How can I have both participation and privacy when I visit China?
May 12, 2022 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Next time I visit China, how can I participate in economic activity while at the same time maintaining some degree of privacy?

Whenever China opens back up and I have a chance to visit, I have to figure out what I'll do regarding the device(s) I bring and how I will be able to pay for purchases.

I got hacked by a man-in-the-middle attack one time when I visited China years ago (a fake intermediate login screen popped up when I did a remote login session to my US computer, and it was only later that I realized what that was about), and China's abilities to intrude have probably only grown exponentially since then, so I'm weary of bringing any devices to China. For example, I'm concerned at the airport they'll ask me to unlock my iPhone and then take it into a back room and I'll never know what they did. Or maybe they'll just hack into my iPhone some other way without me having any idea that it happened. It's not that I have anything particularly sensitive to hide, and it's not that I have any delusions about my privacy being already highly protected in general even in the US, but still I don't want to be naive or in denial about the subject either.

I suppose I could just bring some sort of basic cheap smartphone that I don't normally use at home, but since I've heard that cash is rarely used in China now, I think I would still face the challenge of how to pay for stuff. Are foreigners able to do payments with Alipay and WeChat, and if so, could I do that with a some soft of cheap phone instead of bringing my iPhone to China? Do those apps have all kinds of privacy shortcomings? If I install them in the US, do they have better privacy protections, and if so, are they fully usable in China? Also, should I be worried about my password getting hacked when logging into my email?

I appreciate input from people who live in China or have experience dealing with these issues when traveling to China (presumably pre-pandemic).

Thank you.
posted by Dansaman to Travel & Transportation around China (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Bring a burner to the Olympics, and other mobile device travel safety tips

- Get your burner phone in your country of origin. Trying to get the right device overseas can be tricky and invites additional risk.
- Order a SIM card for your destination in your country of origin, too.
- Use a temporary email address to set up an account for your burner.
- Don’t log in to any personal accounts on your burner device.
- Use a strong password and MFA on your burner, even though it’s a temporary device.
- Turn off Bluetooth, AirDrop, Wi-Fi, the camera, the microphone and other data ingress/egress points.
- Don’t use any unknown or untrusted cables, like those found in charging booths.

posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:57 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Above tips all good. Don't bring your own phone and practice good opsec.

When I was in China, I could not use the payments in the WeChat or Alipay apps because they required a Chinese bank account. Fortunately cash is an option in most places. You might be able to buy a local prepaid card or something but I didn't try — I was there for work so most stuff was either "boss pays," "host pays," or cash.

There's a different version of WeChat for foreigners that's compliant with Apple and Google policies, but still very much WeChat. You won't have a lot of the options the locals do but you'll be able to easily add each other, chat, send locations and so on.

Buy access to a popular VPN and use it religiously, they're pretty easy to set up these days and you can just buy a month's access for a few bucks. Doesn't mean you are fully protected but now you don't have to worry about using hotel wifi to check your email or something.

Another app to get asap and set up payments for (does not require Chinese bank) is Didi, their version of Uber/Lyft. I used it constantly. It has built-in translation and chat with drivers, which is unbelievably useful.

Get a basic translation app as well that works offline. As you probably know there are lots of places with no English speakers and if you have no signal you are completely SOL.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:40 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Also, should I be worried about my password getting hacked when logging into my email?

"Email is the gateway to all your identity. You don't want access to that." Some interesting suggestions on how to manage traveling with a burner phone and vastly limiting your own access to your main email.
posted by brainwane at 4:18 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

BlackLeotardFront has basically answered your question. Go ahead and bring a burner phone, but you'll basically be a second-class citizen without access to some of the financial parts of WeChat or whatever.

But have you been following the news coming out of China, especially Shanghai recently? The entire population of Shanghai has been under some sort of lockdown (house arrest is more like it) for close to two months. Local authorities have been refusing to renew passports or even cutting up people's passports as they attempt to leave the country. It's going to be years before any Westerner can breeze in with a tourist visa.
posted by alidarbac at 9:10 AM on May 13

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