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Technology

China: Hope in dialogue

Isaac Mao is a Chinese Internet pioneer of the first hour and the founder of the first Chinese bloggers' conference in Shanghai. He talks about the state of blogging in China.

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Isaac Mao: BOBs jury member for Chinese

When Hu Young, an Internet pioneer and professor at Beijing University's School of Journalism and Communication, published his translation of Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital“ 12 years ago, he inspired many young people to go and discover the Internet for themselves.

Nevertheless, when the Web site cnblog.org published an article entitled "Attract More Bloggers - There Should be Thousands of Bloggers in China" in October 2002, it hardly seemed likely that this call would be answered.

In 2002, there were less than 1,000 bloggers in China. In 2003, that number rose to 100,000 and then to 300,000 in 2004. By 2005, China had around a million bloggers.

The first Chinese Bloggers' Conference was held in Shanghai under the groundbreaking slogan "Everybody Is Somebody." Since then, the annual conference has become increasingly symbolic of a movement that grows from the roots up.

Business Angels' investment in young start-ups has given the sector an important impetus and encouraged newcomers. Following the appearance of several large Internet portals on the scene (Sina, Sohu, Netease etc.), blogs have lost their insider's mystique and become accessible to all. Today, millions of Chinese are updating their blogs on a daily basis.

Blogging in bulk

As the popularity of blogs has increased, so too has their effect upon society. This simple publication method has given Internet users new awareness about the possibilities of the Internet and its potential as a platform for freedom of expression.

Before 2004, blogs were the exclusive terrain of Internet culture pioneers. That all began to change, however, when Muzi Mei and other authors of popular literature started blogging and the word "blog" entered into everyday vocabulary as a description of an Internet diary.

In many sectors, bloggers sprang up as trendsetters with their own distinctive voices. In the IT sector, for example, Keso's clear-eyed analysis of industry developments earned him a large following.

Celebrities like the actress Xu Jinglei also found that they could use their blogs to win themselves more fans. Celebrity blog postings enable fans to get to know a different, personal side of their favorite star. That's why Xu Jinglei's blog quickly became the most popular personal blog in the Internet.

The journalist Wang Xiaofeng was one of the first Chinese bloggers. His provoking postings have attracted a large following, and he has been able to win himself more influence than he could have done in the traditional media.

Room for discussion

Many fans took their cue from the celebrities and began to use the Internet to share their own personal experience and opinions.

Back in 2002, this newfound spontaneity represented a huge cultural shift. Up until this point, discussion had only been possible through forums and Web portals. Comment on mainstream media reports could only be made in accordance with the Web portal's conditions of use.

Nowadays, blogs have become news sources in their own right. The reports are written by so called "citizen journalists."

Since 2006, bloggers like Zhou Shuguang (BOBs Chinese Jury member in 2008) and Laohumiao have awakened public attention. They report as independent writers on important events across the country.

Although citizen journalists are often criticized and the medium is in its infancy, they have already been able to bring attention to weaknesses in the state of mainstream reporting in China.

New medium - new self-invention

The majority of Chinese still have a strong sense of collective consciousnesses when it comes to expressing their opinions. Many individuals, for example, will join groups which profess similar opinions to their own.

This crowd-following culture is also prominent amongst blog writers. Nevertheless, blogs remain a good outlet for the process of individualization since, in comparison to the collective consciousness of society in general, the collective consciousness of small groups is more likely to increase diversity.

Since smaller groups can offer their members better protection and support, they make it easier for individual expression to develop. In China this is crucial since groups are, to a certain extent, able to support individual members who fall foul of the authorities.

The most important function of blogging in China is connecting people with the same interests. Blogs make it much easier to find people who share the same hopes and ideas.

Censorship from above

The Chinese authorities have never stopped trying to control public opinion. Instead of recognizing the social importance of diversity of opinion, the authorities have refined their methods of control in order to restrict the activities of Internet companies and the Internet infrastructure in general.

As well as the installment of the "Great Firewall of China," the Chinese authorities have expended great energy on developing a system for monitoring Internet companies. In 2006, a measure was introduced under the pretext of fighting crime that forces all Web sites to register with the Ministry for Information. Only after registration is the Web site activated. Instead of limiting criminality, this move has restricted freedom of expression.

The authorities have also introduced measures to encourage self-censorship in Internet companies. Users often accuse Web sites such as tianya and douban of self-censorship, even thought they do not have a political focus. Well-known international firms such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have had similar experiences.

Internet users are faced with a tricky dilemma: on the one hand they are reluctant to support the companies' self-censorship, but on the other hand they do not want to be forced to lose the companies' services altogether.

According to an investigation carried out by China expert and former CNN correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon, all Chinese blog hosts practice self-censorship.

Some hosts automatically replace certain keywords with asterisks (for example Hu Jintao becomes Hu **). Others automatically delete blog entries with certain keywords or even lock the blog completely.

Wikipedia has been locked for two years because it refused to compromise. Shi Zhao, the head of Wikipedia China has his hands tied. Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, however, is clear: "When the Chinese finally scrap this control system, Internet users will know how to judge Wikipedia's stance. Companies like Google will not win the recognition of the Chinese people." However, for the moment, compromise remains just about the only way for Internet companies to survive and keep their market share in China.

Beating censors with soya sauce and mitten crabs

Censorship and avoiding censorship has become a regular cat-and-mouse game. The authorities claim that their surveillance of the Internet and intimidation of companies and individuals is done on a legal basis. In reality, they are acting outside the law.

Web users are left with only two options: either they censor themselves and restrict their own freedom of thought or they change their terminology.

More and more people are starting to choose the latter method. They have invented many new words in order to avoid persecution by the authorities.

Some examples: "to fetch soya sauce" means to ignore current events - or at least to appear to. "Sit-up" means an unnatural death. The best-known examples are "mitten crab" and "lama," both of which sound similar to other Chinese words.

"Mitten crab" has come to mean the censorship system, "lama" denotes strategies for getting around it.

From exchange of ideas to targeted action

The Internet's spontaneous publication of opinion is increasingly translating into action - both in the Internet and on the street.

In July 2009, for example, Bei Feng started a campaign calling for people to send postcards to the remand center in which blogger Guo Baofeng was being held. This initiative led to the release of Guo Baofeng, just two weeks after his arrest.

Many lawyers, amongst them Liu Xiaoyuan (winner of the 2009 BOBs Jury Award for Best Chinese Weblog), are publishing legal analyses which risk getting their practices black-listed.

Not long ago, the publication of Professor Hu Yong's translation of Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody" attracted much attention in China. In contrast to the publication of "Being Digital," Hu Yong used social networking to publicize the book. The translation was received with great enthusiasm, but Internet users also made criticisms and suggested improvements, to which Hu Yong responded in his blog.

Now, 12 years on from the publication of "Being Digital," the professor can enter into contact with his users and readers. Nowadays, Internet activity is a dialogue in which the public can also take part. Therein perhaps, lies China's hope.

Isaac Mao is one of China's best-known bloggers and the organizer of the Chinese Bloggers’ Conference, which first took place in Shanghai in 2005. Mao is also a software developer, a social learning researcher, director of the Social Brain Foundation and sits on the advisory board of Global Voices and several Web 2.0 businesses. He has often spoken out courageously about censorship in China and has written an open letter to Google, asking the company to take a stand against the Chinese government’s filtering methods.

Editor: Sean Sinicio