Shenzhen Tech Girl Naomi Wu, Part 3: Defunding, Deplatforming, and Detention.
In which high profile Western journalists are finally successful in their ongoing attempts to achieve all three.
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.
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.
I felt I had just enough going for me I could show a little more if my life- on my terms, and well- I am as flamboyant as my idol Dolly Parton, my Chinese sisters are so beautiful and handsome, and our lives are not often seen in the West. So, I risked a great deal to share my birthday party at one of the few establishments we have, open only to women.
I am traditional enough that being “proud” is not really something I need in my life. I’ve lived quietly, happily for many years in the same sorts of structure millions of other Chinese in my position do. Structures that satisfy our families and do not cause friction. It is our way- our culture is different.
When Vice Magazine and Sarah Jeong claimed a written agreement with a Mainland Chinese woman barring discussion of her sexual orientation and relationships was not “legally binding” so therefore could be ignored, none of the organizations that normally advocate for Western women under these circumstances stepped up for the obviously horrific precedent this represented for men and women living in countries were these issues are far from settled and legal protections non-existent. They saw, they said nothing- since I did not look like them.
As with being a Woman in Tech- if you don’t look like them, or like they expect- you become “problematic”. You don’t count, and no help or advocacy will ever come from those with the power to make a difference. Even if you have used your platform to advocate for them countless times. Even if you are the living embodiment of the values they espouse. There is no reciprocation- your staunch advocacy is treated like natives giving flower necklaces to missionaries, they interpret it as a sign of obeisance. When their fellow missionaries burn your village down you will be treated to quiet asides about how problematic and unhelpful your screams are because their friends are such nice people and good “allies”.
No value or principle comes before what is most important to them- knowing your place in their imagined social hierarchy. If you don’t know your place, don’t fit their narrative, they will first ignore you, exclude you and deny your existence- if your light burns too brightly, they will try to extinguish it and erase you.
I’m often scolded online for being “angry”. Part of this is the global saturation of idol culture- leading to the bizarre idea that every moderately attractive East Asian woman behaves like a professional entertainer- smiling constantly, occasionally pouting, making cute little faces and hearts with our fingers. It’s not deliberate bias, but people honestly think this is real. Many Westerners are surprised that I’m so aggressive and think it’s just me because it doesn’t match what they to expect- they don’t realize it’s perfectly normal for every Cantonese businesswoman I know. My grandma was a butcher and when toughs came to our little stall demanding protection money she chased them off with a cleaver- then came back and showed me how to swing it properly so I’d know when the stall was mine (slices not chops or it gets stuck in bone and you lose your weapon). I don’t cry- I fight, I don’t complain- I document, I don’t wrap myself in victimhood and demand special privileges for it- I point out that I was targeted and insist I will work and study to succeed in spite of it- but I have every right to be angry. Anger drove me to help myself when no one else would. Anger- focused, controlled, directed appropriately and used productively can be as useful a tool as passion. I had passion, they gave me anger- now I use both like hammer and anvil. Without apology. If you teach young women that appropriate, focused, rational anger is “unladylike” you leave them with nothing but sadness- and tears don’t get shit done.
One lesson has been beaten into me at this point. “Ignoring the haters” is a bad strategy when they are not trying to seek your attention but trying to make you disappear. The larger the platform, the louder the megaphone, the less appealing a target I would be. When the wolves circle you don’t hide, you wave a torch and shout. More wolves? Get a bigger torch.
So, I got back on Twitter and posted as my life depended on it- which it didn’t but my ability to move freely and live my life certainly did. The louder I was, the more interesting and informative I was- maybe then more people would care if something happened to me again.
I translated and summarized interesting discussions with fellow Chinese on WeChat on various tech topics.
I posted about Open Source Hardware and IP compliance from an on the ground Chinese perspective.
I wrote about gender expression, dating and stories about my childhood here in China.
And of course- I wrote about what had happened to me, how Vice had defunded me with the help of Sarah Jeong, how content that I risk detention to shoot and post had been stolen by Amanda Hess of the New York Times, how she had used it without attribution to smear me. Because if I don’t- there will be no risk to them doing it again and again until they go too far and I pay the price.
Facts with citations showing exactly what they had done, was of course, intolerable. Within days my YouTube channel was once again drastically throttled:
There is a concerted effort across different social media platforms to deal with what’s been called “fake news”. YouTube maintains the capacity to manually throttle an account they feel is disseminating false information by limiting how often it is recommended. This was implemented to deal with the very real problem of anti-vax and climate denial channels organically ranking so highly. Unfortunately, once you have the tool and can use it with impunity, without the person being targeted being able to prove anything, of course, it will be abused to protect the powerful and influential. This has happened every time I have called out the New York Times for theft of my content- suddenly my YouTube videos are no longer recommended and my channel starts to die, even if there is no video posted even remotely controversial.
That month, when I was successful in making replacement parts for one of the last remaining polio victims stuck in an iron lung, it was one of my most “liked” videos ever- yet had the least views of any video I have ever shot, since YouTube’s aggressive throttling ensured that it would not be seen on anyone’s “recommended” list.
YouTube’s “black box” algorithm meant I could not contest the throttling since I could not definitively prove it. Just show that like clockwork- it always happened when I posted about my treatment by Western media.
Deplatforming tactics like this work as intended when they prevent me from honoring sponsor agreements and earning a living, but it also hurts my advocacy work and efforts to help others, like my friend Becky Button, or the wonderful Ugandan teen STEM club I support.
After YouTube, within a week my Twitter account was shadowbanned, limiting the reach of my Tweets and capping the number of likes a post could get:
Then, almost one month to the day after I started posting on Twitter again, my account was suspended. There was no violation of any Term of Service, I simply called the New York Times out for their use of my video without permission or attribution, something which is well documented, and was “Temporarily Restricted” within hours with no way to lift the restriction.
Then a week later, the suspension was made permanent, and now I no longer have access to Twitter.
Update: Thanks to reposting from friends I now have access to my Twitter back after one month. No explanation of course or assurances that it won’t be used the exact same way in the future when I speak out against the powerful.
If anyone ever tells you that deplatforming tools will only ever be used against Nazis and “bad guys” feel free to link them to me and ask in what way is a girl in China teaching people to solder a threat that needs to be silenced? What greater good is served by coming after me, one of the few moderate, authentic Chinese voices left on Western social media? I’m only a threat to a business model exploits and endangers people in other countries for the sake of clickbait.
Some people say- move to the West. They aren’t attacking me just because I’m in Mainland China, they are attacking me because I don’t fit their narrative. Moving won’t change that, just put me in closer proximity to an enemy that’s powerful and completely unaccountable even in their own country. They can do anything to me and nothing will happen, we’ve seen this as fact. They would continue to attack me after I gave up my city for them, solving nothing. Moving closer to them is the absolute worst thing I could do.
As I said- none of this is a complaint, it’s simply documentation for the future. Documentation that I would really appreciate your sharing. I know nothing will happen- because power is power and people like me don’t have it. I don’t know when they will try again, they can try and fail as many times as they like, but if they succeed just once things are over for me. At this point, I think they will succeed eventually. I don’t honestly think given their size, power, resources, and lack of accountability, my story will have a happy ending. But I’m confident if I keep pushing back, if they know I won’t go quietly, I can delay that ending for a little while.
I’m Naomi Wu, Machinery Enchantress to Chinese children and Daughter of the Ten Tigers. I am not special, my parents are humble factory workers. Through hard work, hard study and good luck I was spared a life on the line next to countless other Chinese women exactly like me. I’ve built a life for myself in Shenzhen- the most cyberpunk city in the world. Never a victim, only a target, I am not afraid. I stood alone and fought for a name, fought to attend school, fought for my gender expression and I’ll fight to exist- I will not change my appearance to appease puritans or bigots. I am entitled to nothing I do not work for and will accept any challenge from those who question my abilities. While I still can, until they succeed in silencing me, I will show my life here, and try to inspire others around the world to become more technically proficient, to learn new skills, to study harder, work harder and earn our place by virtue of inarguable, undeniable competence.