A British Businessman Worked in China for Decades. Then, He Vanished.

That’s the headline on my newest story, an exclusive with my colleague Neil Western out Thurs.

It begins: <– Gift link

HONG KONG—Ian J. Stones, a British business executive, worked in China for four decades, including with big U.S. firms such as General Motors and Pfizer before setting up his own consulting firm. Then, in 2018, he disappeared from public view.

Stones has been detained in China since then with no public mention of the case from Chinese or U.K. authorities.

The quiet detention of a foreign businessman who is well known within China’s business community underscores the risks of operating in the country, which has an opaque legal system that is controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal that Stones had been sentenced to five years in prison for illegally selling intelligence to overseas parties. The ministry said he appealed his conviction but the appeal was rejected in September last year.

Informed of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response, Stones’s daughter, Laura Stones, said neither the family nor British embassy staff had been permitted to see any of the legal documents related to the case, and therefore she couldn’t comment on the details.

“There has been no confession to the alleged crime, however my father has stoically accepted and respects that under Chinese law he must serve out the remainder of his sentence,” she said.

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Journalism Tech

Steamy Romances and Vampires: The Chinese-Backed App Appealing to American Moms

That’s the headline on my newest story, which I wrote with my colleague Rachel Liang. It was out Tuesday.

It begins: <– 🎁 Gift link

Joey Jia witnessed the 2020 implosion of short-form video app Quibi and thought: I can do better.

Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg’s high-profile but short-lived startup charged users $4.99 a month for slick content meant to appeal to a wide user base. Jia, a veteran of Chinese tech companies, says he saw a market in the U.S. for a cheaper streaming app with a narrower target audience.

Last year, Jia launched ReelShort targeting women, especially stay-at-home moms between the ages of 18 and 45, who he says love romance and fantasy stories. It draws on the success of similar apps in his native China, featuring dramas with episodes that last about a minute, compared with Quibi’s five to 10 minutes.

ReelShort specializes in bingeable, steamy romances, tangled family dramas, handsome billionaires, beautiful women—and vampires and werewolves. The actors are mostly Western, and the dialogue is in English.

The formula is gaining traction with American consumers. The app briefly surpassed ByteDance’s TikTok as the most downloaded entertainment app in Apple’s App Store last month. Of the 16 million global downloads the app has garnered so far, some 4.8 million are in the U.S., making it the company’s biggest market, according to mobile data and analytics provider More than 60% of the firm’s revenue comes from the U.S., according to Jia.

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Journalism Tech

Inside Meta, Debate Over What’s Fair in Suppressing Comments in the Palestinian Territories

That’s the headline on my latest story, an October 21 exclusive with my colleagues Sam Schechner and Jeff Horwitz.

It begins <– free link 🎁

After Hamas stormed Israel and murdered civilians on Oct. 7, hateful comments from the region surged through Instagram. Meta Platforms managers cranked up automatic filters meant to slow the flood of violent and harassing content.

But still the comments kept appearing—especially from the Palestinian territories, according to a Meta manager. So Meta turned up its filters again, but only there.

In an internal forum for Muslim employees, objections poured in.

“What we’re saying and what we’re doing seem completely opposed at the moment,” one employee posted internally, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Meta has publicly pledged to apply its policies equally around the world.

The social media giant has been wrestling with how best to enforce its content rules in the midst of the brutal and chaotic war. Meta relies heavily on automation to police Instagram and Facebook META 2.91%increase; green up pointing triangle, but those tools can stumble: They have struggled to parse the Palestinian Arabic dialect and in some cases they don’t have enough Hebrew-language data to work effectively.

In one recent glitch, Instagram’s automatic translations of users’ profiles started rendering the word “Palestinian” along with an emoji and an innocuous Arabic phrase as “Palestinian terrorists.”

And when Meta turns to human employees to fill the gaps, some teams have different views on how the rules should be applied, and to whom.

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India Journalism Tech

Billionaire Bets That a $12 Mobile Phone Can Get More of the World’s Most Populous Country Online

That’s the title of my latest story, out Thursday. It begins: 🎁 <-- free link

Even as 5G mobile networks begin to expand in India, about half of the country’s 1.4 billion people remain disconnected from the Internet.

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani is betting a new web-enabled mobile phone that costs about $12 can change that and win yet more customers for his dominant wireless-network provider.

The device, launched in July by Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm, resembles the simple, durable Nokia phones from decades past. It has a physical keyboard, a small screen and a camera, and comes in basic colors like blue, black, gray and red.

While the device isn’t 5G-capable, it offers 4G speeds, meaning it can stream music and video via pre-installed apps from Reliance Jio’s services, which include content such as Bollywood films, cricket matches and pop music. The phone can also be used to make digital payments, a practice that has boomed in India in recent years.

Many Indians who are online access the Internet via smartphones. But a smartphone in India typically costs more than $250, far out of reach for millions of people who make just a few dollars a day.

“There are still 250 million mobile-phone users in India who remain trapped in the 2G era, unable to tap into basic features of the internet,” Akash Ambani, Mukesh Ambani’s son and the chairman of Reliance Jio, said when launching the phone. He was referring to people using basic mobile devices, which often lack web connections.

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Journalism Tech

Huawei’s New Gadgets Show How China Aims to Move Forward Without Foreign Tech

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Monday with my colleague Yang Jie.

It begins:

TOKYO—Huawei, China’s rival to Apple in smartphones and the world’s leading provider of telecoms infrastructure, is out to prove it isn’t just surviving Washington’s campaign to crush it, but is in the vanguard of Beijing’s drive for self-reliance in technology.

After the buzz around Huawei’s new high-speed smartphones, which appeared to show that China can swerve around U.S. efforts to block its access to cutting-edge technology, the company on Monday unveiled its latest tablets, smartwatches and earphones—supported by a homegrown challenger to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, global standards in wireless communication.

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Hong Kong Journalism Tech

Hong Kong Loses Court Bid to Ban Protest Song Appearing on Google

That’s the headline on my latest story, out Friday. It begins:

HONG KONG—A judge rejected a government bid to ban the dissemination online of a popular pro-democracy song, dealing a blow to Hong Kong’s efforts to extend a national-security crackdown to online platforms such as Google.

The ruling, delivered by one of the city’s national-security case judges handpicked by the government’s leader, is the latest in a series of setbacks dealt by the city’s courts to local authorities that are seeking to eliminate dissent.

If the judge had agreed to give the order, which sought to ban distribution of the song “Glory to Hong Kong” worldwide, it would have set the city on a collision course with Google and other platforms. Analysts said such a ban could have led the companies and their services to exit the financial center, which has for decades enjoyed a mostly open internet, unlike in China.

The case has added to the chill facing tech companies in Hong Kong, shifting the target for online dissent from individuals to platforms themselves. American tech giants in recent months have been shutting out users bit by bit in Hong Kong amid concern over the national security law.

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Journalism Tech

Meta’s Threads Isn’t Labeling Propaganda Accounts From Russia, China State Media

WSJ Meta Threads propaganda

That’s the headline on a story I had out Wednesday. It began:

State-backed news outlets from Russia and other authoritarian governments have rushed to join Meta Platforms’ new Threads microblogging service, posting propaganda such as a fake video purporting to show President Biden in a store perusing books on dementia.

Unlike on Facebook and Instagram, their verified accounts on Threads aren’t labeled as state-controlled media, raising questions over how the Facebook parent intends to police content on its Twitter rival that launched this month. Twitter, now being rebranded as X, in 2020 began applying labels to state-run news organizations; under Elon Musk, it removed them in April.

Meta also in 2020 began applying such labels to state-run media accounts on Facebook and Instagram. That came after independent studies found Russian influence campaigns ahead of the 2016 election used such services to suppress voter turnout and boost Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

Meta launched Threads before the service was fully built out to capitalize on Twitter’s struggles under Musk, The Wall Street Journal has reported. That means Threads lacks basic moderation features including the labels.

Russia’s RT and Sputnik News, China’s CGTN and Xinhua News, and Fars News—run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard—have attracted more than 270,000 followers on Threads since the service launched this month, according to a tally by the Journal. That is far fewer than the hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers they have built over the years on Twitter.

Sputnik News, a Russian outlet that analysts describe as publishing propaganda, posted last week a manipulated video purporting to show Biden perusing books next to a sign saying “Brain exercises for dementia.”

Fact-checking groups debunked the video in 2020, saying that it took real footage of Biden looking at books in a store and superimposed a sign nearby that said “Brain exercises for dementia.” Sputnik News didn’t post the video to its Instagram account, where it is labeled as a state-affiliated organization.

After the Journal asked a Meta spokeswoman about the video of Biden on Threads, the post began showing a label describing it as “False information,” saying “independent fact-checkers say this information has no basis in fact.”

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Journalism Tech

Zuckerberg’s Quest to Re-Enter China Faces Challenge: His Own Words

That’s the headline on my newest story, out Monday with my colleague Raffaele Huang. It begins:

HONG KONG — Mark Zuckerberg in late 2021 had a question for those working on Meta Platforms’ strategy for its virtual-reality headset: If Apple can sell iPhones in China, and Tesla can sell cars, why can’t we sell our devices there?

The question, posed on a video call, led to a push by Meta to restart its China business by selling its Quest headsets in the country, according to a person familiar with the matter, more than a decade after Facebook was blocked there.

The company held discussions with several Chinese tech companies and has made progress with videogame powerhouse Tencent Holdings, people familiar with the matter said. But the effort faces challenges, in part because Chinese executives worry that Zuckerberg isn’t seen as friendly to China, according to people familiar with the matter.

In recent years the Meta founder has accused China of stealing technology and taken aim at ByteDance, the Chinese owner of video-sharing platform TikTok. That has undermined a charm offensive Zuckerberg undertook in Beijing in 2016 and bolstered negative views of the entrepreneur in Beijing, the people said.

Officials’ perceptions of Zuckerberg could add uncertainty should Meta and its partner seek licenses and approvals for their products and services in China, some of the people said.

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India Journalism

Modi’s Vision for India Rests On Six Giant Companies

That’s the headline on my newest story, a piece with my colleague Niharika Mandhana that ran on Thursday’s page one.

It begins:

NEW DELHI–Prime Minister Narendra Modi says this is India’s decade. That claim rests heavily on a handful of dominant conglomerates.

Increasingly aligned with Modi’s priorities, the roughly half-dozen mega-firms—which include Reliance Industries and Adani Group, helmed by two of Asia’s richest tycoons—have the ability to raise vast sums of capital, and the experience and political connections to navigate India’s byzantine bureaucracy. Capitalizing on government subsidies and privatization plans, they are executing projects with a scale and speed that have eluded India in the past.

Among their ventures: A new airport for Mumbai, designed by the firm founded by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid to look like a lotus flower, which is scheduled to start opening next year after the Adani Group took it over. When completed, it’s expected to connect to high-speed rail and handle 90 million passengers annually—only slightly fewer than Atlanta’s main airport, the world’s busiest, last year.

After spending more than $45 billion to build out telecommunications networks, Reliance Industries — a petrochemicals, textiles and retail juggernaut — is constructing factories to make solar panels and batteries for energy storage to position India as a credible alternative to China. It has pledged $75 billion in green-energy spending over the next 15 years.

The 155-year-old Tata Group, which took control of the formerly state-owned Air India last year, recently placed one of the largest orders in aviation history for 470 new aircraft. The salt-to-steel-to-software behemoth, which owns British automaker Jaguar Land Rover, is forging ahead with producing electric vehicles, military transport aircraft, smartphones and telecom hardware, with plans to invest $90 billion in India over five years.

Half a dozen conglomerates now control or have major stakes in 25% of India’s port capacity, 45% of cement production, a third of steel making, nearly 60% of all telecom subscriptions, and more than 45% of coal imports. An analysis by the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, a research firm, shows that a quarter of all new investment proposals by private companies since 2014 have come from the companies.

“This is the period where it’s not the mad rush of entrepreneurs going out to build new capacities, to become great entrepreneurs—this is the era of great concentration,” said Mahesh Vyas, CMIE’s managing director.

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Hong Kong Journalism Tech

American Tech Giants Are Slowly Cutting Off Hong Kong Internet Users

That’s the headline on a story I had out at the beginning of last week.

It began:

HONG KONG—Bit by bit, American tech giants are shutting out users in Hong Kong, where moves by authorities to thwart online dissent are shifting the target from individuals to platforms such as Google’s YouTube.

Alphabet-owned Google, San Francisco-based OpenAI and Microsoft have limited access to their artificial-intelligence chatbots in recent months in the global finance and business hub. In OpenAI’s case, the restriction puts Hong Kong and mainland China alongside North Korea, Syria and Iran.

While none of the companies have given reasons, observers say they could be exposed to risk if the chatbots spew out content that violates a national-security law imposed by China nearly three years ago. The law criminalizes many types of criticism of the government and Beijing.

Google, OpenAI and Microsoft declined to comment on why they restricted use in Hong Kong, but said they are working to bring their services to new locations in the future.

Last week, Hong Kong’s Department of Justice sought a court order to block online dissemination of a popular pro-democracy anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong.” The order cited 32 videos on YouTube of the song, which has lyrics that the government says contain a slogan that amounts to advocating secession. It is the first major legal challenge to American tech companies over politically sensitive Hong Kong content.

At a hearing on the request on Monday, national security judge Wilson Chan said the court would resume deliberation on July 21.

The moves add to a slow creep of tech giants treating Hong Kong more like a city in mainland China. Apple has joined with China’s Tencent to filter suspicious websites, with users complaining it temporarily blocked access to legitimate sites such as Twitter rival Mastodon. Disney has declined to offer on its streaming service two episodes of “The Simpsons” that it worried could run afoul of the national-security law, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Some fear that Hong Kong’s largely unfettered internet is being nudged closer to China’s, which is strictly censored by a system known as the Great Firewall and has had no access to foreign social-media services such as Twitter and Facebook since 2009.

“We don’t have the Great Firewall yet, but companies aren’t offering their services,” said Heatherm Huang, co-founder of Hong Kong-based tech company Measurable AI, which analyzes online shopping data for financial firms. “Overall, it’s a sad story,” he said.

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