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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?”

I am gonna miss Grandpa Wen

9 Nov

Sweeter than a Werther’s Original: Grandpa Wen

More than a year ago, I stepped into the lobby of the China Daily newspaper in Beijing for my first day of work as a totally unqualified, unprepared, un-China-savvy sub-ed.

My boss’s introductory tour began not with the fourth floor office of 21st Century, the kids’ paper I would be working on, nor with the canteen, nor even with the toilets. It began with a slow, methodical walk around a lobby that was proudly decked out with glossy pictures from the recent official visit of premier Wen Jiabao.

“He is very popular,” my boss said. “Everyone in China likes him, and he is famous because has a very good attitude toward foreigners. He is a very good man. We were very proud to receive him here.”

I nodded sagely. My Western-born conviction told me she was spouting propaganda, and that really she felt nothing for this stuffed shirt politico.

I was wrong. Chinese people love Wen Jiabao. I grew to love him too – in an vague, affectionate, thank-God-he’s-not-as-bad-as-the-others way.

Wen Jiabao may be a backseater in terms of real power to the great President Hu Jintao , but he is a hell of a lot more of a people person. Not for nothing is he known as “Grandpa Wen”. He’s the one the party sends to cuddle earthquake victims. He has called for education and healthcare reforms (albeit not always successfully). He even went to visit the Tian’anmen Square students back in 1989 – a move he probably only just survived by sucking up to Deng Xiaoping like a very swift limpet and u-turning to support the introduction of martial law.

He’s also sort of quite nice-ish to foreigners. He has appeared on CNN several times to tell America that yes, China needs to get a bit more democratic, and actually China might think about working with the West. OK, so these weren’t wild, all-embracingly nice statements, you understand, but they were about as nice as any Chinese public figure can afford.

Wen has just been in the headlines – aside from those dealing with today’s party changeover – because he has been “forced” or “compelled” to launch an internal review into his family’s expenses after an expose in the New York Times. Western commentators screamed of the power of the media and the Internet forcing politicians to be more transparent. But if you think Hu Jintao or any of the rest of the Party glitterati would launch anything based on a New York Times rumour, think again.

Certainly Xi Jinping, China’s soon-to-be-crowned President, wouldn’t want to go there, coming as he does from one of the most privileged backgrounds you can imagine a Chinese person having. While most you meet in China will (if you gently encourage the subject, very, VERY gently) tell you tales of the hideous things they or their families endured during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Xi was the son of Mao’s propaganda minister – and Zhou Enlai’s later vice premier – Xi Zhongxun. His father was briefly expelled during a purge, but survived and was reinstated. Xi Jinping climbed those familial ties to reach his position. Jewel-encrusted skeletons in that cupboard? Almost certainly.

Wen we say goodbye (barely a pun, I know), who will be taking Grandpa’s place?

Li Keqiang. Definitely a downgrade on Wen.

I know, he’s got a good rep with the US – or so the Wikileaks tell us that American officials find him “engaging and well-informed on a wide range of issues” and displaying a “good sense of humor and appeared relaxed and confident throughout”. He comes from a poor(ish) background in Anhui province, wants to introduce internal reform, and made a stab at the international imagey thing by writing a column in the Financial Times that called for “Western thinking and Oriental vision”.

But it was a squeak on a soapbox compared with Wen’s CNN stage. Li is deadly, deadly dull.

There is no grandaddy image surrounding Li in China – quite the opposite, in fact. He is known as “Bad Luck” Li and “Three Fires” Li because of the series of natural disasters that hit Henan province while he was provincial governor – incidents that weren’t entirely his fault, but that certainly didn’t add to his charisma.

Chinese people love to give their bosses oddly affectionate names – “Uncle Zhou”, for example, for Zhou Enlai, or of course “Father” Mao Zedong. But I can’t imagine them embracing Li like a grandpa.

As second fiddle to the president, the best the premier can do in China is have a very, very pleasing public face. So pleasing that you want to cover your entire lobby with its cosily grinning mugshot, and that you’d take a Werther’s Original from its hand and sit on its knee.

It is with a sniffle of sadness that I say farewell to Grandpa.

PM Two-Point-Perfect

18 Jul


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smog

The beautiful sunrise over Chaoyang District         (22 February 2012)

The alarm twitters, calling you to another glorious Beijing summer’s day. No need to tweak the curtain back, no need even to open your eyes. The moment your brain swims into semiconsciousness, you know this is going to be one of those days that Beijing does best.

Even as you like back on your pillow, you can taste the cloying haze saturating the air particles, feel the slight dull ache deposited in one corner of your skull and the heaviness in your limbs that has no intention of shifting. You take a shallow breath of the delectably stagnant cocktail of fumes, dust, fog and heat… and up you get.

Smog, pollution, wuran, 污染… whatever you call it, if you’re a resident of one of one of China’s cities or anywhere within 100 miles of one of them, you’ll be familiar with that stuff that makes everything go brown.

Oh yes, it was terribly exciting when we were told that Beijing was going to switch from measuring PM 10 particles – ones that don’t really do much damage – to the genuinely poisonous PM 2.5 that pretty much every country had been publishing for donkey’s years. But surprise surprise, those Chinese government official  PM 2.5 ratings turned out to be miraculously lower than those of the US, with even ratings of over 200 (considered “very unhealthy” by international standards) marked as “lightly polluted”. The Chinese government did its best to stop the US embassy publishing pollution ratings taken from embassy soil in Beijing, but to no avail.

All this bureaucratic brouhaha is a load of hot air for us Peking plebs – quite literally. All we can do is content ourselves with reading and writing endless blog posts about how we are shortening our lifespan by x number of days, smoking the equivalent of a sixth of a cigarette a day, and increasing our risk of every nasty lurgy by the simple act of breathing.

Only today, a well-wisher posted a link onto my Facebook wall (not that I use Facebook EVER in China, good God no, perish the thought):

“How to handle bad air days”

Now, it’s been nearly a year since I planted my Chicken Feet in the ‘hood of the King. Around 36 cigarettes-worth of breathing later (possibly a few more considering the reported PM 2.5 around Spring Festival), I feel I am pretty good at “handling” the ol’ smog in my own special way.

A big part of my defence mechanism is, of course, to flee the Metropolis on a regular basis. Hence I am currently sitting in a squishy armchair 3,600 meters above sea level in the Meili mountains, Yunnan province, where the air is so goddamn pure it’s almost exhausting to breathe it.

In between sips of ginger tea and awestruck glances at the tremendous panorama outside the library window, I found myself idly clicking on the aforementioned link. How, I wondered, did my personal p0llution survival mechanism measured up to the advice from PureLiving China, China’s “leading indoor environmental health and safety consulting firm focused on advising our clients on air and water quality, mold, and lead exposure issues”?

Well, for starters, they didn’t mention retreating to expensive eco-lodges. Fallen at the first hurdle, eh guys…? How about the rest of it…?

1. PureLiving: Close the windows and doors as much as possible

Chicken Feet’s King: Err… windows and doors wide open 24/7, so that a flood of filthy rainwater coats the floor every time we are graced with one of those Beijing thunder-/dust storms. Too much air-con never did anyone any good. And anyway, ayi will be in on Sunday.

2. PureLiving: Use your air particulate filters

Chicken Feet’s King: Air what-nows? I’ve just spent 250 RMB on a blender to make smoothies; what on earth makes you think I’m going to fork out for some claptrap plastic steam-puffer?

Plus those things look very dodgy. At best they resemble a malformed elephant. At worst – well, one friend of mine stopped using his after his girlfriend christened in “The Vagina”. I wouldn’t want people spotting such a contraption stationed in my bedroom beside my copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, now would I? I’m a good girl, I am.

3. PureLiving: Avoid vigorous exercise outside until things get better.

Chicken Feet’s King: Depends what you class as “vigorous” and “exercise”, dunnit?

A 45-minute power-cycle to a Chinese lesson with the PM 2.5 at 280 isn’t really exercise, is it? It’s a mode of transport, and you’re far more likely to catch something on the subway.

That said, a bad air day can provide a great excuse not to clean the flat. They do say that housework is a “great workout”. Definitely leave it till tomorrow.

4. PureLiving: Check air quality websites to monitor the situation

Chicken Feet’s King: Definitely agree with this one, with the addition of the word “incessantly”.

Both my work PC and my laptop have shortcuts to the Air Quality Index website from the US Embassy in Beijing. Checking it has become something of an addiction. I do try to ration myself to six refreshes a day.

The Fresh Ideas app: Taking a pic of an iPhone screen isn’t easy, but you get the gist of the hilarity

Then there’s the piece de resistance of panic-mongering software, which I naturally downloaded onto my iPhone the moment it came to my attention. The Fresh Ideas China Air Quality Index app compares the Beijing US Embassy PM 2.5 rating with the official Chinese one – and it’s a great party piece. Flash the picture showing “US EMBASSY – 280 – HAZARDOUS” (with an icon of a chap in a face mask) above “CHINESE GOVERNMENT – 50 – EXCELLENT”, and watch your guests’ faces light up with delight as they phlegm into their handkerchiefs.

5. PureLiving: Let your friends, neighbours, and school administrators know

Chicken Feet’s King: Again, thoroughly agree, and again, would like to extend this to let everyone know – everyone – all the time.

Sharing is caring. And sharing your misery and woes about the smog is the best way to show how much you care about your fellow Beijingers.

This brings me in rather convoluted fashion to the point expressed in the subtitle to this post… How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smog. Bet you’re glad you hung on this long to hear it, eh? No one builds suspense like Chicken Feet’s King. And so here it is…

Thanks to pollution, Beijingers never lack a focus on which to vent their gripes and grumbles. Work getting you down? Pissed off that every taxi driver has driven past you after noticing you’re a foreigner? Let it all out on the smog.

Once you start doing this, you realise that, in the same way as you can blame everything bad in Britain on the government, so too can everything in a Chinese city be blamed on “bad air”.

Traffic particularly bad on the way to work? Train delayed? Mulit-vehicle pile-up on the Second Ring Road? It’s no one’s fault – it’s just the smog.

If you just can’t face practising Chinese characters, it’s not your innate laziness or lack of intelligence – it’s just the smog.

If you overeat and knock back eight 540ml bottles of local beer despite having a huge lunch, it’s not your fault. Bad air always makes you hungry. Your lungs have to work harder to process the oxygen, don’t they? Once again – it’s just the smog.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain – that always clears the air.