Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.


The Internet has certainly changed China on a scale not seen before. Liberator, instigator, builder of new communities its effect has been far-reaching as the average Chinese now has a voice, with less risk, and more impact. And here’s an interesting difference – The average Chinese netizen is 25 years old, while his American counterpart is 42. Chinese netizens are also comparatively less educated and less well-off.

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Fast-changing, rumbunctious and full of copycats, online China is a world apart. For the country’s 450 million users – the largest online community worldwide – the Internet is a treasure trove of free music, games and news. For Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Baidu – which have beaten back foreign invaders Yahoo and Google – the Internet in China is very much their turf. No wonder some say that China has turned the tables on the West by going further with a Western invention. Yet, for all of cyber China’s particularities, it is similar to online communities elsewhere in one aspect: It has led the push for greater openness and forced the authorities to sit up and play catch-up.
By Ho Ai Li, China Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, published January 8, 2011

BEIJING: Property agent Linda Chui, 24, spends at least three hours online every day. She divides her time in cyberspace between chatting with friends, watching movies and shopping.

Like many of her countrymen, she sees the Internet as a treasure trove of free music, games and information.

‘The Internet has enabled me to make a lot of friends,’ she said. ‘You also learn more about things which you don’t come across in your daily life.’

But no matter what website she goes to, there is little chance that Ms Chui will learn about sensitive political news like Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize award – and she has not, because an army of censors would have seen to it that most Chinese would be denied access to such material online.

When China let down its drawbridge to connect its people to the rest of the World Wide Web in 1995, many hoped that the country would soon close the gap with the rest of the world.

But 16 years on, instead of converging with the world, cyber China remains a world apart.

Shaped by a repressive regulatory regime and the quirky social habits of its users, it has developed its own parallel cyber universe – with its own rules, norms and stories.

For instance, Chinese netizens prefer home-grown tech giants like Alibaba and Baidu, which have beaten back foreign ‘invaders’ Yahoo and Google.

They also make greater use of forums for activism and sharing breaking news. No wonder some say that China has turned the tables on the West by going further with a Western invention.

‘Almost every aspect of the Chinese Internet is a little different,’ noted Mr Lee Kai-fu, former president of Google China, at a talk.

Cyber China is able to live in its own world because it is huge – with 450 million users, it has the largest online community worldwide by far.

By 2014, that number is expected to rise to 770 million, 2-1/2 times as many as that which the United States is projected to have. The US has the next biggest online community.

But as different as the Internet in China is, there are similarities with that in the rest of the world.

Like their global counterparts, China’s netizens are always demanding more information, features and services. This has forced the authorities to open up a little more and play catch-up, to offer the country’s citizens a new life of unprecedented freedoms, especially to chat, shop, play.

Cyber playground

AND how the Chinese like to play when they go online.

Gaming is the most lucrative part of China’s Internet industry, contributing about US$3.8 billion (S$4.9 billion) in 2009 and growing by an estimated 25 per cent to 30 per cent last year.

Seven in 10 Chinese also go online when they want to relax, making the Internet the most popular choice of recreation, according to a survey by the Xiaokang magazine.

Indeed, the average Chinese uses the Internet more for entertainment than enlightenment – unlike his Western peer, who tends to use the Internet as a library as well as for fun.

This could be a matter of age. The average Chinese netizen is 25 years old, while his American counterpart is 42. Chinese netizens are also comparatively less educated and less well-off.

And they are used to getting their music, movies and books free. Despite lawsuits, Chinese websites have continued to offer pirated movies and music.

Even tech giants have had to bow to the demands of Chinese netizens. In 2009, Google introduced a free music download service just for the Chinese market, in order to keep up with local rival Baidu which held 60 per cent of the search market against Google’s 30 per cent.

Innovative copycats

SUCH differences have made it challenging particularly for foreign tech companies to make headway here.

In July, Google left the China market, saying it had had enough of censorship and hacking. It is not the only one: Tech giants from Yahoo to eBay have also crashed in China.

Foreigners looking to enter the market will probably find that Chinese competitors have already copied the best features of their products, if not cloned them outright, noted Beijing-based Internet analyst Bill Bishop.

After all, Chinese developers and engineers are skilled, fast, and cheaper than their American peers. ‘Imitation is not flattery – it’s expected,’ he quipped.

That is not to say, however, that the Internet in China has no innovation.

Observers say that while Chinese companies may not come up with new Internet products, they excel in tweaking existing ones to suit Chinese users.

For instance, China’s biggest Internet company Tencent began life by cloning the Israeli instant messaging service ICQ into a service called QQ. But it improved the service to allow users to call up personal information even when not using their own computers, going beyond ICQ.

Tencent went on to add services like e-mail, games and a search function to its QQ instant messenger, all on one page.

The QQ homepage has since become the most popular website in China, making the Shenzhen-based Tencent the world’s No. 3 Internet firm by market value. Along with Baidu and Alibaba, it now ranks among the world’s top 10 Internet companies.

Similarly, Chinese online video giant Youku has prospered not only by replacing YouTube – which has been officially blocked – but also by going one step further to offer a mix of professional content and user-generated videos.

‘People here are innovative when it comes to business models and are faster than the rest,’ said Mr Andy Tian, a general manager of Internet gaming firm Zynga, at a conference.

Huge marketplace of ideas

A DISTINCTIVE Chinese Internet culture has also formed on the country’s online bulletin boards, blogs and social media, which have become increasingly influential.

In its first-ever White Paper on the Internet in June last year, China noted that the ‘vigorous’ exchange of ideas online was a major characteristic of the country’s Internet development.

‘The huge quantity of BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) posts and blog articles is far beyond that of any other country,’ the report from the State Council’s Information Office said. While BBS have gone out of fashion elsewhere, China has at least a million such forums.

Some 220 million Chinese netizens blog, and two in three post comments online frequently, making more than three million comments every day, according to the official report.

With media controls leaving people few avenues to have their voices heard, many Chinese are using the Internet to report wrongdoing – and doing so with a vengeance.

As many as 93 per cent of people polled by the state-owned People’s Daily say they would go online to blow the whistle. And nearly a third of 2009’s top news events, or 23 out of 77, first broke on the Internet.

A May 2009 speeding accident involving a rich man’s son, for instance, went largely unreported by the local media in Hangzhou until news of it was posted on a popular forum.

It immediately drew a storm of responses – in the form of 140,000 comments condemning the behaviour of the driver, and that of the traffic police for allegedly siding with the driver.

Indeed, collective action has also become a feature of the Web in China, as an increasing number turn to the Internet to issue their calls to arms. While cyber nationalists can be found directing hacking attacks against overseas targets, cyber vigilantes have been known to launch ‘human flesh searches’ – digging up online information about someone – against the object of their wrath.

In 2006, a pharmacist from northern China’s Heilongjiang lost her job when netizens tracked her down after seeing online images of her kicking a cat to death.

Other cases of Internet mobilisation involve injustice or corruption, and reflect the deep unhappiness among Chinese towards such social ills.

When a man, Mr Guo Baofeng, was arrested by the Fuzhou police for allegedly spreading rumours online in July 2009, a netizen called on others to send postcards to the police to press for his release.

More than a hundred postcards emerged bearing the message, ‘Guo Baofeng, your mum asks you to go home for dinner’. Mr Guo was released on bail soon after.

The incident also showed the use of humour as a weapon of resistance by Chinese netizens – in this case, mo lei tau, or nonsensical humour, which is associated with Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow.

In fact, a distinct Internet lingo has sprung up in China’s virtual world, the result of a response to tight censorship and a deep cynicism towards the authorities.

‘Internet censorship in China inadvertently forces users to higher levels of linguistic creativity,’ noted Dr Yang Guobin of Columbia University in a paper.

Chinese netizens have devised new ways of bypassing censors’ filters with neologisms – newly coined words or phrases – and code words, such as by using homonyms for sensitive terms like June 4, the date of the Tiananmen massacre. They also mock the authorities with phrases like ‘grass mud horse’, which sounds like a certain profanity.

Headache for the authorities

JUST like the Internet elsewhere, China’s rumbunctious, colourful and quirky cyberspace is giving its authorities a big headache.

On the one hand, Beijing wants to see a vibrant Internet, which boosts not only the Chinese economy but also its ambitions of developing into a tech power. But on the other hand, Beijing worries that activists may use the Internet to subvert its power.

This ambiguity is underlined by how the government blocks foreign social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but allows home-grown social media services to carry on – so long as they follow directives on what to black out.

In some cases, aware that it might not be able to beat them, the government has tried to join them – by boosting its presence online.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have both held Web chats, and have invited netizens to send them messages on a BBS dubbed ‘Direct Line to Zhongnanhai’. This refers to the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council.

Some local governments are also sending people to school to learn about new media tools.

In a way, Beijing is hoping to curb the appetite for greater changes by giving people more space to let off steam.

As American Internet scholar Rebecca MacKinnon noted, the average Chinese with Internet access has a much greater sense of freedom, and may even feel that he can speak and be heard in ways impossible under classic authoritarianism.

‘It also makes most people a lot less likely to join a movement calling for radical political change,’ she wrote.

But while there is more give and take in what she dubbed ‘network authoritarianism’, Beijing still locks up people who are a threat to it. There is no guarantee of individual rights and freedoms.

Ultimately, the bird cage looming over the Chinese might have become bigger with the growth of the Internet, but it is there all the same.



Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, Education, Environment, Great Firewall, Human Rights, Influence, International Relations, Internet, Lifestyle, Media, Nationalism, Population, Social, Soft Power, Straits Times

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