Imagine a world without hashtags, pokes or likes. A world where Twitter and Facebook were smothered, and where social media and self-expression were practised only by a few subversive freedom-of-speech fighters.
To us liberated, liberal, Western coves, that world is China. Behind the Great Firewall of censors, we imagine, people are longing to break free and crying out to share their selfies and memes with the rest of the modern world.
Indeed, imagine my shock when an email popped into my inbox from one of the editors of the educational newspaper in Beijing where I used to work as a sub-editor and general propaganda-driver (English lang).
The Boss, I discovered, wanted me to co-write the newspaper’s Winter Issue on the subject of…
“Digital Guide for Teenagers.”
“iPads and Smartphones have become integral parts of young people’s lives,” the email read.
“You will write about Western side of digital and internet trends.”
The horror! The horror! rang my mental alarm bells. How on earth was I supposed to write about digital and Internet in the West without mentioning Facebook and Twitter? What if my emails were caught halfway by the censors? What if the long arm of the CCP came knocking on the doors of my beloved offices in Chaoyang District, with MDF boards to hammer across the entrance and Black Marias to ship away my former colleagues?
And then I thought… perhaps the Chinese authorities are coming to get me, even here in the West… As those who have stuck with this blog of bilge for longer than advisable may remember, I have already fallen foul of the censors, cf. post dated 30 October, 2011:
The censor has gone quite literally chicken oriental. The Chicken’s Feet King has been attacked. The dreaded firewall of doom that prevents you from getting onto Facebook, Twitter, and a certain Wikipedia page about a certain massacre on a certain square in 1989 has now taken offence at WordPress.com. Yes folks – we’ve been blocked.
And yet, the aforementioned Boss has the ability, even at a distance of over 5,000 miles, to strike the fear of bejeezus into me. Lack of response not being an option, I penned a feeble and poorly grammaticised response, detailing (under the very thorough “digital sub-headings” I had been sent – social media, news, information, shopping…) all the top apps and sites in the UK, more than two thirds of which I knew were completely out of bounds for a Chinese computer.
The news out West about the Chinese Internet is a story of smothering and subversion. We hear about brave and cunning “netizens”, who develop their own internet language to beat the men with the black marker pens. First there was the word 和谐 or “héxié”, “harmonise” – which they used to mean “to censor” as an ironic take on the government’s “harmonious society” policy (which includes, of course, censoring the hell out of everything). Then this became 河蟹, “héxiè”, “river crabs”. Now suspiciously positive articles about how happy people are in China are “aquatically-produced” (被水产, “shuǐchǎn”).
But it’s important to realise how self-contained this critical “netizenship” really is. It’s a niche bunch of politico-speak by a few geeks who actually understand or bother to make up the code. The rest of the country, meanwhile, is driving a different digital obsession. They’re not netizens – they are… wait for it… wangizens. Because “wang” ( 网), being the Chinese word for Internet, is far more appropriate than the Middle English-derived net in this ultra-annoying loan word.
At the end of June 2013, there were 591 million internet users in China – the world’s largest Internet population. Western commentators like to caveat this with the fact that, with more than a billion people living in China as a whole, there are still almost as many non-connected as connected Chinese people, and in some parts of rural China, Internet penetration is only at 28 per cent.
True that may be – but the majority of those 591 million users are not champing at the Twitter bit. In fact, Tencent QQ instant messaging service outstripped the Twitterati worldwide by around half a million in May 2013 in terms of linking route domains (though Facebook admittedly beat both). And Baidu.com – China’s answer to Google – is the fifth most popular website in the world.
Most Chinese users simply aren’t bothered about Twitter and Facebook, because they have their own Chinese versions that work just as well. The really important Westerners – Barack Obama, for example, or One Direction – have Sina Weibo feeds.
On our side of the Firewall, much of China’s content is blocked in as well – for one of three reasons.
The first is, of course, government control. To sign up to Weibo, you need a Chinese ID number (or some kind of inroad that will help you set it up, either a special dispensation for being super famous, or a fake ID that you’ve downloaded from a website).
The second, also fairly obviously, is the fact that, in all honesty, most Westerners really don’t speak Chinese, and unlike Latinate languages terms aren’t going to turn up in foreign search engines simply because the characters are all wrong.
But the third – you may be surprised to note – is down to the West’s version of “censorship”. In China, one can rely on all sorts of natty download sites for your music – and it won’t cost you a penny. Try nabbing something off Baidu Music in the West, and you may hit up against one or two great firewalls of your own.
Of course, of course I’m not saying preventing illegal downloads is the same as smothering political opinion. I’d be the first to slam Chinese internet censorship as an affront to free speech (and to myself and my blog, though lolz at the censors because, with some help from my sneaky Western contacts, I got some unblocked webspace and was subverting again in a matter of days).
But we might want to rethink that image of Chinese people “missing out” just because they can’t get onto Twitter and Facey B. Those occasional world-slamming Twitter events – the Arab Spring, the London riots, umpteen Tesco protests – can only be accessed, at high personal risk, by the true, hardliner Netizens. Any Westerner who actually wants to “liberate” Chinese public opinion needs to break in the Barack/Harry Styles way and play China’s game. In the meantime, when it comes to taking selfies, the Wangizens have got it all already.
Don’t believe me? Ask The Boss. Her reply to my hysterical, get-me-out-of-this email put the Chinese side very bluntly.
“Although I have always known that differences exist in digital technologies between China and the West, when you listed the popular apps and websites in your email, I was still struck by how big these differences are.
“In most of the categories we mentioned, for example, social networking, music and video, Chinese have our own services.
“Because most of these, for example, QQ, WeChat, KuWo, Zaker, are in Chinese, they are rarely used by people outside the country. And for obvious reasons, many apps or services that are popular in the West are not the case in China.
“As this digital guide is supposed to provide very local, targeted content, which, for the above reason, would mostly come from local research, I am not sure whether our initial plan to ask a native speaker to produce such stories is the best option for both sides. You could waste a lot of valuable time communicating and clarifying, before getting down to writing.
Meanwhile, you could help us in other, more effective ways on other topics?”