It’s the internet, Tim, but not as you know it

It's my final night in Beijing – my first visit to China. I'm hoping it won't be my last. This is a fascinating country, the people I've met have been very friendly and the sights and sounds are sufficiently different for days to feel exciting. Not something that can be said about many parts of an increasingly smaller world.

Before I arrived, my eclectic knowledge of China was limited to what I had read: rapid economic growth, human rights issues, my own personal fascination with the auto industry, and, of course, references to state-owned media and the blocking of social media.

On the flight out I read Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu. If you even have a passing interest in China it's a brilliant read, and certainly helped to straighten out my preconceptions.


These days it feels strange not having access to all my social media accounts, unless I happen to be in a remote location. So travelling to a huge city, with wifi on tap, but no Twitter, Facebook or WordPress, has been odd. At the same time, it doesn't hurt to have a break from these things, and has encouraged me to take a look at what is available to the Chinese.

I joined Sina Weibo a month or so before I travelled, and as a platform it's pretty good to use. Fast, intuitive (even with my non-existent Mandarin), and lots more functionality than Twitter. Consider it a more comprehensive publishing platform, with the option to host closed community chats, as well as open replies. Other platforms are available of course, but Weibo (way-boar) is what everyone talks about. The t-bomb of China, if you will.

It's worth knowing that I also managed to use LinkedIn, Google + and Foursquare, which came as a surprise, particularly because Google appears to be largely blocked.


Platforms are all very well, but there's no doubt the country is grappling to come to terms with this unprecedented opportunity for self publishing, organisation, sharing of information and conversation.

I'm not going to list the history and emerging issues here. But it's worth listening to The Forum on the BBC World Service on 2 November, for a fascinating exchange of views between the Government and Chinese bloggers.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, has spelt out some of the really big implications of social media in China.

Governments wanting to put boundaries around social media and control messages is not something unique to the Chinese, of course. But coupled with the lack of independent domestic media within China, it becomes a problem. Citizens can access some independent journalism from external media sources i.e. the FT or BBC for example, but access is sometimes hindered.

Look what happens to BBC content, for example:

Click on the story in the top left, and you get this:

It's easy to understand why the Chinese are so excited about the potential of social media, and frustrated about censorship.


I have spoken to a dozen Chinese bloggers while in Beijing. They ranged from young people with regular, public service jobs, to those whose sexuality or political beliefs put them squarely in the Government's spotlight.

It is a shame that for some, they feel compelled to restrain their blogs to restaurant reviews and holiday diaries, sometimes published on WordPress via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

I didn't hear any first hand accounts of intimidation or blocking of blogger's content. But from some of those I spoke to, I understand that blogging is not an option if you are trying to rally support for a cause or campaign that may be deemed politically unacceptable.

The repeated story was that of the 'big Vs' – bloggers with large numbers of followers. Big V refers to the verification tick alongside their Weibo profile, like the blue tick on high profile Twitter accounts. A number of big Vs have had their profiles closed, and this has created a sense of outrage and despair among the blogosphere.

Clumsy blocking of web pages, outright banning of entire networks, and closing profiles with large followings sounds like a very crude attempt at controlling something that, ultimately, is uncontrollable. The web simply doesn't work like that.

Much of the emphasis in China seems to be on sheer numbers of followers, rather than actual influence. According to a recent judicial interpretation 500 shares equals rumour mongering – although that kind of benchmark will sound familiar to British Twitter users.

Bizarrely, it seems that publishing in English allows for greater freedom of expression. My own experience of reading Weibo for a week indicates that English provides greater freedom to comment on political issues. A simple search for 'Tiananmen Square' yielded several negative references to the 1989 protests and the Government's actions.

My short week in China has left me more confused than clear, about the country's use and understanding of the web.

I don't think the Government will relax the restrictions that exist, but evidently nor can it control the web. The potential of social media to change the country is huge, but it is increasingly painful for all sides to understand how. For those of us in the West, it will be difficult and sometimes shocking to watch, as this understanding evolves.




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