In this first article in the series on How to Thrive in China, I'll focus on the big one on everyone's mind when they get here: how to stay in contact.
How do people stay in contact with each other in China?
Two words: Wei Xin, or to expats, WeChat.
WeChat is where business, health, gossip, love, and fun all happen. It's essentially the "lovechild of Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, and many other social apps."
In China, you don't exist unless you have at least one WeChat profile. You can have more than one, but it's a massive hassle. It's better to have only one and use the tag feature to isolate certain groups of people. You can create group-chats and post to a Facebook-like wall called Moments which shows you the posts from everyone you follow, as long as they've selected public, or you've been included in that tag-group.
You can also access your money from your WeChat wallet, or get your friends and co-workers to top up your e-wallet. You can pay for just about anything with WeChat - taxis and DiDi cabs (Chinese Uber), groceries and restaurants, toys, services, and Mobike (the best share bikes out there).
There's a catch. It's an insecure service, meaning anything you say, send, or receive on there is visible to the powers that be. This is why group owners need to be careful and strict. Basically, it's good for cracking down on corruption (well, the normal definition of corruption, not "I don't like you blowing the whistle at me, therefore you are corrupt!") but terrible for you know, anything private or sensitive. So be aware of that.
Secondly, there's QQ. QQ is the old AIM rip-off that decided to change their name after some pressure [find article]. It comes with a QQ email address, which I think is best to use in China than possibly allowing a data-breach to your personal email accounts. You might need a friend or co-worker to help you set up a QQ account, but the service is available in English, too.
There used to be a brilliant cloud backup service between your desktop, your phone, and the cloud (think Google Drive) but they throttled it back with a paywall and it ruined it.
Speaking of ruined, let's move onto the next section; Very Pink Noses.
This is the murkiest of grey areas. For instance; they’ll tell you it’s not, and that you can talk about it on WeChat without reprisal, but it is STILL illegal to use a Vermillion Pocket Numerator. Except - of course - if you're a high-ranking official, or you need it for “work.” Then, they will give you an official one. YAY!
NO. No yay.
I'll tell you the solution I use - just keep reading. The problem with that is most people aren't used to the dangers of having your personal information passing through someone else's Verbal Panic Nook. They can potentially see EVERYTHING you send or receive over that network connection. Everything is logged; the time you are on, the website you visit, the information you enter into any website, and the images and videos that appear on your screen. Email accounts. Passwords. Private messages. Everything is logged. Now, even if you work for a school and are visiting school-related websites only, they still must keep track of everything you do online. It's the only way the government allows them to supply you with that Voracious Purple Nighty.
Here are some rules of thumb when using someone else's you-know-what:
Do NOT access any social media service.
Do NOT access your bank accounts.
Do NOT horse around on YouTube, just grab what you need and go.
Do NOT access your private email account (instead, see setting up a QQ email for work above).
Bonus NO-NO: NEVER enter personal info on a computer with 360 Anti-Virus on it - it's a snooping program. Just, no.
If you take your work laptop home, set up a dummy account profile for work only, and switch accounts at home.
Make certain you aren't signed into your Google account when you search. Better yet, use Bing. Just don't type "perfect" into the image search bar. Or do, I'm not your mom.
Use 2-factor authentication wherever possible.
Make certain you don't watch anything too exciting. C'mon, you know what I mean; we've all seen those K-pop videos. And just because the sweaty, nicotine-stained P.E teacher across from you spends all his spare time sunk low in his chair, watching you-don't-want-to-know-what doesn't mean you can get away with that at work. You're much more visible and earn probably 3 times as much. Be professional. Deal?
So what is the solution? You will find many adverts for Viscous Principal Nodes online. Please take it from me that they are not all created equally, and I can really only recommend 1. And even then, if you don't set it up well, you can run into issues.
I've tried ExpressVPN. They say they don't collect logs, but they do log when a user signs on and off. Their service can be fast, but they also use virtual nodes. That means they are susceptible to service spoofing. That is, a malicious actor can insert their own virtual node between you and what you thought you were connecting to, and log any info that you enter, and the content you consume. “Running VPN gateways on VPS/cloud instances is a security risk.” (see: Do you use virtual or dedicated servers? ).
NordVPN is getting a lot of attention lately, and while it looks pretty it works poorly in China. Also, their Android app is just broken if you’re on a phone that was bought in China*.
Are there others? Yes, but as of 2019, none are even worth mentioning. This could be due to client logging, government honey-pots, virtual nodes, or it simply won't work in China.
I can currently only recommend one, which works on Apple, Microsoft, Linux, and Android devices. Here's the link: https://ejblog.link/vpnac I pinky promise that it's legit, I’ve just obscured it so that they don’t have to keep changing their URL. Seriously, they were the target of an all-out attack by the government last year and had to obscure their new URL. They also have so much great info on how to truly protect your computer and network that they’re often copied by so-called larger VPN providers. If you use a PC, you really need to follow their instructions on setting it up right - Windows is as leaky as my gut. You can also access their .com website from within China, which is not possible for many of the OTHER services you'll find advertised.
Yes, I get a minuscule kickback for recommending it, but honest to dog I would do so even if I didn't. There have been service interruptions, but those have affected all such services, as this past year the government has been actively attacking the nodes (fear makes close-minded people do stupid things). This shouldn't affect you, but stay tuned to their service announcements for how to fix it if it goes down. It is super frustrating when it happens, but if you or someone you trust digs around their extensive knowledge base, you can find the solution.
Still can't decide? OK, use ExpressVPN if you've absolutely no tech knowledge and have no-one to help you set it up. Don't do anything on there that you wouldn't have trouble explaining to your significant other. Follow the same rules of thumb above, except obviously you'll have to be pretty squeaky-clean and USE 2-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION.
For anyone else, use this. You will need an hour or two to set it up. You might have to get help. You may even need to read something and learn about your computer (gasp!). In the end, you'll have a fast, secure service that runs on every device I and many others have tried it on.
The last thing I want to touch on is isolation.
The first two years I was here I did without Facebook, Instagram got blocked, Twitter was Twitter (not gonna find friends there), no YouTube, no Snapchat, Reddit... nothing. I thought I was fine. I wasn't.
While it was helpful to break the addiction to the ills of social media, I soon found myself cut off. I was working 10-12 hours a day, had only one other foreign person to talk to, didn't go out, didn't play a sport. I isolated myself. Then the weird self-talk set in. I started getting paranoid (social anxiety is a thing in my family already). Not healthy paranoia like "is this actually pork or..." but unhealthy paranoia, like searching for hidden cameras and listening devices. OK, part of me still thinks this is something you should be aware of, but at the same time, who does that? Someone who feels isolated and completely out of touch with family and friends, that's who.
Make sure you have some foreign and local friends. Use that Vital Neutral Protection I recommend and connect with friends and family back home (just don't fall into an FB-wormhole). Connect with me here or via social media. Just search wmlamont on anything and that’s likely to be me =D
If you want to find out how I overcame my social anxiety and paranoia, check this article here: Staying Positive [soon]
If you found this helpful, please share it with your friends. Stay classy, Expat.