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The Danger of AI Collaboration With China

Matthew Robertson, October 11, 2018


AI, Cambricon-1A.png


China’s rapidly expanding interest in researching and applying artificial intelligence has been widely noted. Last year, the Chinese government published a plan to become a world leader in the field by the end of the next decade; billions of dollars are being funnelled into AI startups; and China is competing head-to-head with industry in the United States on the cutting edge of the field.

What makes AI developments in China so different from those in the United States, however, is that as with any technology, if it can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power or further its panoptistate, it will.

This is almost a truism, of course, and military adoption of new technologies applies just as well to the U.S.

The real difference is that in China, exploitation of new technologies is almost always attendant with human rights abuses. The area of AI may end up becoming a particularly grim demonstration of this principle, if current trajectories continue.

And researchers from the West may have already given China a significant helping hand. Witness the case of the French research institute Inria’s (French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and in particular its assistance in developing the technology underpinning one of China’s AI ‘unicorns,’ Cambricon (寒武纪).

Cambricon, the company featured in Science’s February 2018 profile of the burgeoning AI sector in China, was supported and spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology (中科院计算所). Their flagship AI chip, the Cambricon-1A, hit the market last year and has been incorporated into Huawei smartphones, among other products.

It was one of Inria’s researchers, Olivier Temam, who was instrumental in helping to lay the technical foundations of Cambricon’s breakthroughs.

“Cambricon’s founding team came from academia, and I myself was a professor and doctoral tutor at the Computing Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences,” writes Chen Tianshi (陈天石), Cambricon’s co-founder and CEO. He goes on to thank Inria and and long-time academic collaborators Chen Yunji (陈云霁) and Olivier Temam.

Temam’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a senior research scientist at Inria from September 2004 to May 2014.

The three — Chen Tianshi, Chen Yunji, and Olivier Temam — have collaborated on a dozen journal and conference papers, including many that won best paper awards. With names like “DianNao: A Small-Footprint High-Throughput Accelerator for Ubiquitous Machine-Learning” and “ShiDianNao: Shifting Vision Processing Closer to the Sensor.”

It is papers like this that underlie innovations in AI chip development that Cambrion built its company on.

The chip architecture has another highly useful feature for China’s security authorities: use in image recognition systems for filtering and processing the bucketloads of data collected by the Communist Party’s pervasive surveillance apparatus.

VOA quoted a Cambricon employee in June 2018 commenting on a provider of surveillance cameras to the Party, Hikvision:

“A staff member at Cambricon, another Chinese company that provides the government technical support for security needs, told VOA that major video surveillance companies in the Chinese market are working with the government and that government authorities can access the information from any company at any time.”

The engineer remarked that surveillance technology, in attempting to identify ethnic minorities, might “consider beards, facial, and head accessories.”

There is as yet, at least as far as China Change could discover, no public evidence that Cambricon’s chips have been used to drive surveillance technologies.

Its chips, however, have been listed as among those that Hikvision could make easy recourse to.

Chinese tech websites have also listed “public security surveillance” (安防监控) as among the capabilities of the Cambricon-1A and 1H8 chips.

When the subject is reported in the Chinese media, surveillance technology is just another one of the potentially lucrative uses that Cambricon can exploit, alongside self-driving cars and cloud computing.

Along with Inria, MIT has also begun collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company whose AI technologies are being deployed by the security apparatus.

“Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an October 2017 report.

HRW shows clearly how iFlytek has marketed the security uses of its technology, including deep relationships with official entities that have helped the authorities build the Golden Shield Project, one of the key components of China’s surveillance apparatus.

The MIT relationship with iFlytek was announced in June 2018.

Olivier Temam did not respond to an email requesting comment. Since July 2018 he has worked at Google — a somewhat ironic move given the context.

Under the guidance of Google’s former AI chief, Fei-Fei Li (李飞飞), the company opened an AI lab in China. Aside from meeting Google’s own research needs, the institution will without doubt also help fertilize China’s own AI ambitions and talent.

Li, born in Beijing in 1976, immigrated to the United States at 16 and went on to gain a BS from Princeton and a PhD from Caltech. She was appointed as AI leader and Chief Scientist at Google while on sabbatical from Stanford where she was a full professor, and while there became among the most outspoken opponents of Google cooperating with the Pentagon.

“Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI — if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Li wrote in an internal email seen by The New York Times.

But Silicon Valley, for one reason or another, does not seem to be as intent on opposing all forms of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and its appurtenances.

Google recently discontinued its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, saying that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles,” but it has shown no qualms developing the Dragonfly search engine, in cooperation with the Chinese government, which would aid the official internet censorship regime. Meanwhile, Google has been recommending security keys manufactured by a Chinese company that has deep ties with the PLA and government.



Matthew Robertson is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He was previously a translator and editor with China Change.



Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’, Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018.


Support Our Work


At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.


Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’

Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018


“Our goal is to make sure that any user facing an increased risk of online attacks enrolls in the Advanced Protection Program.”  Dario Salice, Advanced Protection Product Manager at Google. 



Google recommends security keys

“The Feitian key wirelessly communicates with your smartphone to authenticate the login.”


Journalists and dissidents involved in Chinese affairs are accustomed to every so often receiving a pop-up banner on their Gmail from Google informing them that “state-sponsored attackers” may have been attempting to gain access to their accounts. To guard against such intrusions, Google suggests signing up for its Advanced Protection Program.

The Advanced Protection Program involves using a pair of security keys that can be purchased on Amazon. The problem? Google recommends a product — the Feitian MultiPass FIDO Security Key — manufactured in China, by a Chinese company that is part of an “IT-Military Alliance” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Its chief of research and development of over 16 years is a former member of the PLA. And it does the vast majority of its business selling security hardware to Chinese state banks.

Google unveiled its Advanced Protection Program in October 2017 as reported by The New York Times. But the report did not explore the extensive relationships between the Chinese supplier, Beijing Feitian Chengxin Technology Co., Ltd., and the Chinese government.


Security keys like the Feitian MultiPass are an implementation of public key cryptography — the most well known version of which is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) — in hardware form. They are a form of two-factor authentication that allow an individual with the key and the password to access an account; if either is missing, access is denied. The introduction of hardware to the security equation makes access safe from phishing, social engineering, and even attacks on cell phones that intercept temporary security keys sent via SMS.

It is unclear how feasible it may be for Chinese intelligence and military actors to install a backdoor in or otherwise compromise the hardware. But if the hardware manufacturer is mobbed up with one of the most sophisticated offensive cyber actors in the world, the “world’s worst abuser of internet freedom” according to Freedom House, and a country where a private company can never say no to government demand, the question arises: Can it be safe?

China Change examined security filings, advertisements, periodicals, and media reports to build a mosaic of the interlocking relationships between Chinese state organs and Feitian Chengxin (飞天诚信股份有限公司). The image that emerges does not appear encouraging for the computer security of Chinese dissidents and others who may be using the product.

Company founding

Feitian was set up by four friends, three of whom were 1992 computer science graduates of Northern Jiaotong University (now Beijing Jiaotong University 北京交通大学): among them Huang Yu (黄煜), the current chairman, Li Wei (李伟), the general manager, and Lu Zhou (陆舟) their chief engineer.[1] Han Xuefeng (韩雪峰), a middle-school friend of Huang Yu, was recruited from a computer job in the Ministry of Railways to form the company with them. The four continue to own the majority of the company’s shares.[2]

Feitian 1, four founders

The four founders of the company after it went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on June 26, 2014. Huang Yu and Li Wei (in that order) are on the right, while Lu Zhou and Han Xuefeng stand on the left.


The company was founded in 1998 at the beginning of a technology and internet boom in China. It has since become “the No.1 supplier of user authentication and transaction security for China Online Banking,” according to its website, employing 850 staff and serving thousands of businesses in 100 countries.[3]

As Feitian grew, so too did its ties to official China. By 2015, the conference room in its main Beijing campus had a wall full of awards and certifications from Chinese government departments.[4]

Dominance in the state bank market

The foundation of Feitian’s business in China has been in providing security fobs to state banks.

Lucrative contracts with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (the country’s largest) and China Merchants Bank were its first major orders in 2003, though it sat lower down in the food chain at that point, only able to operate as the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for another brand.

Later the company was certified by the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank,[5] and by 2005 was doing business with banks directly — including China CITIC Bank — not merely as an OEM.[6]

By 2014, 85% of the company’s revenue was coming from state banks, and Feitian was among the top three such vendors by revenue in the country.[7]

State information security a ‘precious business opportunity’

In 2003 the company joined the “IT-Military Alliance” (计算机世界科技拥军联盟) upon its founding. The event was hosted by the Network Infrastructure Department of the PLA’s General Armaments Department, along with other official organizations.

Only 12 companies formed the IT-Military Alliance. The founding ceremony was marketed as an opportunity for industry to present tribute to the PLA in celebration of the 76th year since its founding. Feitian notes on its website that “the head of the General Armaments Department expressed a deep interest in Feitian’s products,” and that “Feitian will inevitably provide earnest service to the giant military market under the grand strategy of ‘civil-military integration,’ and thus do our bit to help the construction of the nation’s informatized defensive infrastructure!”[8]

Feitian 2, Alliance

“In Earnest Celebration of the 76th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Liberation Army — Ceremony for the Founding of the IT-Military Alliance.” The event was part of Jiang Zemin’s push for “informatization” (信息化) of the PLA.


Though it is unclear when in 2003 Feitian won its first contract with ICBC, it is difficult not to imagine that its involvement with the PLA — irresistible though it may have been — helped in forging such relationships. Its approval and verification by the State Cryptography Administration in 2004 was also flagged as a “key milestone.”[9]

Already successful with banks in 2003, Feitian’s chief of research and development told the media in 2003 that the next areas of growth would be military and departments and offices for classified information (机要部门).[10]

The logic was obvious to Feitian executives: “As government procurement strengthens and priority is given to domestic products, our country’s state information security will be pushed forward considerably, and this is a precious business opportunity for the vast field of security companies.”[11]

It is difficult to find public information on the extent of that line of business. The company’s technology has however been certified as “military-use information security products.”[12]

In 2006, the company was awarded over one million yuan from a fund for new technology set up by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “This is the country’s strong affirmation of Feitian Co., and a thorough recognition of its technological prowess, project management capacity, and reputation,” said an announcement in the scientific press at the time.[13] Later in the year the company’s tech was declared “A New Important National Product” (国家重点新产品) by a number of government departments.[14]

From 2007 onwards, Feitian was selected to provide a smart card identity recognition system (智能网络身份认证系统) as part of the Torch Program,[15] China’s national plan to develop its high-technology industrial base.[16]

The company is part of a Smartcard Intellectual Property Alliance, a kind of government-industry group associated with the Beijing Municipal Intellectual Property Rights Bureau. A member of the Bureau’s Party Group (党组) presided over the alliance’s founding ceremony, on the basis that “the smartcard security industry concerns national information security and is an area of high-technology strongly supported by Beijing.”[17]

Feitian 3, keys

An example of one of Feitian’s security key products sold to banks in China, the ePass2000Auto LE.

Since 2009 Feitian has been listed in numerous databases maintained by the Ministry of Public Security among the accepted providers of identity recognition systems.[18] The list contains only Chinese companies trusted by the state, among them Huawei.

The company has also be the recipient of praise from former vice minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陈智敏) and other public and information security cadres, who are said to have expressed “excellent regard” for the company’s security management, and identification security.[19]

Feitian 4, Yu Huazhang

Yu Huazhang, the former PLA engineer and R&D chief at Feitian. (Source: 胡滢. 锁住的商机. 中国电子商务杂志. 2003(8). 56-58)

Perhaps most notably, since 2002 its research and development chief has been Yu Huazhang (于华章), a graduate of the PLA’s Information Engineering University and for the first seven years of his career an assistant researcher in the PLA’s General Staff Department. In April 2010, he became a 1% shareholder in the company. He is also a vice general manager.

The company and its key engineers won third prize (among many others) in the 2014 Beijing Municipal Technology Awards for “Application and operating system research and development for a chip in a visible-button smart security card” (可视按键型智能密码钥匙片内操作系统研发与应用) which sounds similar to the product being vended for Google’s enhanced security.[20]

Then there are the numerous exhibitions of official fealty on Feitian’s website, each not particularly significant taken on its own, but as a collection making clear that the company knows which way the wind blows. As a matter of routine, Feitian engages in activities like the following:

  • Hosting workshops for Chinese academicians to explicate the “spirit” of a series of Xi Jinping’s important speeches in order to “implement and carry out” the political directives resultant from the 18th Party Congress;[21]
  • Hosting tours of officials studying at the Party School;[22]
  • Advertising its award for “important contributions” to information security given by the Party-Government Password Science & Technology Progress Award Assessment Committee (yes).[23]

The company has been relatively profitable. Within its first year or so it had booked five million yuan in revenue, at gross profit of nearly 50%; by 2014 when it went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange its revenues were just over one billion yuan, 250 million yuan profit. (Its stock has been cut nearly in half since April 2018, however, due to “an inexplicable explosion in all manner of costs.”) In 2003 it occupied around 50% of the market for USB security keys, a dominance that it has likely grown since.[24]

Feitian 5, group photo with pla

Li Jinai (fifth from left), the former secretary of the PLA General Armaments Department and a member of the Central Military Commission, stands next to Feitian’s chairman Huang Yu (fifth from right), at a ceremony marking an alliance between the PLA and the IT industry in 2003.


The company has sought to expand overseas for at least a decade, in 2007 noting on its website that “Feitian’s ePass identification authentication products have been adopted by governments, banks, and others around the world. We have won a strong reputation as an independent Chinese company with our own intellectual property striding onto the world stage in information security.”

It is difficult to gather data on the extent of those expansion efforts — though the recommendation by Google speaks well to at least a partial success.

But does this compromise user security?

It goes without saying that almost everything we have documented above is simply part and parcel of Chinese companies doing business in China — in particular in a sensitive sector like information and network security, and especially when doing large business with state banks. When the PLA invites your company to join in the “earnest celebration” of its anniversary, present gifts, and join its industrial “alliance,” you don’t respectfully decline.

The same would obtain if the company were ever approached by military or civilian intelligence and instructed to install backdoors in its security fobs, according to Tom Uren, a visiting fellow in the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“Companies in China aren’t able to refuse to engage in intelligence activities. This is laid out very clearly in Article 7 of China’s new 2017 National Intelligence Law,” Uren wrote in an email.

The law states: “All organizations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of. The state will protect individuals and organizations that support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.”


Feitian 6, RSA conference

Feitian’s chairman Huang Yu sits at his desk. The text says: “Feitian Chengxin: The Chinese Face That Appeared Eight Times at the RSA Conference.” (Source: 李玲玲. 飞天诚信:八次现身RSA大会的中国面孔. 软件世界杂志 2011(4). 60-61.


A Chinese information security business has no choice in the matter. The question then becomes how feasible it is for the security device to be weakened or tampered with. At the very least, there is an obvious opportunity at the level of firmware — the software layer coded into a device that controls its hardware — for an adversary to create mischief.

“The firmware matters a lot, and that looks like why Google is planning to replace the firmware on their whitelabeled Feitian keys,” says Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, a New York-based computer security firm.

This refers to Google’s ‘Titan’ security keys, which appear to be Feitian hardware with Google’s own firmware. On its Advanced Protection Program page, however, Google links users directly to Feitian’s own website, not to the Titan keys with Google’s own firmware.


“Attackers will tend to use the easiest method to achieve their goals,” says Tom Uren. “Is compromising the Feitian security key supply chain the easiest way? Maybe. Phishing is certainly the easiest/cheapest way to hack data currently and security keys significantly reduce its effectiveness. It will certainly be an avenue that Chinese intelligence would have to consider if security keys are widely used by people of interest to them.”

The means by which attackers could gain unauthorized access through the keys are potentially numerous, including complex methods of introducing flaws in the cryptography or its implementation. Markus Vervier, a computer security researcher, has documented vulnerabilities in some implementations of U2F (universal two factor authentication). His work was not in reference to Feitian.

Yubico, a Swedish-founded company and Google’s other suggested vendor of U2F products, seems to have previously made a veiled suggestion as to the potential vulnerability of its competitor. CEO Stina Ehrensvard wrote on the company’s blog: “Yubico strongly believes there are security and privacy benefits for our customers by manufacturing and programming our products in the USA and Sweden.” The company declined to comment for this article.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. The FIDO Alliance, an organization that certifies hardware (and which has certified Feitian) for implementing the security protocols used in U2F products, did not respond to a request for comment. Feitian did not respond to a request for comment.

One security researcher refused to comment because it’s “obvious” that backdoors could be put into hardware at the manufacturing stage, and his team didn’t want to single out any particular country.

Perhaps the simplest test of the security of the Feitian keys is a gut check: would security experts themselves use them?

“No,” wrote Tom Uren. “I use Yubico keys.”




[1] 亲历者说:“小乌鸡”如何变成“金凤凰” 中关村股权交易服务集团有限公司组织编写. 创客时代 亲历者讲创业. 2016


[3] “About.” n.d. Feitian Technologies Co. Accessed August 17, 2018.

[4] 祝惠春. 2015. “飞天诚信大‘起底’ 看它如何变成创业板金凤凰-一卡通世界.” 经济日报. June 3, 2015.


[6] 祝惠春 (2015)

[7] 赵阳戈. 2014. “飞天诚信:市场占有率跻身行业前三.” 每经网. June 18, 2014.; 韦伟. 2014. “飞天诚信业绩依赖银行 穿‘马甲’投标涉不正当竞争.” 财经频道, 中国经济网; May 15, 2014.

[8] 小晨. 八一前夕 科技拥军——计算机世界科技拥军捐赠仪式暨科技拥军联盟成立大会隆重举行. 微电脑世界,2003,(15).

[9] 飞天诚信喜获国密办两项资质_商用密码生产定点和销售许可. 电脑编程技巧与维护 2004(6).

[10] 胡滢. 锁住的商机. 中国电子商务杂志. 2003(8). 58

[11] Ibid.


[13] 飞天诚信荣获科技部技术创新基金支持. 电脑编程技巧与维护 2006(6).

[14] 崔光耀. 行业 标杆 如何竖起 — 飞天营销总监徐东谈国内业务. 信息安全与通信保密 2007(7). 34-35

[15] 2007:; 2009:; 2011:; 2016:


[17] “北京市成立智能卡行业知识产权联盟.” 2015. May 2, 2015.

[18] See for instance:;;

[19] 飞天诚信守护首都网络安全. 电脑编程技巧与维护. 2015(10),97.

[20] 2014年北京市科学技术奖获奖公告三等奖. May 6, 2015.




[24] 胡滢. 锁住的商机. 中国电子商务杂志. 2003(8). 58




Google Advanced Protection Program: How to lock down your account (Google takes aim at “targeted” online attacks. Here’s everything you need to know about the new security option — including whether you should use it), CNet, October 17, 2017.

Google expands its Advanced Protection Program to cover Apple’s native iOS apps, VB, MAY 3, 2018.



New Gmail feature could open more users to phishing risks: Government officials, ABC News, July 17, 2018.



Support Our Work

At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.






An official account of corrupt officials – How People’s Daily reports on graft in China

A few days ago, it was announced that Liu Zhijun, former head of the Railway Ministry was stripped of his party title as a result of misconduct. In the Western press it was said that his graft involved hundreds of millions of RMB (over 800 million), and yet People’s Daily (PD) has never hinted at an amount. With this small spark, I decided to do a case study of PD’s reports on corruption in China.

The Party’s mouth piece is left in a precarious situation, a lack of reporting on corruption would give the people the impression that nothing is being done to confront the very visible problem. Reporting too much though gives the impression that every gov’t official is corrupt, and the Party is failing in their efforts to control it. This tight rope act must be carefully managed so as to maintain precisely the right balance in appearance of action and control.

In order to get a sample of the stories published by People’s Daily, I used Google Site search with the phrase “corrupt” (which also caught corruption and ant-corruption), and then limited the results to 1/1/2011-12/31/2011 (results). This returned a total of 374 results, of these roughly 60% were false positives caused by links to other articles. The remainder fell into three general categories; the largest focused on the Party’s anti-corruption efforts, the second largest focused on denouncing corruption and opinion pieces encouraging the gov’t to take action, and the smallest subset consisted of just 14 articles related to specific cases of corrupt officials being prosecuted.

These cases proved particularly interesting, since they give the clearest picture of corrupt officials and their crimes (see table at bottom). The smallest amount published was 10,000rmb, which was used for a banquet for the Luwan District Red Cross in Shanghai, while this received a great deal of attention on Weibo and was part of a very painful public image crisis for the Red Cross (which had also been hit by the Guo Meimei scandal), it was an insignificant amount compared to the other instances of corruption. The average amount accumulated by individual corrupt officials tried in 2011 was over 18,000,000RMB (based off only what has been reported in PD, which excludes the Liu Zhijun case), with the most corrupt being Xu Zhongheng, former mayor of Shenzhen, who was accused of taking over 33,000,000 RMB. The largest instance of corruption reported, was related to the trial of the managers of the Wenzhou Vegetable Basket group, which is a State Owned Enterprise; the CEO and 15 others took over 426 million RMB from the company during a restructuring process. People’s Daily though prefers to focus on individuals even when it clearly involves a group of corrupt officials.

I think for a casual reader the steady stream of information about anti-corruption efforts and limited reporting on individual trials may give the impression that corruption is being effectively controlled. Yet, when one looks at all of the reporting together, it seems woefully inadequate. For example, the paper mentions an effort to register the financial assets of 1.67 million officials, yet only 51% reported their property ownership, 36% registered their investments, and 48% reported the employment status of their relatives (who as we learned from the Bo Xilai scandal can also receive massive perks from their connections). Unsurprisingly the paper is complicit in glossing over these disparities; in the previous year roughly 146,000 corruption cases were investigated, yet only 14 were reported in the PD. These efforts seem at best to be a weak attempt at transparency.

The lowest amount reportedly taken by an individual official was 1.2 million RMB, which makes me wonder what the threshold is for punishment. Unfortunately we will never know how much the 146,000 officials were caught with, but the total must be massive considering that according to the cases reported in People’s Daily just 29 officials pilfered 647.18 million RMB.

Furthermore, the People’s Daily quickly backed away from the sensational report released last year from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that 16-18,000 officials had fled overseas with up to 800 billion RMB over the past 20 years. This figure was later replaced with the somewhat less damning claim of 4,000 officials with 50 billion USD over 30 years (roughly 40% of the original figure). The fact that there is a phrase to describe officials getting ready to flea, naked officials, indicates the scale of the problem.

Despite being the mouth piece of the Party, People’s Daily did publish a few bold editorials related to corruption. “Tofu Projects in China,” focused on various vanity projects throughout the country that had been poorly constructed and wasted public funds, and “The Recipe of China’s Food Safety Crisis” squarely blames corrupt inspectors for the country’s failure to protect its citizens from harmful ingredients. The paper also reported that corruption was rife in the construction industry, and that bribes can make up to 5-10% of the cost of a single project (China invested over 4 trillion RMB to bolster the economy after the 2008 downturn, do the math).

Overall, it seems that the tight rope act is now in danger of taking a disastrous fall as Weibo and other platforms become the more popular sources of information, largely because of inept reporting by PD and other “official” papers. Sadly, state media fails miserably at providing the people anything more than a glimpse of the scope and scale of the corruption. There are a few bright spots though, one being that corruption efforts do seem to actually be expanding to formerly off limits levels of gov’t, and secondly, that local elections seem to be reducing corruption at the local level, which has a large impact for China’s farmers.

You should be reading People’s Daily – The Party’s paper is the best tool for activists

English: Logo of the People's Daily 中文: 人民日报题字

People's Daily

I think to many observers of China, People’s Daily (PD) has little worth outside of restating the Party line. They pretend that it is a reconstruction of the Ministry of Truth from 1984, whose only purpose lies in creating “truth.” Some even go so far as to argue that reading and quoting such a paper does nothing but affirm the Party’s leadership. In fact, bloggers, activists, and dissidents should be reading the People’s Daily, and, as I’ll show, often the most damning evidence against the Party’s rule can be found within its pages.

Initially, I too was skeptical of the integrity of People’s Daily, but linked to it regularly, assuming that even the strongest proponents of China would find it difficult to argue with facts and figures from the Party mouth piece. After all, PD would have little interest in overstating China’s problems.

Overtime I started to realize that stories were usually innocent on their own, but when taken with the bigger picture often portrayed a hypocritical and unjust state. The strongest example of this comes from two stories that seem at first glance to be completely unrelated; a female teacher burning seven kindergartners with a hot iron, and a man smashing the windows of two Mercedes-Benz. However on closer reading, one sees the vastly different values placed on the children of the poor and the possessions of the rich; the woman was held by police for 10 days, while the man was sentenced for 20 months.

Intrigued by this discovery, I started combing the China Society page daily. The home page of the site interests me due to importance put on certain articles, but I have found the other sections reveal far fewer interesting stories. This is not to say that it is void of blatantly rosy accounts of China. The Politics section, is usually just pronouncements, where words like “urge” and “inspect” fill the headlines with little discussion of action (official reports appear here from time to time, which can be useful). Additionally, Foreign Affairs, rarely strays from the Party line, and replays the same few points ad nauseum (sovereignty, peaceful development, harmony…). At times though, the Foreign Affairs section fails to convey the Party line in a convincing fashion, like the infamous one sentence article, “No beating of foreign journalists by police: Chinese FM,” in response to an incident that took place during the Jasmine Protests.

Despite some sensational stories that argue otherwise, the Party doesn’t actually inspect every article prior to publication. PD however does know that their role is to support the Party. They offer the clearest view of what the Party line is, and therefore serve as a useful window to China. The benefit of this to activists is that it is not always clear how one should support the Party.

What many people are not aware of is that within the paper there is a great deal of latitude given to each author and each department. It is not uncommon for there to be contradictory headlines appearing within a day of each other. For example: “China to reduce rare earth export quotas” published Oct. 19, 2010 followed by “China denies reports of rare earth export quota cut” on Oct. 20, 2010. Both used quotes from the Ministry of Commerce and appeared prominently on the front page of the People’s Daily’s website. These contradictions show a clear lack of gov’t oversight, and that the editors are sometimes left guessing where the Party line is.

Surprisingly, People’s Daily actually gives activists the tools to easily track down related stories that expose the paper’s previous position.

This appeared with the article "China denies reports of rare earth export quota cut".

Unlike the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s distopia, the People’s Daily only produces new material, but doesn’t bother to delete the existing content. Even as Chinese censors scrub weibo of “sensitive words,” PD seems to be unaffected by these emergency efforts.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t attempts to obscure the past. The search feature of the People’s Daily website does seem to employ keyword blocking.

A search for “Falun Gong” results in this:

While a Google search of People’s Daily reveals over 1,350 articles related to the same topic. One finds that even though you can no longer access this information through People’s Daily itself, all of the articles still exist in their original form, even the initial article stating the practice has been banned is easily found.

The People’s Daily also tries to maintain its relevance in society by reporting, often obliquely, on hot topics. Using the Google site search, I tested nearly 50 terms and found that People’s Daily seems at least to be discussing some of the most sensitive topics (Full results at end).

A Google site search is performed by searching: “X” site: I further limited the search using Google’s tools that narrow the search by date of publication.

The biggest gains in frequency are in line with which topics were most widely discussed in other major overseas newspapers. Unsurprisingly, “Weibo” went from just three mentions to 2,520 in 2011. Bo Xilai also experienced a massive jump in frequency from just seven mentions in 2010 to 253 mentions in 2011 as a result of his Red Songs campaign and political posturing. (Wang Yang of Guangdong, who was seen as Bo’s competitor, had 7 and 10 mentions respectively).

Other words that have become more common in the last year include: “Stability” gaining 344% to 5,820 mentions; “Pollution” went up 1,094% from 355 mentions to 4,240, which shows the greater debate of the topic in the last year; “Food Safety” increased 3,083% going from 104 mentions to 3,310; and “Gutter Oil,” which was not mentioned a single time in 2010, was discussed 1,410 times in 2011. Any China hand would agree that these increases reflect the changes in the conversations we hear on a daily basis with our Chinese friends. I would argue that it is the result of a greater openness in People’s Daily to report on issues without waiting for official permission (in addition to the more obvious propaganda pieces).

These shifts in reporting also reflect changes in gov’t campaigns. For example the period from January 1 – March 19, 2010 and 2011 only yielded 1 article related to Lei Feng; the same period in 2012 has resulted in 117. When you read People’s Daily everyday, you can start to intuit these shifts, but a Google site search allows you to quantify such changes.

Thanks to the administrators of the People’s Daily website, information is no longer a tool that only the Party can wield.

Sorted by Topic

Sorted by % change

Sorted by times mentioned in 2011

Important Notes: Google site search is not perfect. 3 page articles are counted as 3 separate mentions. While this skews data some, it is also representative of the importance attached to each topic. Recent photo pages also skew results, as an unrelated article may appear in the results due to the photo page being mentioned on the side bar. Data sets for Wukan and Muammar Gaddafi were strongly affected by this, which is why I placed an x in their columns for 2010. Additionally, mentions of “Democracy” may be pro-democracy or anti-democracy, but the value lies in the fact that it is increasingly being discussed.

Shanzhai – China’s Knock Off Culture

Yesterday we looked briefly at the way copyrights are ignored in China, and today we will be diving deeper into the fascinating world of Chinese knockoffs.

In China these knockoffs are called Shanzhai, and there are even references to a shanzhai culture. Some of the more well-known products are the “blockburry”, the “A-Pad” and the “O-Phone” (just for fun, a website that sells them).

These devices are often a fraction of the price of the originals, and sometimes they will offer more features. For example an O-phone might be able to use many of the I-phone apps as well as Google Android apps. Other times they might add a camera or some flashing lights (sadly not a joke).

The argument for these products is that many foreign goods are much too expensive for the Chinese market, but that Chinese consumers demand access to them.

Shanzhai products are not even sold with the pretense of being the real deal. In the States these would be sold quietly under the counter, but in China there are marketing campaigns for these devices.


For some reason I doubt Obama received his check from this photo shoot.

In my experience these fakes often fall apart in a few months, like the I-pood mp3 player I bought for $20 in rural China.


Beyond Shanzhai tech there are a huge number of copied clothing brands that copy the original product stitch for stitch. My experience with these is limited to winter jackets (known as NorthFakes) and backpacks. These products are frequently indistinguishable from the original.

I have heard claims that these are sometimes even made in the same factories as the actual product. I’m tempted to believe there is some truth in that, as I have come across jackets with all of the tags you would expect to find, and they are shockingly free of the usual English grammar and spelling mistakes.

Shanzhai can also result in knock off restaurants like those featured in this post on Chinahush. I have eaten at a number of these and they make McDonald’s seem like fine dining.

Recently there have even been complaints of Shanzhai cars. Apparently a few of BYD’s (a Chinese car company) distributors offered a unique service for their customers, replacing all BYD logos with other brand’s logos like Toyota. BYD is trying to downplay this by saying that they don’t control their distributors, but what is surprising is that once the logos are switched it is hard to tell the difference (Several Examples).

Car manufacturers say that the problem is that it is very difficult to copyright every part of every design they make, so legally they can’t do much to stop these Chinese copycats. In the car industry most companies try to make their cars standout in someway, because copying another design would mean admitting someone else is doing a better job than you. In China it means cheap cars for the masses.

Tomorrow look forward to the Nobel Prize winning explanation (unfortunately not mine) that helped me understand the full effects of China’s IPR problems on China’s consumers.

The Other Side of the Great Firewall – The Hidden Joys of the Chinese Internet

I think a lot of us picture China as a place where the people are completely ignorant of the outside world due to heavy censorship (yesterday’s post on the topic). Coming to China often does little to change this perception, as people will smile politely and tell you that everything has always been fine in Tibet, or that Tiananmen Square’s only remarkable feature is that it is the largest public square in the world.

That is why I take so much pleasure in learning about the subversive corners of the Chinese internet, where the feelings people hide in public come pouring out for the world to read.

Some simply ignore the danger of upsetting the government. Little is known about the exact methodology used to patrol the internet, and there are relatively few stories of people being arrested for what they have said online.

Also the government is always concerned with upsetting netizens by blocking too many sites, so if a story becomes popular quickly enough it becomes very difficult to keep it from spreading (like this collection of photos of wasteful government buildings or this post about poisonous food in China).

Scaling the wall

There is a way to get past the wall with a VPN or proxy server, which makes it seem to the internet that you are not actually in China at all.

This is how Chinese activists reach sites like twitter and youtube to spread their message, but it is also how Chinese netizens get access to basic news and information. Without a VPN it is hard to use the internet for gathering information, just this morning a friend who knows I regularly scale the wall, asked me to fetch him some information about Libya.

I can’t provide you with exact numbers of how many people use these kinds of services, but their existence seems to be common knowledge for Chinese people my age. When some of the VPNs were targeted recently by the censors, even middle school students were complaining that it was hard to do research without scaling the wall.

Puns and Internet Creatures

A more creative approach enables people to post on Chinese owned sites without tipping off the censors.This method involves using puns to talk around sensitive key words.

Puns in Chinese are made incredibly easily since it is a sound poor language (more on that here), virtually any name or issue is easily punned. Government spokespeople are regularly given somewhat vulgar names since their real names are not allowed to be used. For example Qin Gang from the Foreign Ministry sounds the same as “bird anus”, she earned this name after famously saying, “The Internet in China is fully open.”

This method really took off in early 2009 with the birth of the internet’s first legendary creature, “Grass Mud Horse”. The Chinese censors had blocked profanity, and so CaoNiMa (grass-mud-horse) was used to mock this attempt, since it’s name sounds identical to “F#*k your mother”.

There was even a popular song and video (not for children) for this first magical creature, and the use of special internet puns exploded. Popular creatures now include the river crab (sounds like “harmony” and mocks the government’s over use of the word), the monkey-snake (sounds like “mouthpiece”), and the valley dove (sounds like “Google”) which is always attacked by the river crab. Each creature has an entire back story, and people have even made several “documentaries” about these magnificent creatures.

What I am hoping you take away from this post is that Chinese people know far more than they are willing to show in public, and that even with huge amounts of government spending, the internet is not such an easy thing to control. The Chinese have found a way to mock the system that would leave most foreigners pulling their hair out.

This story detailing new measures from came out as I was writing this post. Also credit is due to CDT for their work in compiling a dictionary of Chinese internet slang.