Netizens vs. Wangizens: How censored is Chinese social media?

12 Nov

Bird vs. Blob

Bird vs. Blob – an impression of the standoff (apologies for lack of MS Paint ability)

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: falls to China’s Internet Wall – Chicken’s Feet seek new roost

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 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 – 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?”

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Small talk is the only way

14 Jun

International aid is overwhelming. It’s just so… big.

There are all those big countries – Africa, Asia – which look even bigger compared with the little Northern Irish golf-course town of Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, where the G8 summit will take place next week.

There are all those big-word problems – starvation, malnutrition, disease.

And there are the big, big, BIG issues in the way of solving them – the big costs, the big local power-wielders and the big C – corruption – that is stopping that aid from taking effect.

When the G8 summit meets next week, it will be looking at the big picture. But at the same time, international governments and, in particular, the aid agencies campaigning around those big issues, need to be able to take a step back and focus on the small – small communities, small projects, small incentives and – perhaps controversially – small counter-incentives too.

Small-scale farming in Uganda (Wikipedia)

Small-scale farming in Uganda (Wikipedia)

This was the message from the Overseas Development Institute, which released its Unblocking Results report last week.

Unusually, the report looked at how international aid agencies can actually help tackle poor management and corruption, rather than focusing on the obstacles they create.

It took several success stories as its starting point from Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Uganda, covering development projects in water provision, health, pay and attendance and government policy. Details are on the ODI website, where you can also watch the Q&A and talks that went alongside the data release. The crucial link between their success was that they were all local.

And the main message was: don’t go blundering in.

A lot of aid agencies,  from Farm Africa‘s smallholder plot builds to Send a Cow (no prizes for guessing what they do), already do this “small, local” stuff.

But the crux is that these projects need to be sustainable in the long-term – and not just so they carry on when the agencies move out.

It goes for the planning too. Local people understand the benefits these projects will bring to their community. When they are involved in building the projects themselves, they have more of a stake in the whole process. It’s part of establishing business and control. And in an environment where ‘land-grabbing’ by big foreign investors is rife and destructive, it is especially important to make village farmers are part of the economy as well.

But, as the report pointed out, that there’s still the tendency for ‘external actors’ to try and give advice to local people or administrators. Not only does this come across as patronising; external actors often don’t know what’s best because, on their own, they don’t understand the cultural background that can be specific to a certain village. A health worker programme in Sierra Leone, for example, worked particularly well because it had local officials directly providing specific services, goods and improvements. But it wasn’t only that – the officials were also involved in the programme from the start. The aid agency came in almost at their request – and they were given the task of carrying it through, ensuring concrete results came out of it, and keeping it permanent.

By contrast, a budget support programme, also in Sierra Leone, was mostly built by an external aid agency, which designed the ways of punishing corruption or indiscretion among officials. That programme dealt with the direct problems it was faced with when it was set up. It isn’t proving nearly as successful as tackling new problems.

Of course, there’s always that Catch-22 question of how far you have to work with corrupt officials to get results.

But, as emerged when I spoke to Heidi Tavakoli, research fellow from the centre for aid and public expenditure, the “can’t beat ’em so join ’em” maxim can be very effective and tackle the corruption too.

Discussing “non-financial incentives”, she described how, in parts Africa, poorly-performing officials are ridiculed at large, well-attended, official meetings. A bit unorthodox in the West – but, she said, it proved highly effective in very reputation-based societies.

Again, this comes down to the small talk. Reputations, local solutions – but (like one of those official name ‘n’ shame meetings) placed in wider forums for review so that projects don’t stagnate. So one eye is always on results.

Aid Agencies also need to take the G8 as a call to review their own policies. Every aid agency needs to focus on establishing solid roots in local communities so they can identify opportunities when they come up, rather than trying to force a pre-set agenda. This is how they will make a lasting impact – even if both ends and means have to be reviewed in the process.

The money is needed, certainly, and hopefully the County Fermanagh summit will provide.

But this is also the time to make sure that money works.

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THE CLIMB (brought to you through a cunning feat of internet time-doctoring)

26 Mar

Sistas to da Summit

Sistas to da Summit

On Sunday March 24, 2013, while sitting on the Piccadilly Line, I came over all pensive, philosophical – spiritual, if you will. For the first time since I was 14, I jotted it all down – not in a padlocked, brother-proof diary, but in a small pocket notebook that had been with me to Tanzania and back. Luckily it had been packed in my hand luggage rather than in my suitcase, which was still languishing in Nairobi airport (explanation to follow).

“My hands are icy with the grey, rising-damp cold that London alone knows how to breed. Sleet is slicking the grimy windows of the Tube. I feel vacant – the people and carriages and concrete walls lined with mossy pipes and lagging slide past distantly, as if on a stage. Acton Town – we’ve just had to change because the train broke down. My thumb is white on the pen.

“When my bag didn’t turn up, all I could do was dissolve into floods of tears. It wasn’t because I didn’t have all my mouldering clothes and pants that had donned my unwashed bod for eight days. It was because I had had to wait and watch the conveyor belt while everyone else said goodbye to each other, and I couldn’t properly join in. Laura, Ann, Erica all jostled to buy Sasha and me conciliatory coffees – they’d lost Sasha’s bag too – before Sasha’s dad beat them to it and got us all vast vats of frothy cappuccino that has never tasted so good.

“When her dad asked us how the climb had been, all we could talk about was how funny it had been that we’d got so sunburnt and all had red noses in the photos from the final dinner. It was as if we decided that was the only thing someone who hadn’t done the climb could relate to.”

So what, dear reader, was the ten-day epiphany, the trek through Hell, Heaven and back via Horombo huts, that led to this rhapsody?

Through a cunning doctoring of the dates on the blog, I shall reveal, correctly dated to each date on the climb…

– The location of the Seventh Circle of Hell – and how to survive the toilets there

– How a tiny, skinny 27-year-old charity coordinator from Watford, with next to no climbing experience, who has not managed to hold in a morsel of food for six days, can climb for 11 hours solid to nearly 6,000 metres above sea level to reach the summit of Uhuru Peak

– Why turning over in bed can make you feel breathless

– How to suffer the worst hangover of your life without touching a drop of alcohol

– The poems, the songs and the chants to take you up thousands of feet

– Swahili, EB-style

Read on…


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