Bloggers and Chinese Twitter, China’s new media wave

June 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Media adviser Charles Mabbett sums up highlights from the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific international media conference in Hong Kong, April 2010. This is the first of three articles in a series on latest developments in the Chinese media. Read part two and part three.

When China’s most popular blogger Han Han had his recent post about a spate of violent attacks in Chinese schools taken down, it wasn’t the first time that he had courted controversy and it is unlikely to be the last.

The post entitled “Children, you’re depressing grandpa” was critical of a media ban on reporting the latest attack in Taizhou, Jiangsu Province, at a time when the Shanghai World Expo was due to get underway. Evidently, Sina.com, the website that hosts many of China’s most popular blogs determined it was too sensitive to keep online.

Han Han represents a relatively recent phenomenon in China, one that commands millions of readers and is highly influential as both social commentary and barometer of public sentiment. As of April 2010, his blog had attracted 350 million hits, making him by far and away, the king of China’s blogosphere.

While we may think of the Great Fire Wall of China as being the main characteristic of the Chinese internet, another defining feature, increasingly, has been the rise and rise of the bloggers and their younger relative, the micro-blogger using Chinese Twitter equivalents.

In the ten years since Isaac Mao, who visited New Zealand in 2009, took up posting blogs to become one of China’s first original bloggers in 2001, some of his internet colleagues have since become mega stars among China’s  360 million internet users.

The Chinese blogosphere has evolved into a highly competitive and socially aware 40 million population of writers who collectively represent a sphere of public discourse in China that exists without rival, despite central government efforts to monitor, filter and control content.

While long form blogging has been growing in the past ten years, the micro-bloggers are the newest manifestation of online comment and the startling increase in numbers of both pose a huge unanswered question to the Chinese authorities on the issue of media control.

As we have seen, even if bloggers like Han Han, a former racing car driver and singer, fly as close to the sun as they can, secure in the knowledge that they have a certain Teflon status because of their celebrity and massive readership, they are not immune to self censorship by host websites and government rules.

But it doesn’t stop them from trying. Han Han’s blog on the school attacks was available online for a short while, and it enabled the China watching website Danwei to translate it into English and republish it for an English speaking audience.

Here’s an example: “We know only that 32 children were injured during the Taixing nursery school incident. Government and hospital officials repeatedly emphasize that not a single child died, but word on the street is that many did. Tell me, who should I believe?”

And furthermore:  “I’m totally astonished. By blocking off information and the hospital, controlling the media, prohibiting visits, and changing the subject, the Taizhou government has successfully diverted our anger from the killer onto themselves.”

With such outspokenness given the context of China’s media environment, it seems little wonder that China’s netizens have embraced Han Han who in September 2008 overtook Xu Jing Lei, a well known actress, film director and representative of the 1970s generation, to become China’s most popular blogger. That was the month the number of accumulated hits on his blog surpassed that of Xu’s on 209 million.

Quoting The Beijing News at the time, Danwei reported “this historic passing of the torch came about because of netizens’ love of controversy, which Han Han provides in spades. Xu’s journal-style blog about her daily activities may delight her fans, but Han’s attacks on the establishment have a much broader appeal”.

Han Han’s blog is considered influential as a representative of a generation of young Chinese born in the 1980s, a generation that escaped the hardships that existed under Chairman Mao before the reform and opening up era that began in 1978.

Other popular bloggers have different appeal to audiences, for example, Guo Jing Ming and Hong Huang.  Guo is another flashy representative of the 80s generation and a top selling fiction writer who has been dogged with accusations of plagiarism while Hong is representative of a constituency that was born in the 60s.

Educated in New York, Hong also has a New Zealand connection. She is a well known actress and writer, and famous for being formerly married to Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Life on a String). She has holidayed in New Zealand several times and her celebrity in China has been used by NZTE to endorse New Zealand at the Shanghai Expo.

But recently, the blogosphere became a little more crowded with the latest manifestation of China’s booming internet and mobile communications – micro-blogging or Chinese Twitter.

With Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia all blocked by the Great Fire Wall, Chinese equivalents such as t.sina (known as the “Chinese Twitter”), Ren Ren (a direct copy of Facebook) and Youku (China’s YouTube equivalent) have all been established to fill demand for social media within China.

Micro-blogging in particular had boosted sales of smart phones in China and many Chinese journalists now had their own micro-blogs, a Guangzhou journalist Deng Zhixin told a recent media conference in Hong Kong. “They try to pay attention to the blogosphere, especially for sensitive issues that they cannot report.” Deng Zhixin was speaking at the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific conference in April 2010, organised by the Hawaii-based non-profit think tank East-West Center and the University of Hong Kong.

“Micro-blogging also leads to the fragmentation of news. There’s so much mobility there and a lot of journalists want to have freer space so they go on to the internet to screen news and to communicate. Users don’t have to wait for the complete report from Xinhua or CCTV because they can read it on the micro-blogs.”

While Chinese Twitter can accommodate up to 400 characters, it is more common for users to post messages up to about 120 characters. Compared with English, Chinese characters allows between two to eight times more information to be packed into the same number of characters.

Professor Xiong Peiyun of Nankai University told the same audience that micro-blogging posed a challenge to government because if people saw something happening in the daily course of their lives that was unfair, they could report it instantaneously on the internet. “If everyone participated, it would impossible for the government to control everything.”

At the same conference, a Chinese media academic Qian Gang concluded a discussion on Chinese media by saying, “In China, the media is controlled, and it is changing, and today’s media changes are controlled, and – coming back to the first one – the control is also changing.”

Observing what happens next and where it all leads will be fascinating but there are plenty of clues. The former editor of the Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend, one of China’s most liberal newspapers, Fan Yijin, says increasing media freedom in China is unstoppable because of two factors – market forces and the internet media.

But he also believes that China’s leaders are not opposed to greater media freedom because they are pragmatists. “High level leaders have already seen that for major news stories, if the traditional media do not report them, then new media certainly will.” “We’ve seen the emergence of a new kind of triangulated media supervision involving new media, traditional media and popular opinion, and this major force has been a factor in bringing greater media openness as well as national and social progress,” Mr Fan said.

– by Charles Mabbett

Asia New Zealand Foundation media adviser Charles Mabbett attended the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific international media conference in Hong Kong from April 25-28, 2010.

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