On Monday, the U.S. Department of Commerce recommended the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deny a license to China Mobile, the state-run company that is the world’s largest phone network by subscribers. (It reaches more people than Verizon and AT&T combined.) The Commerce Department suggested the move because of the national security risk China Mobile poses. Indeed, because China Mobile is an arm of the Chinese state, there are legitimate concerns that Beijing could use it to gather data on American citizens. There is, however, a previously unreported concern with China Mobile that adds to worries about the company’s suitability in the United States.
According to several interviews with frequent Chinese travelers to the United States, those with China Mobile as their carrier are often unable to access American websites and apps that are banned in China. A Chinese journalist who regularly travels to the United States for work, and who asked to speak anonymously, said she couldn’t access Facebook or the New York Times in the United States with her China Mobile number. Even Google Maps is banned, leading to some frustrating travel experiences. When she was visiting a friend in Brooklyn, the Chinese journalist said, “it took me a long time to find her place because my VPN failed me and I couldn’t use Google Maps.” She was referring to a Virtual Private Network, a method that some Chinese use to circumvent the Chinese censorship apparatus.
The experience of using China Mobile roaming in the United States “is exactly the same as when you surf on the Internet at home,” said May Sun, a 34-year-old analyst living in Shanghai. “You still don’t have access to what is blocked by the Great Firewall.” On its official website, China Mobile offers a North America international roaming plan but doesn’t say whether the plan allows users to access websites such as Facebook and YouTube. (China Mobile didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)
China seeks to become a “cyber superpower.” According to Samm Sacks, an expert on China’s technology, Beijing wants to “write the rules for global cyber governance.” Beijing’s cyber-governance plans, Sacks writes, are to address cybersecurity challenges, support domestic technologies and, ominously, “expand Beijing’s power to surveil and control the dissemination of economic, social, and political information online.”
Residents of mainland China have long been subject to a sophisticated and claustrophobic censorship regime: In its most recent Freedom on the Net report, the nonprofit Freedom House ranked China the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom for the third year in a row. More recently, Chinese citizens in the United States — along with Americans — now face increased censorship, or the pressure to self-censor, as a result of China’s rise. According to reporting I’ve done over the past six months for a book I’m writing on Chinese influence in the United States, self-censorship about China at American universities is worryingly common. And Beijing increasingly polices the politics of American brands: In January, Beijing forced the American hotel chain Marriott to issue an abject apology after an employee “liked” a social media post about the independence of the Tibetan region of China.
China Mobile started conducting censorship in the United States roughly four to five years ago, according to an estimate by Sun. It is unclear how many people use China Mobile in the United States, or how many of them are U.S. citizens. About 3 million Chinese tourists visit annually, however, and it’s safe to assume a majority use China Mobile — leading to censorship complaints similar to those I often heard while living in China. “I still have to use a VPN to get onto” Instagram in the United States, one Chinese, who goes by missoainoaix, posted from Minnesota. “China Mobile, you’re killing me.”
Beyond VPN, China Mobile users can access the unfettered Internet via a WiFi hotspot. Users can also switch SIM cards when they come to the United States, but China Mobile doesn’t recommend it. Doing so, according to China Mobile’s official account on the popular WeChat messaging platform, is like “losing oneself.” The danger includes “totally missing a call or a message” from friends, family, colleagues or a bank, China Mobile says.
Chinese influence in the United States is quite different from Russia’s — it’s far more difficult to quantify, more sophisticated and more pernicious. The Chinese threat is that Americans will slowly grow accustomed to living in China’s world, where censorship and constraints on freedom of expression are acceptable norms.
Thirty-five-year-old Zheng Zhihui, who works in a private investment group in the Chinese city of Nanjing, visited New York in May. Although she grumbled about not being able to access Google, the phone censorship barely bothered her. “As students in school, freedom and democracy used to mean a lot to us,” she said. But she has grown accustomed to it. “The longer I work, the number I become.”
Owen Guo and Rebecca Zhang contributed research.