Tech We’re Using: The Difficulties of Reporting When China Limits Your Internet

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But we are not the only ones affected. Businesses operating in China have the same problems. So do researchers, scholars and scientists, all people who need to get information from websites — including Twitter, Facebook and Google — that the government blocks.


Workers playing online games in an internet cafe at the Huajian shoe factory in Guangdong Province, China. Credit Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What story was your greatest challenge working with these restrictions?

All stories are a challenge. Everything. That’s the point — the Great Firewall blocks so much.

The internet always slows to a crawl during Communist Party congresses when the government believes it must keep everything controlled and calm. We are expecting the internet to be particularly slow this fall when the party holds a major meeting to re-elect President Xi Jinping as leader.

What tools do you use to overcome the Great Firewall? What could be better about the tools, if anything?

I would like to see faster, more efficient VPNs that are not so vulnerable to Chinese hackers, who are world champions.

Is government surveillance a concern for you? If so, how do you keep your work and communications private?

Surveillance in China is all-encompassing. There is no foolproof way to elude it. We are just reporters and we don’t have anything to hide. There are CCTV cameras everywhere. We do take steps to protect our sources.

The Chinese were way ahead of Americans in adopting messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat. What messaging app do you use the most?

I use both WeChat and WhatsApp, though not a lot. By not using WeChat too much, I deny the prying eyes of the government the pleasure of knowing instantly whom I am talking to. But I do not try to hide anything. That’s impossible. Last month, I was in the provinces and when I started to talk to someone on WhatsApp, I was immediately disconnected.

Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life and why?

Air Matters is a vital app for checking pollution levels. I can tell in the morning from my apartment in a high-rise building what the air is like. My measure is whether I can see the beautiful Beijing hills in the distance. On clear days, they stand out as a jagged ridge of blue. On bad days, you can’t see them.

Today the A.Q.I. (air quality index) in Beijing is 188, or moderately polluted. On Air Matters you can see the A.Q.I. in other Chinese cities — most are over 100 today.

And you can see the worst polluted place in the world. Today it is a city in the west of China, Aksu, with a level of 900 because of a sandstorm. I am glad I am not there.

What Chinese online service or app do you use that Americans may not know about and why do you like it?

I like Didi, the ride-hailing service. It’s better than Uber. You can get an ordinary Beijing taxicab with a pleasantly cranky driver, grungy interior and an ultracheap fare. Or you can go high end, and get a Didi driver who comes in a spiffy car with a clean interior and bottled water.

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