China’s Selfie Obsession

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Worldwide, Meitu’s apps generate some six billion photos a month, and it has been estimated that more than half the selfies uploaded on Chinese social media have been edited using Meitu’s products. HoneyCC told me that it is considered a solecism to share a photo of yourself that you haven’t doctored. “Selfies are part of Chinese culture now, and so is Meitu-editing selfies,” she said. In nine years, the company—whose motto is “To make the world a more beautiful place”—has almost literally transformed the face of China. There’s a name for this new kind of face, perfected by the Meitu apps, which you now see everywhere: wang hong lian (“Internet-celebrity face”).

Chen Xiaojie, a twenty-seven-year-old with caramel-colored contact lenses and waist-length hair, gave me a demonstration of Meitu’s most popular apps, on her Meitu M8 phone. Holding the device at arm’s length, she tucked in her chin (“so the face comes out smaller”), snapped a photo of us, and handed me the result. My complexion looked smoother, my eyes bigger and rounder. I asked if I had been “P”-ed—the Chinese shorthand for Photoshopping. Chen said that the phone had automatically “upgraded” me. “Only when you enjoy taking selfies will you have the confidence to take more,” she explained. “And only when you look pretty will you enjoy taking selfies and ‘P’-ing the photo. It’s all very logical, you see.”

Next, using the BeautyPlus app, she showed me how to select a “beauty level” from 1 to 7—a progressive scale of paleness and freckle deletion. Then we could smooth out, tone, slim, and contour our faces, whiten our teeth, resize our irises, cinch our waists, and add a few inches in height. We could apply a filter—“celestial,” “voodoo,” “edge,” and “vibes” are some of the options. A recently added filter called “personality” attempts to counteract a foreseeable consequence of the technology: the more that people doctor their selfies, the more everyone ends up looking the same. Like everything else in the app, the personalities available—“boho,” “mystique,” and so on—are preset.

Chen opened up the BeautyCam app and the words “Beauty Is Justice!” flashed up on the screen. The interface was laid out like Candy Land, with a winding path of rabbits, rainbows, and unicorns. Then came MakeupPlus, which not only applies foundation, lipstick, blush, eyeshadow, and mascara, but can also dye your hair, shape your brows, and change your eye color. Meitu has recently started partnerships with a number of cosmetics brands, including Sephora, Lancôme, and Bobbi Brown; users can test products on their selfies and then be redirected to the brands’ Web sites to place their orders.

I asked a number of Chinese friends how long it takes them to edit a photo before posting it on social media. The answer for most of them was about forty minutes per face; a selfie taken with a friend would take well over an hour. The work requires several apps, each of which has particular strengths. No one I asked would consider posting or sending a photo that hadn’t been improved.

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Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens

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Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school – or even just your chances of getting a date.

A futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control? No, it’s already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

The rise of the QR code and how it has forever changed China’s social habits

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Thanks to QR code’s rapidly increasing usage at off-line shops, the amount of mobile payments on the mainland is now 50 times greater than that of the US. Mobile payments in the US totalled US$112 billion in 2016, according to Forrester Research.

To consumer behaviour researcher Chen Yiwen, we are witnessing the dawn of “codeconomy”.

“China has started the transition to a cash-free economy faster than anyone could have imagined, largely because of the viral spread of two-dimensional barcode,” said Chen, a professor and researcher with the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “It creates a new economy based on scannable codes.”

From big cities to remote villages, the codeconomy is already changing Chinese social behaviour, according to Chen.

Some restaurants have pinned barcode tags to the chests of waiters, waitresses and even chefs. Customers can scan the code to leave a tip if they are satisfied with service.

In China, Daydreaming Students Are Caught on Camera

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In the halls of Yuzhou No. 1 High School in central China, students refer to them simply as “the cameras.”

When the first bell sounds before 7 a.m., their fish-eye lenses spring to life, broadcasting live as students sit at their desks and measure geometric angles, pass notes or doze during breaks. Before long, thousands of people — not just parents and teachers — are watching online, offering armchair commentary.

“What is this boy doing? He’s been looking around doing nothing, like a cat on a hot roof,” one user wrote. “This one is playing with his phone!” added another, posting a screenshot.

As internet speeds have improved, live-streaming has become a cultural phenomenon in China, transforming online entertainment and everyday rituals like dating and dining. Now the nation’s obsession with live video is invading its schools, and not everyone is happy about it.

The Chinese Factory Workers Who Write Poems on Their Phones

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Today the most famous migrant worker poet is 24-year-old Xu Lizhi who committed suicide in 2014. He worked at Foxconn city, the electronics mega-factory in Shenzhen famed not only for manufacturing all our Apple products, but for a spate of suicides in 2010 that exposed the sinister myth of opportunity and social mobility on the assembly line: “To die is the only way to testify that we ever lived,” wrote one blogger at the factory. (Foxconn subsequently erected netting to prevent not the despair but the death toll.) But when Xu threw himself from the 17th floor of a building four years later, having published much of his work online, it was not his death that made headlines, but his skill as a poet.

Time magazine published his brief life story alongside his work under the headline: “The poet dying for your phone.” In China, the host of a national culture show innocently marveled at the depths of this uneducated worker’s feelings. In giving shape to his experiences through poetry, Xu highlighted our own automated disconnect from the people who manufacture the clothes we wear and the electronics we consume, as conveyed in the final lines of his poem “Terracotta Army on the Assembly Line”:

(. . .)  these workers who can’t tell night from day
wearing
electrostatic clothes
electrostatic hats
electrostatic shoes
electrostatic gloves
electrostatic bracelets
all at the ready
silently awaiting their orders
when the bell rings
they’re sent back to the Qin

How WeChat Is Extending China’s School Days Well into the Night

Students file math homework in their virtual classroom on WeChat.
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On a recent Thursday evening, Zhang Zehao, a seventh grader in Tianjin, China, braced himself for extra math assignments posted by his teacher on WeChat, a messaging app. At 7 p.m., his mother received a picture on her phone: a piece of paper with three handwritten geometry problems concerning parallel lines. He didn’t receive any other assignments that evening; after all, it was only the fourth day of the spring semester.

Since Tencent launched WeChat in 2011, the app has pervaded Chinese life. The company reported that it had 650 million monthly active users as of the end of last September. In a society that places paramount importance on academic success, WeChat has quickly become intertwined with education, tapping into a particularly Chinese cultural dynamic and in some cases exploiting it.

Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis of 30 million in southwestern China, has required all kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools to open official WeChat accounts before the end of June this year to streamline communication with parents and students.

For Zehao, the app is a forum for extra homework and a billboard for misbehavior at school, and the group chat puts everything under the scrutinizing eye of the entire class. “The intention was good, because teachers wanted to work closely with parents to improve the children’s academic performance,” says his mother, Chen Zongying, 43. “But it stresses you out.”

 

A New Weapon for Battling Cellphones in Theaters: Laser Beams

Ushers aiming lasers at a patron using a cellphone at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

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Audience members using cellphones bedevil performers and presenters around the world. But in China, theaters and other venues have adopted what they say is an effective — others might say disturbing — solution.

Zap them with a laser beam.

The approach varies, but the idea is the same. During a performance, ushers equipped with laser pointers are stationed above, or on the perimeter of, the audience. When they spot a lighted mobile phone, instead of dashing over to the offender, they pounce with a pointer (usually red or green), aiming it at the glowing screen until the user desists.

Call it laser shaming.

Xu Chun, 27, who was in the audience for “Carmen” at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing last month, said: “Of course it’s distracting. But seeing lighted-up screens is even more distracting.”

This may be a response to a particularly acute problem here. Audience numbers have surged in recent years, along with the number of new performance spaces. And theatergoers are often noticeably younger than in the United States and Europe, with a corresponding lack of experience with Western-style concert etiquette. The lasers, theater managers say, are part of a larger effort to teach audiences how to behave during live performances.