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This past Sunday was the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday for Chinese and several other Asian cultures. It’s difficult to celebrate this holiday with China Report readers, as I originally planned, when I know many people are still grieving and scared from the mass shootings that have happened over the past few days—first on New Year’s Eve in Monterey Park, a predominantly Asian city not far from Los Angeles, and then in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, on Monday afternoon.
But the Lunar New Year is also supposed to be an opportunity for us to reset and seize new opportunities. And I hope that, like me, you are preserving the sorrow, rage, and joy from the past year in your memory and letting it guide you on a new adventure to change the world and stop tragedies like these from happening again.
In that spirit, I’ve recently revisited some of my favorite China-focused MIT Technology Review stories from the last year and gone back to the people I interviewed. I asked them: As the new year begins, have the challenges that once troubled you been resolved? Have you stuck to the goals you set in 2022? What are you planning and hoping for in the Year of the Rabbit?
I’m very grateful to everyone who has let me tell their stories—which I hope have helped all of us understand more about tech and China and, more broadly, the people around us. So here’s China Report’s Lunar New Year check-in with four of these individuals.
Liu Yang, the robotaxi driver in Beijing
Since we talked in the summer of 2022, Liu Yang had briefly stepped out of his robotaxi. Baidu, his employer, was permitted to test self-driving taxis in Beijing’s Shougang Park without any safety operators like Liu onboard. So he moved to working in the ground crew, checking on the vehicles in between rides and troubleshooting any issues.
But this month, he got behind the wheel again, this time in the robotaxis transporting Baidu employees between two of the company’s main office buildings in the city, a 15-minute ride. His riders these days are less curious about the car, since they were the ones who developed the self-driving technology. But he’s still talking shop often; as one of the most senior employees in the 10-driver team shuttling employees, Liu often teaches the newcomers how to adjust to the role of a robotaxi driver.
“This year, I don’t have many big plans for my personal life. I just want to do my job right,” Liu says. For now, there are still driving scenarios that need Liu’s intervention, but he knows his experience in Shougang Park foreshadows a broader trend: When the technology becomes safe enough, all robotaxi drivers will be out of a job.
What’s his plan for when that happens? Liu says it’s the same as when we last talked: “I can move to jobs like 5G remote driving operators.”
“Teacher Li,” whose Twitter feed unexpectedly became the hub of information for zero-covid protests
The Italy-based Chinese artist known as Teacher Li has close to 1 million Twitter followers now, and the sudden fame has upended his life. Since he worked around the clock last year to post real-time footage of people protesting China’s zero-covid policies, he’s been doxxed, his family back home has received pressure from the Chinese government, and his Twitter account was temporarily shadow-banned for unclear reasons.
As China enters a new era of covid policies, Li is still posting follower submissions, but the scope has greatly expanded: updates on labor protests, social media censorship, and even the Spring Festival Gala, an annual televised event that has been highly politicized in past decades but is still watched by the whole country.
Trained as a painter, Li is reconsidering his career during the Year of the Rabbit. “My plan for the new year is to reconstruct my future. My life path has been altered … and how my future will look is an open question,” he says. Some media outlets have invited him to join their newsrooms, but he hasn’t made up his mind yet. First, he plans to write some guides to painting as closure to his first professional career. After that, he’ll explore his possibilities in journalism.
Global Anti-Scam Org, the volunteer group that has exposed crypto scams on LinkedIn and other platforms
I found GASO last summer when I was reporting on the fake LinkedIn personas that defrauded victims of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency-based “pig-butchering scams.” The targets were largely people of Chinese descent living around the world. While many victims felt powerless after the scammers took their money and disappeared, GASO was formed by some who came together with the hope of preventing more people from falling into the same trap.
Jan Santiago, deputy director of GASO, tells me that even though platforms have become more aware of scams and started taking some actions, there are still people falling prey to these crimes. As young people learn more about online fraud, the average victim has become older and less social media savvy.
When I interviewed GASO volunteers last year, I was surprised by how they had taught themselves to trace crypto criminals to their physical locations and to track which crypto wallets they use. In the new year, they’re looking to expand their impact by passing on that skill to law enforcement in Southeast Asia. “In Taiwan, we are getting more and more involved in educating their law enforcement in how to investigate cryptocurrency by tracing. We show them why it’s important to learn all of this,” says Santiago.
Tina, one of many WeChat users suspended for talking about a political protest in Beijing
When we last talked, Tina’s WeChat account had just been suspended, and the 38-year-old Beijing resident had set a big goal for herself: She wanted to take it as an opportunity to experiment with living her life “normally, without WeChat.”
Three months later, she has mostly achieved this goal. She revived an old back-up WeChat account, but she only uses it when there is no alternative communication method, and she has just over a dozen contacts. “I don’t think using [WeChat] less has had any significant impact on my life, and it has saved me a lot of time,” she tells me. However, she finds herself spending more time on Twitter and Telegram instead, so she set a new goal this year to spend no more than one hour a day on all social media apps combined.
In the meantime, Tina has kept checking her suspended WeChat account because people are still sending messages there, not knowing that she can see their notes but has lost the ability to reply. This has taught her about what being suspended from the super-app really means; many have described it as feeling like a ghost. “WeChat has some very meticulous rules. Basically, you are not allowed to send any message to the outside world, but all other features still work,” she says.
For example, Tina’s suspended account can still transfer money to her friends. But unlike others, she can’t enclose a note with the transfer. “Theoretically, you can also use the numbers [of the transfer amount] to send people information, but”—she laughs—“that would cost a lot of money.”
What is your plan for the Year of the Rabbit? Let me know at email@example.com.
Catch up with China
1. Among major economies, China’s carbon emissions have grown the fastest in recent decades, but its economy has also become significantly less dependent on fossil fuel. My colleague Casey Crownhart brings you the important numbers. (MIT Technology Review)
2. Travel for China’s Lunar New Year, the world’s largest annual human migration, has come back in full force this year after the country lifted covid-related travel restrictions. Chinese people are expected to complete over 2.1 billion trips during a 40-day period. (Wall Street Journal $)
- A columnist at the Economist rode on China’s slow-speed “green-skin trains” (so called for their exterior color) and talked about the past year with his fellow passengers. (The Economist $)
3. At Davos, China’s vice premier Liu He welcomed foreign companies to come back to the country. (Financial Times $)
- Meanwhile, China’s homegrown entrepreneurs are increasingly fleeing the crackdowns and lockdowns at home and moving to Singapore. (New York Times $)
4. TikTok employees have the technical ability to manually boost the reach of specific videos, a practice known internally as “heating”—raising concerns about moderation bias and political manipulation. (Forbes)
- The company is promising US regulators that it will make its code visible to Oracle and third-party monitors in exchange for being allowed to remain in the country, anonymous sources said. (Wall Street Journal $)
5. Doctors at public hospitals across China say they were discouraged from citing covid on death certificates. (Reuters $)
6. The history of Zhongguancun, China’s Silicon Valley, explained. (Wired $)
7. A Chinese state-owned bank in Hong Kong is enticing new clients from the mainland with the possibility of getting mRNA vaccine shots. (Financial Times $)
Lost in translation
The new year is for new changes, and as Chinese tech publication Baobian reported, many Chinese Big Tech workers are quitting the industry and reflecting on how they ended up working pointless “bullshit jobs.”
Even though the country’s tech industry is relatively young, these companies, like their Western counterparts, have grown into gigantic corporations burdened with bureaucracy and low efficiency. A main source of frustration for staffers is feeling that they are spending months working on insignificant product changes that could be vetoed at the last minute. For example, making a simple UI design change requires two weeks of opposition research, and there’s little originality in the final product. Some workers also feel they are losing their individual purpose while helping the company optimize its money-making machinery.
Luyi, who worked for Tencent, Alibaba, and ByteDance in different positions, felt that she was chasing abstract numbers based on unreliable data analytics, and ultimately achieving nothing. Last year, she finally decided to quit the tech industry and went to work for an art gallery in Beijing. “When I successfully organize an art exhibit, there’s an immense sense of achievement. I can get a lot of positive feedback on the scene,” she said. That’s the feeling she was missing when she worked in Big Tech.
One more thing
To celebrate the transition from the Year of the Tiger to the Year of the Rabbit, a zoo in western China organized a ceremony on Friday in which a tiger cub and a rabbit were placed on the same table. But the video was promptly cut when the tiger went for the rabbit’s neck, the correspondent began shouting in panic, and the scene descended into chaos. Fortunately, the rabbit was reportedly unharmed. Otherwise it would have been a terrible omen for the new year.