Just about anyone who’s ever lived in mainland China is familiar with a constant stream of “fake food” scandals. Widespread food-safety problems include reports of fake cooking oil, a ghastly concoction reprocessed from “gutter oil” collected from restaurant fryers and sewer drains. There’s also fake baby formula (fatally adulterated with melamine to improve its apparent protein content), not to mention fake eggs, fake cheese, fake watermelons—and the fact that some of those reports are themselves fake.
Living in Shanghai, as I did for several years, often made me exercise muscles of suspicion I’d barely even known I had. Nothing was the way it seemed; the air could well be more polluted on a bright sunny day than on a foggy one. If I was about to buy a bottle of soy sauce, I would study the label, note where it was produced, deduct points if it was bottled in China, and wonder if the label itself was fake. Chinese friends often told me that they simply never bought Chinese milk/eggs/meat because of worries about fakery and counseled me to do the same.
Just as I had to learn how to navigate my local supermarket, I also had to learn how to navigate the Chinese internet. On mainland China’s censored internet, where Wikipedia is often blocked, doppelgängers of many major U.S. tech firms exist in a closed-off ecosystem fiercely protected from outside competition by the Great Firewall. Chinese users query a search engine called Baidu, watch videos on Youku, and post messages on a social network called Sina Weibo; an app called Didi Chuxing acquired Uber’s China operations in August. (Crucially, that also means all of these users’ data are collected by massive Chinese firms like the messaging and payments application WeChat, which are then required to share the information with the government.) A New York Times piece last year suggested China is like a lagoon compared to the greater ocean of the internet, one within which mutated apps evolve separately under different conditions. That analogy works, as long as you keep in mind that it’s a giant lagoon roughly a fifth the size of the ocean itself.