Ms. Wu wrote:
Update: There have been a few complaints about the length and detail of this article.
1. I’m sorry about the length, but Chinese translated into English becomes about 20–30% longer. I was educated entirely in China so I learned creative writing primarily in Chinese and not well in English. We are quite flowery but I don’t want to have words put in my mouth so the translation is a bit direct. Which I understand makes for an odd read.
2. This article is documentation, not marketing. This is confusing some readers. People are so used to every misfortune being used to build a personal brand they are actually annoyed that my “pitch is too long”.
I don’t have a Gofundme or a PayPal, I’m not launching a book tour, I’m not looking for speaking engagements or selling my services as a “Harassment Consultant” or anything like that. People are telling me I need a “Call to action” and a payment link- no, I don’t (but thank you). I’m not in the victim business. I make stuff, that’s my brand. I’m not looking to make “I get targeted a lot” my brand, I want that to stop.
This is simply a meticulously detailed incident report for future reference in case one day these people can be held accountable- with my thoughts on what happened and a request that it be signal boosted so others are aware. That’s all- thank you.
I’m Naomi Wu, a tech reviewer and hardware enthusiast from Shenzhen, China. This is the third update on my interactions with Western media companies. Part one can be read here, and part two here. It’s best to read those first- but in summary, I’m a huge believer in the role journalism plays in the public discourse. I think that some foreign correspondents do amazing and essential work here in China- but also that my own experience has shown there are serious problems with cronyism and a lack of accountability. These problems have repeatedly placed me, and other at-risk sources in harm’s way when it simply was not necessary.
When you’re done reading if you’d like to help I’d appreciate it if you repost this article on whatever social media platform you can. I don’t think the people responsible will ever be held accountable, but if their actions are widely known and well documented they may be more hesitant to do the same to others in the future.
An essential element of what makes “good journalism” good is holding media organizations accountable for the mistakes they sometimes make and ensuring that it does not happen again. There is no valid argument for a “greater good” that uses the good work done by many journalists as an excuse not to address and correct the mistakes that are made by some. You cannot be a credible journalist and also silent as your colleagues openly feed innocent, at-risk sources into a wood chipper. Accountability is not an “attack on the free press”. Silence is not looking at an imagined “bigger picture”, it is short-sighted cowardice that burns down centuries of carefully cultivated old-growth credibility for a day’s clicks.
The problem is not simply journalists, but those who have built careers and personal brands around advocating principles they simply do not follow. Gamergate was launched in part by one woman being accused based on Reddit and 4Chan rumors that she had gained a professional advantage through her sexual partners. Yet not long ago when the same accusation was made about me- a Chinese national in far more tenuous circumstances, this time by Western journalists, with rumors originating at the exact same sources and already aggressively disproven, many of those same feminists and journalists decided it was suddenly acceptable. Others like Sarah Jeong attacked me for daring to defy their “allies” and my insistence that my sexuality and personal life was both a private matter and something if publicized against my will could place me in harm’s way. This is the grossest hypocrisy.
After posting parts one and two, I’ve heard people knowingly, even smugly write about things they imagine I did wrong- from the safety of their own countries, under very different systems of governance, having never lived under anything else or experienced any remotely similar events. They write about what they imagine (well, fantasize) they would have done in my shoes. All I can say is everyone is a badass until there’s a knock at the door in the night- or your parent’s door. Talk to some people from countries who have lived through these things. When faced with those willing to harm you for some fleeting personal benefit, you do what’s needed to live your life and protect the people you care about. We don’t have the systems in place that you do to handle these situations and protect us. That may be hard to understand- but that’s something you should be grateful for, that you’ll never have to understand it or live it.
Following previously documented attempts by Vice Magazine and others to reveal aspects of my life that most Chinese keep private, to defund and deplatform me, and place me in harm’s way, I followed the often given “just ignore the haters” advice and attempted to do just that. I built my projects, reviewed interesting tech and showed the life of a young Chinese woman from a working-class background, trying to make something of her life here in Shenzhen.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that- you can ignore them, but that does not mean they’ll ignore you, or that their attention won’t put you in harm’s way. I don’t have a problem with people just saying mean things to me as detractors who snivel and whine about my “drama” insist, I have a well-documented problem with people trying to cause me real-world harm- and only a fool considers that drama or something that can be ignored. I didn’t have to wait long for Western Media to have another go at me, and if anything my silence emboldened them and made me look like an easy target.
Hasan Minhaj, of the Netflix show “Patriot Act”, decided that in a feature incredibly critical of the Chinese government, its leaders, and its policies- to splice in clips of me- a high profile PRC citizen, living in China, without my permission and completely out of context.
The video segment was extracted from a feature I shot for the Wall Street Journal years earlier (who were absolutely professional and took the written agreement that I have provided journalists for years not to discuss anything that might pertain to my sexual orientation or relationship status very seriously). The Patriot Act included the footage in such a way as to make it appears I was a willing participant in a video attacking Chinese leadership.
This is insanely dangerous.
It was not simply dangerous, it was also deceitful. Hasan took a quote where I spoke to the Wall Street Journal about financial privacy (the government being able to see online payments) and took it out of context to make it look like I was defending online censorship.
The other people featured in the Patriot Act episode on China were nearly all Chinese activists now residing overseas- so were largely immune from the consequences of appearing in the video. I am a PRC citizen, residing full time in Mainland China, with no overseas passport or residency, so was certainly not immune to consequences and once again had been placed by Western journalists directly in harm’s way.
As before- of the thousand-plus China watchers, journalists and foreign correspondents for major media outlets who follow my Twitter account, not a single one spoke up. Tweets about dumplings and other trivial nonsense- but no one would speak up and say “this is incredibly irresponsible to do to a local high profile Chinese source”. Not one word.
I posted that Netflix doing this would have consequences for me- of course it would. Even if the relevant people and agencies understood I was not a willing participant, I can’t continue to be placed against my will adjacent to issues that are potentially embarrassing to China and not suffer consequences for that. I was, as usual, ignored and treated as if I didn’t exist. As when I begged journalists and their ethics organizations for weeks to help to stop Vice from breaking a written agreement, or at least explain to them the consequences- I was ignored, nothing changed.
Unsurprisingly, sometime after this, while near my home I was placed into a police van and detained.
My friend just had time to take a picture and implement a previously agreed upon contingency plan. Using a method called Shamir’s Secret Sharing, a quorum was able to assemble the password to my Twitter account and put out a call for help, or at the very least put eyes on my situation.
Again, out of the thousands of China watchers and foreign correspondents following me on Twitter, not one was willing to put their future career prospects on the line and say the Chinese source with the largest English language Twitter and Youtube presence on the Internet had been taken into custody- not without it leading to a discussion that these events came about after my disastrous interactions with their unethical colleagues. When other less prominent Chinese are detained in similar circumstances they are all over it- but if it might hurt their career prospects or embarrass colleagues? Suddenly it’s not a story. So they stayed silent- knowing it meant no outside pressure to release me.
It’s an unpleasant thing when you realize that journalists- as a profession, nearly without exception, would prefer you disappear and never be seen again rather than have a difficult conversation about their colleague’s conduct. All while they build personal brands around claiming profound knowledge and concern for the welfare and freedom of Chinese citizens.
No one spoke up, during or after. They won’t now. Ask- they will mutter excuses, claim secret information they can’t reveal, try to smear and discredit me on backchannels with vague innuendo, hints of rumors but no facts, no evidence, nothing stated publically for me to publically refute with all of the evidence they know full well I have at hand. This is what the profession has become. Investigators unwilling to investigate and writers unwilling to write lest they offend some potential future employer.
It is unwise to go into detail but there was no formal arrest that day. In these interactions, first there is a discussion, you make it clear you won’t make similar mistakes in the future. Future interactions, if they occur, become something else. I was released a few hours later. It left me pretty shaken.
I love my city and love documenting the incredible pace of change here, and the exciting life it gives me. I am proud of my Chinese heritage, I take pains to avoid known sensitive topics- for one because I am simply not qualified to speak on most of them, but I don’t run a cooking channel.
YouTube channels with attractive, non-threatening Chinese women silently preparing delicious food affirm traditional gender roles both in China and abroad and offend absolutely no one. This is smart, but this isn’t me. Conversations about tech in China have an inherent political component that is often difficult to avoid and can easily polarize viewers. I can’t just read a list of specs off the box of a Chinese made IP camera and not discuss obvious questions- not and have any self-respect as a professional.
I have no permission to do what I do, there’s no line, every time you post something you have to guess. So, you wait. You wait for the sound of boots on the steps and a knock on the door in the night. If you have never been in that position it’s hard to describe. You try not to think about it. You bury yourself in the work. So, I did.
Surface mount soldering components on a wearable. From a series on how to get your own, small, simple hardware product manufactured in Shenzhen.
My apartment lease expired so I moved into a new studio with more space for my tools and equipment. I began to master more skills- CNC, and surface mount soldering, commercial hardware fabrication, even home renovations, and teach my audience just how accessible these things are.
There was still an issue hanging over my head though. When Vice decided to break our written agreement and write about aspects of my life most Chinese keep private, I consulted with friends in a similar position. There was a consensus- given the massive size of Vice’s platform it could be disastrous and examples of exactly what could happen are innumerable.
The problem is in China “foreign-influenced” or more directly translated, influenced by “Western hostile forces” is a very, very dangerous dog whistle often with dire consequences. Chinese netizens or the state could decide you were “foreign-influenced” because of your proximity to foreigners, or because of a lifestyle that conservative Chinese deem against our traditional values.
Vice Magazine created a no-win scenario- either I had a foreign-influenced deviant lifestyle or proximity to a foreigner who must be responsible for shaping my opinions about things like fighting for the inclusion of Chinese women at local tech events. It was zugzwang, there was no “right” answer that would not potentially lead to accusations of my being influenced by “Western hostile forces”. I have not spoken to any Chinese or any veteran foreign correspondent in China who felt that the consequences for me would have been less than horrific. In part, for a very odd and China-specific reason- I was not successful.
At the time my YouTube channel was small, my presence on Western social media unremarkable, and there was no indication that I or what I was doing brought any value to China or the Chinese people. I would have simply been an embarrassment and another example of foreign ideas corrupting young, impressionable Chinese- and if there’s one thing you don’t do, it’s embarrass China and expect to go about your business.
When Vice Magazine decided to shine their giant spotlight on exactly how Chinese women like me live our lives- just for the sake of clicks, I was not successful- not yet. But I’ve worked hard since then, as is my habit. China has little in the way of “brand influencers” on Western social media (and there’s a good case to be made looking at influencer culture this isn’t a bad thing). But I could plausibly (if immodestly) claim for the sake of self-promotion that I was the first- a small feather in my cap. This got me noticed by some Chinese tech companies who were willing to offer some sponsorships to help make up what I had lost when Vice Magazine’s lawyers got my Patreon account closed. Almost a million YouTube viewers is modest by tech reviewer standards, but it still makes my channel the largest tech YouTube channel in China. Likewise with almost 100k followers on Twitter- no other Chinese who are having a dialog exclusively in English have close to this, and certainly not tech-focused.
I was successful- very successful in fact, at promoting the products and services my sponsors offered. This is because they were products and services I genuinely believed in and used myself before I was sponsored. Things I could get behind with real enthusiasm, bosses that would let me post brutally honest reviews and advocate on behalf of customers. I’ve litterally stormed into meetings here with products I felt below standard in hand, and even if I lose those sponsorships due to deplatforming at the hands of Western journalists and being unable to offer the audience I once did, I’ll always speak highly and respect the bosses and engineers who listened carefully and respected that I was speaking passionately for their customers.
This gave me something essential- some modest success in the eyes of fellow Chinese. Not much financial success, but a Chinese person that at least some foreigners approved of. An eccentric, but a validated eccentric. This was very, very important- Chinese put great stock in what foreigners think of other Chinese, and we put great stock in results. I was still in a tenuous position, but now in a much better position to take the chance. To at least put my fate in my own hands.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would have left things at “I’m a bit eccentric”, for my parent’s peace of mind if nothing else, but the implied threat held over my head since Vice came to my country and broke our agreement is leaking more than that if I push too hard. This could easily be done in a way to ensure Chinese netizens objected to it. If the larger Chinese social media sphere decides your conduct and values are against Chinese tradition or an embarrassment to China- this is a terrifying thing with very real consequences. It frankly should have been obvious (and was to some). There’s no shortage of pictures of me with special friends, but Westerners do not do implicit truths well and seem to require a degree of bluntness.