in preindustrial societies, or how to draw the human face from life. This sort of thing rarely translates into a line item on a college application.

Spend time on things that are meaningful, challenging, and have long-term impacts. This is also the reason I think American high school students need to get off campus and leave their homes more often and see what our society needs. (Paul Graham describes it as a “day job”.) Find a niche in society aside from being a young adult in your family and a student in high school: writing, programming, designing, painting, lobbying, or becoming an advocate for the causes that you support.

Right now most of you feel your job in life is to be a promising college applicant. But that means you’re designing your life to satisfy a process so mindless that there’s a whole industry devoted to subverting it. No wonder you become cynical. The malaise you feel is the same that a producer of reality TV shows or a tobacco industry executive feels. And you don’t even get paid a lot.

This might be obvious to many of us, but I’ve seen too many people who set their ultimate goal of high school life as “getting into a good college”. Getting into a good college is supposed to be something a high school graduate is entitled to as one gradually becomes a responsible individual. I’m pretty sure you will most likely get rejected by your dream school if you walk into their admissions office and tell the officer that your dream is to get in there. Similarly, if you spend all your time thinking about how to make billions, unlikely will you become a billionaire in the end. (Work hard, be smart, and make sure if one day someone offers you a billion-dollar paycheck, you’re prepared for it.)

When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.

Find a question! Find something that you like. Curiosity turns work into play.

But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Pretty much summarizes how important curiosity is. Good entrepreneurs, writers, engineers, and elites in their respective fields are not just good because they challenge themselves, but more crucially they enjoy what they are doing. Math may seem boring, but if you find economics really appealing to you, you should be grateful for having the opportunity to learn algebra (a lot of people don’t).

The important thing is to get out there and do stuff. Instead of waiting to be taught, go out and learn.

Your life doesn’t have to be shaped by admissions officers. It could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious adults. And you don’t have to wait to start. In fact, you don’t have to wait to be an adult. There’s no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I’m just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it’s restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

This! Take initiatives. Take responsibilities. You’re doing things for no one but yourself.

Please, please, please read Paul Graham’s entire essay, regardless whether you are or aren’t in high school. Many of his thoughts are also applicable to people of other life stages.

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