Explore the dynamism and contradictions of one of Asia’s most beguiling cities through its culture, novels and cuisine
Few cities assail the senses as viscerally as Bangkok, from the kinetic cacophony of its street life to its aromatic herbal cures and the incendiary spice of the food. Social distancing has only briefly withheld the touch of Thai massage and the jostle of its markets. Juxtapositions startle the eye, with designs often decided by fortune tellers or sacred colours. Timber shacks abut glitzy towers of novelty shapes in the world’s third least equal society.
Breakneck modernisation has sparked tensions between the cosmopolitan “hi-so” (high society) and grassroots values, while young reformers protest at the seniority system that enforces a hidden order behind the apparent chaos. Amid the hi-tech towers, a vast informal economy wheels food stalls and makes street furniture from found materials. It’s both fun and poignant to ride around the teeming centre on motorcycle taxis, converted pickup trucks or canal boats with a hinged canvas roof that lowers under bridges.
Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, has said he has been detained, days after Ms Suu Kyi was overthrown in a coup.
“I’ve just been detained at the moment, and perhaps charged with something, I don’t know what that would be, could be anything at all of course,” he told the BBC.
“Everyone’s been very polite and all that, but obviously I’m not free to move or anything like that.”
In a message to Reuters, he said he was “fine and strong, and not guilty of anything”, along with a smile emoji.
It was not subsequently possible to contact him.
This is the first known arrest of a foreign national in Myanmar since the army generals seized power alleging fraud in a November 8 election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide.
The military detained Sean Turnell, an Australian economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi days after the coup.
The new military rulers of Myanmar have ordered mobile operators and internet service providers to block access to Twitter and Instagram in the country until further notice, Norwegian telecom Telenor says.
The government had already ordered internet providers on Thursday to block Facebook, which counts half of the population of 54 million as users, until February 7.
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology did not immediately answer a request for comment but said previously it had blocked Facebook for the sake of “stability”.
A spokeswoman for Twitter, which is also facing pressure from authorities in India, said it was “deeply concerned about the order to block Internet services in Myanmar”.
“It undermines the public conversation and the rights of people to make their voices heard. The Open Internet is increasingly under threat around the world. We will continue to advocate to end destructive government-led shutdowns,” she said.
A spokesman for Facebook confirmed the block on Instagram.
“We urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with family and friends and access important information,” he told Reuters.
In a statement, Telenor expressed “grave concern” about the directive and said it had challenged its necessity to authorities.
Many people are using social media and pro-democracy hashtags to criticise the coup and call for peaceful protests until the result of November’s election, which was won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s party, is respected.
The military has made unsubstantiated claims that the election of Suu Kyi and her National Democracy League was fraudulent. The election commission said the vote was fair.
Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.
TikTok tries to demystify
The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower , although how many materialized into active users is unknown.
The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.
The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.
Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.
“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.
It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed . That’s a big engagement driver for the app.
Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.
Douyin’s ally and enemy
A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.
Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.
Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.