amw (amw) wrote,

our geopolitical friday

Normally living in an authoritarian state is "just" mildly inconveniencing. Bylaws and regulations get randomly changed and randomly enforced and people are expected to deal with it.

Suddenly street vendors are not allowed to sell food on my road any more except after 9pm on Friday nights. Why? Who the fuck knows why? Nobody will ever tell you. Perhaps it is because some restaurant owner paid off an official to have the cops kick out their competition. Perhaps it is because a property developer with connections thinks that having "low class" migrant workers milling around will devalue the gated community they are building down the street. Perhaps it is because some drunk party member picked up dumplings on the way home and wanted to punish the vendor for his explosive diarrhea the next day. It doesn't matter why. People grumble and complain and then they comply.

On Thursday night, one of my colleagues who is listed as a technical contact for our website got a call from the Chinese government. He was told that our website was illegal and he was ordered to immediately change all mentions of "Taiwan" to "中国台湾" (Taiwan, China). On Friday morning, we got another call from a more senior official at the government, who harrassed and threatened my colleague and asked why we hadn't fixed it yet. He said we should have fixed it within 10 minutes, and that we were breaking the law and our website would immediately be blocked.

Friends, our "website" is not some little Geocities thing where we just have to upload a new HTML and we are done. Our "website" is a distributed, cloud-based platform that is served up by hundreds of different microservices (back end servers) and hundreds of different microsites (front end pages), each of which have their own data stores and caching policies. Plus there are thousands of bespoke ad campaigns, pages of curated content and SEO sites that are managed by teams outside of engineering. We can't just snap our fingers and magically change everything.

But the Chinese government does not care. They decided that our site was suddenly illegal. So illegal, in fact, that the next stage of threats included a hit to the personal credit scores of our legal representatives. When my colleague tried to explain the challenges, the government agreed to extend the deadline of our looming block till midnight, but only if a senior company official reported in person to confirm their identity and sign paperwork admitting their guilt.

I was outraged, and i think i shared that emotion with a lot of our colleagues, although it was only expressed publicly as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Stephen Colbert and Winnie the Pooh emoji responses to the very long thread about how to resolve this problem. I mean, what can we do? We cannot risk the livelihoods of our employees. Given our parent company is a major Chinese company, we also cannot afford the PR shitstorm that would definitely follow if we (as their subsidiary) did not comply. On the other hand, we earn far more revenue from our Hong Kong and Taiwan customers than from our mainland customers, so kissing the ring of the CPC would definitely hurt our reputation in markets that are much more important to us.

For much of Friday, a good chunk of the company was running around trying to figure out a way to update all references to Taiwan, but only in Simplified Chinese and only in mainland China (since in Singapore - another major revenue source for us - they also use Simplified Chinese). The most annoying part is that we don't even take a political stance in the first place. Our site is deliberately designed to only reference cities and regions - not countries - so that we can avoid this stuff. Oh well. 政府不care.

We got all of the main user flows changed over by 10pm last night. On one hand i am proud of how our company came together to solve this issue so quickly - the emergency team included legal, executive, local management, engineers, PR, regional reps... I was only a small cog - i identified some pages we needed to reindex while eating BBQ on the street - but i still felt like i contributed. I have never had that experience of such a diverse cross-section of a company going all hands on deck to fix a crisis. The sad part is that this was a completely contrived "crisis" and our "fix" is to comply with a ludicrous demand of an authoritarian regime.

I don't understand how they hope to win hearts and minds with this kind of behavior - it only increases fear and resentment. While all this was going on, in Hong Kong they arrested a bunch of youth activists and progressive politicians on trumped-up charges. The last few months has been a fucking garbage fire.
Tags: career, china

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