Naomi Wu, a Chinese woman also known as SexyCyborg on many social media sites including Reddit and Twitter, is a maker celebrity, a subculture that combines the tech-based DIY and hacker cultures. Most makers are males living in the west. Wu stands out among them for three reasons:
- Her look. Wu is a pretty girl, and she is open about the fact that she has had plastic surgery. Many call her a “Reddit bombshell” because of her active participation on Reddit.com and sometimes-provocative outfits (nudity warning).
- Her creativity. Wu is also a serious maker—someone who can tweak, hack, and bend technology to her will. She has created some really cool stuff such as 3D-printed platform heels and a Wearable Fiber Optic Implant Trans-illumination. In some of her Reddit and YouTube postings, she demonstrates how she builds something from beginning to end.
- Her location. Wu lives in China, a country that is often known for tech copycats rather than creators and innovators. Wu represents a new generation of Chinese who are eager to be creative and different.
For these reasons, Wu is often the target of online harassment. She has also been featured in western media, such as Forbes, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times. But since spring of this year, Wu has been engaged in a nasty dispute with Vice magazine, which did a feature article about Wu.
According to Wu’s account, prior to the Vice interview, she “exchanged several emails with Vice magazine making it clear what the scope of the article would be. The key points being no discussion of sexual orientation or my relationships.” Wu also said she didn’t want to discuss the harassment she received online.
In addition, she reminded the Vice reporters that fighting for sexual equality and inclusion in China carries certain risks, so the reporters need to be careful what they write about her. The email exchanges Wu provided show Vice agreed to her request. To Wu, these emails served as an agreement. Vice disagreed.
In its final published version, Vice touched on a few topics that Wu isn’t comfortable talking about publicly, including her relationship status and the rumor that a white man is the real brain behind her creativity. The article also mentioned that Wu uses an illegal virtual private network, or VPN, to open accounts with western social media sites banned by the Chinese government such as Twitter and YouTube, and gets paid by mostly western fans:
Wu’s fans are passionate in their fandom. Hundreds of them sponsor her YouTube videos on Patreon. And she uses Twitter not only to promote her projects, fight for better representation in tech, and interact with her fans, but to fight back against perceived slights, as I would later learn firsthand. The Great Firewall of China may block these sites, but Wu is a prolific user of Western social media, which she accesses using anti-censorship tools. ‘Visibility is my superpower!’ her Twitter bio trumpets.
The Vice article also brought up Wu’s attempts to obscure her identity:
Today, the possibility of operating under an alias online has opened new channels of creative freedom for marginalized individuals, but Wu’s setup has its limitations. Sites like Patreon, PayPal, and YouTube have required her to find a way to directly deposit donations into her bank account without revealing her birth name. And because travel visas require a gauntlet of personal information to obtain, Wu has also never appeared at an American maker event, even though many of her fans live there.
Wu says publishing details such as these put her in a risky position because it reveals governmentally disapproved behavior in China. Vice disagreed. Vice asked Wu to comment on rumors her personal relationships. Wu refused and led a pretty public campaign on Twitter against Vice.
In the end, Vice published the article as-is and Wu doxed (publicly disclosed someone’s home address) editor in chief Jason Koebler in one of her online videos. Vice reported this to Patreon and Patreon shut down Naomi’s site there, which cut off a major source of income for her.
Wu’s Concerns About Her Safety Are Real
I am not going to defend Wu’s choice to dox Koebler, which is wrong. While Vice is right to be concerned about the safety of its employees, however, what about Wu’s? Anyone who lives in China now, or lived in China before, or writes about China regularly agrees with Wu’s concern that certain segments in the Vice article may put her in danger.
For example, openly talking about Wu’s use of VPNs to access banned western social media sites is a big no-no. China operates the most restrictive cyber control in the world. The Chinese government ordered all of China’s telecommunication companies to “completely block access to VPN by February 2018” to control information flow and suppress dissent. Chinese citizens who are found to violate the government mandate may get into serious trouble.
Wu’s unwillingness to talk about her sexuality and concern for gender equality is also understandable. The Chinese government has been cracking down on Chinese feminists through online censoring, arrests, and detainment.
The Chinese government’s internet crackdown has extended to western companies too. Remember how the Chinese government forced Marriot to shut down its website and apps because the company listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Macau as countries on an email survey it sent to members of its rewards program? China considers these their territories.
Marriot apologized to Chinese government, quickly took down the questionnaire, made changes according to China’s demands throughout its materials including its website, and fired a U.S.-based employee who used a corporate Twitter account to “like” a post supporting Tibetan independence from China.
If the Chinese government won’t hesitate to punish a big company like Marriot, what chance does Wu have? If Wu had little public notoriety, her usage of a VPN to access western social media accounts and her advocacy for gender equality may be overlooked by Chinese censors. But her large following in the west could set her up as a target.
Vice, Sarah Jeong Trivialize Wu’s Valid Concerns
Wu told Vice reporters that publicity in China carries big risks. The Chinese government is known to “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys,” meaning making an example out of someone through severe punishment. According to Wu, she has already received threats over the Vice article from Chinese nationalists. Since Wu lives in China and doesn’t want to leave, she is in a vulnerable situation.
Unfortunately, Sarah Jeong, the newly appointed New York Time editorial board member, decided to defend Vice and discredit Wu on Twitter without demonstrating much understanding about the censorship in China and Wu’s concern for safety. In her extensive tweets, not once did Jeong reach out to Wu to get her side of the story.
Jeong sounded especially dismissive when commenting about Wu’s reluctance to address her relationship status (Wu is rumored to be married to a white man) out of concern for her safety by tweeting, “There’s a ton of white men telling me that there’s a cultural sensitivity issue here or that it’s dangerous (lol) to have a white husband. I did a sanity check with a woman who’s a Chinese national. It’s not far off from Korean culture: this is a non-issue, y’all are gullible.”
This tweet is demeaning on so many levels. How ignorant to downplay concerns of possible threats to personal safety from the Chinese government as merely a “cultural sensitivity” issue. Rather than recommending other people to read, Jeong will benefit from reading her employer’s extensive coverage on freedom and human rights issues in China.
Also, as people on Twitter rightfully pointed out, asking one Chinese national to verify a topic hardly constitutes due diligence for any serious journalist on any matter. What happened to journalism 101 on verifying with the source? Wu mentioned she had tried repeatedly to reach out to Jeong, but received no reply.
China and South Korea Are Markedly Different
It’s also offensive both to Chinese and South Koreans (Jeong immigrated from South Korea) to say that there isn’t much difference between Chinese and Korean cultures. China is an authoritarian regime, while South Korea is a democracy. What about calling people sympathetic to Wu’s security concern “gullible”? That’s pretty arrogant on Jeong’s part.
Last but not least, Jeong has tweeted extensively how much she hates white men. So where did she find “a ton of white men” who want to tell her anything? Even if some do, how convenient to quote from a group she holds with the utmost contempt when it serves her position. By the way, Jeong condemned Wu’s doxing of Koebler without mentioning her own article justifying doxing in certain circumstances.
The dispute between Wu and Vice is complicated and touches on two very different social and economic systems. Any responsible journalist who writes about it should take care to examine facts from both sides. Jeong’s tweets on this matter cast doubts on her journalistic integrity and professionalism.
The New York Times has no problem standing by Jeong’s racist tweets. How long will it continue to defend her if this is the kind of journalism she brings to their editorial board?