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Capturing What’s Online in China Before It Vanishes

Category: Science & Tech,Technology

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Raymond Zhong, a technology reporter based in Beijing, discussed the tech he’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for reporting in China?

The Chinese internet is like the small-town setting of a crime novel: Things are mysteriously disappearing from it all the time.

Social media posts vanish. News and blog articles are taken down. Sensitive bits are excised from videos. You can’t always predict what will be removed, either by censors or by a regular person starting to have second thoughts about his or her own unfiltered utterance. Even pages on the websites of government agencies and major corporations have a way of quietly falling into black holes.

That’s why a Google Chrome extension called Full Page Screen Capture is invaluable for internet research in China. With one click, I get a screen shot of an entire page, top to bottom. An embarrassingly large share of the files on my laptop are PDFs generated this way. I only wish a similar function were built into my iPhone, as it is on Huawei handsets.

Google sometimes caches past versions of web pages, as does the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. These crawlers don’t preserve everything. But when you manage to discover in the archives the exact page you’ve been hunting for, frozen for posterity at exactly the right moment, it’s an incredible endorphin rush.

For capturing streaming videos before they are taken down, I use QuickTime Player to take a recording of my screen. There are also sites that convert videos from YouTube and other platforms into downloadable files. I won’t name these services. The video sites don’t like them, so they’re constantly being shut down.

Reporting in an authoritarian country is a struggle of memory against forgetting. These tools help.

How does online consumerism like shopping and ordering food delivery differ there? How do you personally use these apps?

I spent most of my adult life not buying much online except books. But, oh Lordy, have I fallen for e-commerce since moving to Beijing last year.

To scroll through Taobao, Alibaba’s largest shopping platform, is to be awed by the sheer amount of our physical world that is being produced in China. Normal stuff like dustpans and kitchen timers. Weird stuff like latte cups shaped like skulls, wine glasses with a built-in straw and Barbie dolls that serve as racks for slices of raw meat before they go into a hot pot. Detailed knockoffs of Lego sets and whatever latest abominable thing Justin Bieber has been photographed wearing.

Do you know how many vendors are out there selling giant pillows printed to look like pieces of grilled meat? I bet that you do not.

My head swims with grandiose thoughts when I’m on Taobao. Thoughts like: Factories are making this stuff because people buy it. Who are these people? How do the factories even find out about them? What if shopping apps, and not social media, are the real mirror that mobile technology is holding up to our society?

Come to think of it, I still don’t buy that much online. I just like to look and ponder.

Many people in China have stopped using cash. They conduct their entire lives on a single app, WeChat. Electric cars are everywhere. Is China “The Jetsons”?

No, though I do often see people on hoverboards barreling down city streets while talking on their cellphones.

China is rightly recognized for having made big leaps in the digital realm. But there are many unglamorous reasons behind Chinese tech companies’ success.

Labor is cheap, and cities are densely populated — perfect for e-commerce, ride-hailing, and food and grocery delivery. People also tend to adopt new technologies with gusto because in a country that was quite poor not long ago, it’s not easy to get misty eyed about life before the internet.

The offline world in China is still rough in some ways. The skies are polluted. The traffic is bad. Staffs in shops and restaurants are surly. Most people will happily use technology to avoid all this if they can.

A few months ago, I had a broken water pipe at home, and for some reason I decided to call a plumber who had left his number on a sticker in my building. He ripped me off, big time. Next time I’m trying an app.

Even dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy is getting less torturous, sort of. This year, the tax authorities want more people to use their app. Which sounds good, except I still had to go across town and show my passport to get the six-digit code needed to activate the app.

Hoverboards aside, what gadget trends are emerging?

In a country as gadget crazy as China, it’s interesting that smart speakers aren’t taking off as they are in the United States. A lot of people I know are buying hand-held voice translation devices, usually for older relatives. They don’t work so well, I’m told. But at least they try to solve a real problem.

Recently, I watched a waiter in a hotel restaurant communicate with foreign guests using a voice translation app. “China needs to get better at English to become stronger in the world,” the waiter said, and the app read out his words in English.

It was all very poignant — until one guest barked at the waiter about a broken juice machine, and the app dutifully translated his insults into Chinese.

Outside of your job, what tech product are you personally obsessed with? What’s so great about it, and what could be better?

China is a glorious place to be a karaoke lover, and Exhibit No. 1 is the nation’s ubiquitous karaoke booths. For a couple of bucks, you and a friend can squeeze into a soundproof glass box and sing your hearts out for 15 minutes before going back to your normal lives.

The booths are everywhere in Chinese cities. In malls, in movie theaters. I’ve even seen them outside factories, so workers can nip out for a rousing round of “My Way” before returning to the assembly line. One time, I saw people singing in booths at the Beijing airport at 6:30 in the morning.

I must say I like the idea of karaoke booths more than the actual experience. The ventilation isn’t great. You have to wear headphones, and there’s something about karaoke that is diminished when you experience it through headphones. Or maybe I just don’t sound as good singing “Try a Little Tenderness” as I think I do.

In the end, karaoke might be another thing that was probably best left undisrupted by technology.

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