Zeng Jiajun from Guangdong, China, is now a 29-year-old resident living in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.

Zeng shared his story and what was in his mind when he gave up the dream job of thousands of young Chinese to become a Ph.D. student at the Silicon Valley campus of North-eastern University.

Zeng told AFP about his first computer experience as a child living in rural China. At that time, he was given a computer by his father. He compared it to a new world waiting for him to explore.

Because the Chinese government’s early efforts to censor the web were imperfect, people could still bypass the firewall by using VPNs.

He finally watched a banned documentary on the bloody military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. This experience shook his heart.

He said, “It’s such a huge, significant, historic event, but nobody ever told us about it, and you cannot search for it on the Chinese internet; that content is all erased. I just felt like there was a huge lie. A lot of history is covered up.”

Like other bright Chinese youths, Zeng graduated from University in Estonia and returned to his homeland, becoming a promising target for headhunters.

As reported by Today, he later became a member of ByteDance, an upstart Chinese social media company that owns Tiktok and Douyin. His salary was above average, $4,000 a month. 

“At first I was very excited because ByteDance is the only company that had a successful business outside of China. Most of the time only US internet companies ruled the world.”

Zeng became part of the CCP’s massive censorship apparatus.

Zeng said, “At first when I worked on this I didn’t think much bigger because a job is a job.”

“But deep inside I knew it was not aligned with my ethical standards. And once you work in this field for too long… the conflicts become stronger and stronger.”

Zeng said he was part of a team that developed automated systems to filter content the company did not want on its platform. These systems incorporated artificial intelligence to do this task. If the flagging system fails, the content is passed on to one of the thousands of human employees to continue the work.

According to Zeng, some sensitive content included images of tanks, candles, or golden umbrellas—symbol of the Hong Kong protests—along with any criticism of President Xi Jinping and other CCP leaders.

The Cyberspace Administration of China will communicate the content it wants ByteDance to censor.

Zeng described the company’s position as “like walking a tightrope.”

“In China the line is blurred. You don’t know specifically what will offend the government, so sometimes you will go beyond and censor more harshly.”

In 2020 Dr. Li Wenliang’s death awakened the dormant part of Zeng.

Zeng said to AFP, “The night that Doctor Li Wenliang died, I felt that I couldn’t do this any more.”

In California, Zeng feels certain freedom; he believes the Chinese government will not be able to silence him. In contrast to Zeng, his parents back home were more worried, expecting him to consider what he wanted to share with the world.

He added, “I assume I won’t be able to go back to China for at least 10 years. I think this is a huge issue (and we) should raise awareness of what’s going on in China. In the short run, everybody is pessimistic. But I think everybody is optimistic in the long run for the future of China.”

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