The ‘blog’ revolution sweeps across China

Here is the link to my article on Chinese bloggers in the New Scientist. In the current Chinese cyberspace, bloggers may not be as loud as their American counterparts. But they are potentially certainly no less subversive to the dominant paradigm. Hope will be born from their whispers, I believe.

In August 2002, Isaac Mao, who worked at the Shanghai office of the chip maker Intel, was one of only a handful of people in China who had heard the word “blog”. A regular web surfer, he was fascinated by the freedom these online journals gave to ordinary people to publish both their own and their readers’ views online.

Surfing the US website blogger.com, Mao was thrilled to find Zheng Yunsheng, a teacher at a technical school in Fujian province. He left a message on Zheng’s blog, and two weeks later Mao and Zheng started CNBlog.org, China’s first online discussion forum about blogging technology and culture.

They soon gathered a small but devoted group of participants, many of whom went on to develop the technology that makes blogging possible for China’s half-a-million bloggers.


Dozens of arrests

Ever since the Communist party took power in 1949, the Chinese media has been tightly controlled by the government. Online publishing is a real threat to that control, and the government is clearly worried. A crackdown in 2003 closed websites and internet cafes and saw the arrest of dozens of online commentators.

Yet this is not proving enough to stifle the pluck and ingenuity of China’s bloggers. The rise of the blog phenomenon was made possible by blog-hosting services. Just as companies like Yahoo host email accounts, sites like blogger.com, based in the United States, host blogs.

Blogs usually allow room for readers’ comments, and because they often contain numerous links to other blogs and websites, they each act as a unit in a dynamic community. Together they form an interconnected whole – the “blogosphere”.

When Mao and Zheng started CNBlog.org, China had 67 million internet users. Today, it has more than 90 million, and most are hungry for information. The official China Internet Network Information Center in Beijing says 62% of internet users go online primarily to read news. Internet cafes are spreading rapidly throughout China, even in rural areas, largely thanks to official efforts to promote technology and improve the country’s economic competitiveness.

Great Firewall of China

But the government also fears that uncontrolled online information will cause the regime to collapse. Since 2000 China’s police force has established internet departments in more than 700 cities and provinces.

The net police monitor websites and email for “heretical teachings or feudal superstitions” and information “harmful to the dignity or interests of the state”. Since 2002, all internet service providers have had to sign a self-censorship pledge before they can operate.

Perhaps the most effective component of government control is the “Great Firewall”, which protects the nine gateways connecting China to the global internet. Its main function is to prevent surfers in China from accessing “undesirable” web content.

Research at the Berkman Center at Harvard University has found that blocked sites include overseas Chinese-language news websites, such as BBC Chinese, and most news sites originating in Taiwan and Hong Kong; and religious and human-rights websites such as Falun Gong and Amnesty International USA.

But things were starting to change when Mao began his grass-roots publishing effort. Technology writer Fang Xingdong in Beijing, who made his name with a book criticising Microsoft’s business in China, started a news and commentary website, BlogChina.com, which covers the development of China’s IT industry.

Zero cost

Fang coined the Chinese term bo ke to mean blogger. He encouraged his readers to try blogging by registering on blogger.com. “Blogging is a true revolution,” he wrote. “One needs zero technology training, zero institution and zero cost to become a blogger.”

By January 2003, China had about 2000 bloggers when, without warning, the Chinese government blocked all access to blogspot.com, the server that hosts all blogs registered on blogger.com.

The net police do not make the reasons for such actions public, but Chinese bloggers point out that DynaWeb, an anti-censorship service run by overseas Chinese, had been using a blog on blogspot.com to publish proxy server addresses that allowed users to get around the Great Firewall. The authorities’ blanket blockade affected all China’s bloggers, leaving them suddenly unable to reach their journals.

The censors probably did not anticipate the bloggers’ response. For many, blogging had become an addictive activity. With nowhere else to go, many followed Mao’s lead and started to look for solutions inside China.

Three small start-ups offered them a refuge; Blogcn.com, Blogdriver.com and Blogbus.com. All were blog-hosting services started just a couple of months earlier by people who had first gathered on Mao’s website. All were based inside China, and inside the Great Firewall.

Banning “truth”

At first, the new companies attracted little attention from the government. In early 2003, most Chinese who wanted to comment online were using not blogs, but online forums like bulletin boards and chat rooms. These allowed people to express themselves anonymously and therefore safely, and were already beginning to have a social impact.

But there is a catch. Whether in China or elsewhere, such sites are usually moderated by editors who keep them relevant and readable. In China, the moderators also keep their sites’ content acceptable to the censor, so when users try to post a “forbidden” comment they receive a warning message such as “your post contains sensitive and indecent contents”.

Posts on politically sensitive topics, such as Falun Gong, human rights, democracy, and Taiwan independence, are routinely filtered by this means. A list recently obtained by the China Internet Project in Berkeley found that over 1000 words, including “dictatorship”, “truth”, and “riot police” are automatically banned in China’s online forums.

This type of censorship is part of the wider internet crackdown that intensified in 2003. Dozens of people who published politically provocative articles online were arrested.

The net police closed almost half of the country’s 200,000 internet cafes, and installed surveillance software in the rest. In Liaoning province, where 40% of the people who go online do so in internet cafes, software was installed in 7000 cafes to track track web users’ online movements and keep records of their names, addresses and ID numbers.

Sex diary

In this stifling atmosphere, it was hard to see how the nascent blogosphere could possibly grow and develop. But over the next few months, the concept of blogging received a boost from an unexpected source.

A magazine writer in Guangzhou in southern China, who wrote under the name Mu Zimei, began keeping a sex diary on blogcn.com. “I have a job that keeps me busy, and in my spare time I have a very humanistic hobby – making love,” she wrote. “The partner I take in my hobby is one I choose and always changes. I rely on a large supply pool. I do not need to take any responsibility for them; neither should I give them love. They will not cause me problems. They are like CDs, which will not make a sound unless I play them.”

With explicit details and sometimes even publishing real names, Mu Zimei’s sex diary was a hit. By mid-November 2003, more than 160,000 people had logged on to her site and the number was growing by 6000 a day. While her explicit writing and lifestyle challenged traditional morals, causing heated debate in the Chinese media, Mu Zimei also made bo ke a familiar word for hundreds of millions of people.

As the Mu Zimei debates raged, the number of users on blogcn.com leapt from 20,000 to 160,000. Other blog sites saw similar increases.

Avoiding censorship

Blog services are now sprouting all over China. By the end of October 2004, China had more than 45 large blog-hosting services. A Google search for bo ke will return more than two million results, from blogs for football fans to blogs for Christians.

And while the larger hosting companies have become subject to censorship regulations, smaller companies and individuals do not face the same pressures. Any tech-savvy user can download and install blogging software themselves, bypassing the controls.

Blogs play an important role in republishing and spreading information as quickly as it is banned from official websites. One example of this played out in September when China’s most influential bulletin board, Yitahutu, was closed down by the net police. Unlike other online forums, Yitahutu was moderated by its users, who voted to decide which post should appear on the front page.

Without a moderator to blame for comments they did not like, the censors reacted by closing down the entire site. By that time the site had more than 300,000 registered users and 700 discussion forums, including many on politically sensitive topics such as Taiwan, anti-corruption, legal reform and human rights.

After the closure, all the major university bulletin boards were instructed to delete any discussion of the event. Even the name of the site was censored from Chinese search engines.

Finding euphemisms

But the net police found it much harder to purge discussion of Yitahutu’s closure in the blogosphere. Bloggers are quick to find euphemisms so that they can continue conversation despite keyword filtering. And most blogs have so many entries that it is easy for an individual to post an occasional provocative comment without being detected.

Two days after Yitahutu’s closure, He Weifang, a prominent law professor at Peking University, where the forum was founded, wrote an open letter to the university’s president, urging him to defend the site on the basis of freedom of expression.

His letter was removed from the major online forums after one day, but in that short time it had spread through the blogosphere. There are simply too many blogs for authorities to block them all.

The potential of blogs to act as news sources is relished by some Chinese bloggers. One site, Chinanewsman.net, founded by journalist and programmer Li Zhaohui, is a haven for news that is banned from the official media. Within its first five months of operation, Chinanewsman was closed repeatedly, forcing Li to switch internet service provider six times.

But it survived, and now hosts around 5000 blogs kept by journalists. Some of the information is available only to registered users who join by invitation. This mechanism has protected the site, probably because the censors are, in general, more tolerant of these semi-private spaces.

Moblogging services

Meanwhile blogging seems set to grow as a national hobby for the younger generation. Providers of China’s 300 million mobile phones are beginning to provide “moblogging” services, with which users can send text and photos directly from their phones to their blogs. For now, most blogs are personal, but their potential for building networks of people and disseminating news cannot be underestimated.

As for Mao, he now enjoys a large following among Chinese bloggers. He has become a successful high-tech investor and uses his blog to gather donated books for rural schools. While others see blogs as a tool to promote social change in China, Mao does not associate his love of blogging with a political agenda.

Asked whether he has a strategy to expand blogging under China’s censorship regime, his response is Taoist: “What is our strategy? We do not have a strategy. But the information flow in the blogosphere has its own Way. The Way is our strategy: personal, fast, connected and networked.”
 

November 25, 2004 9:33 PM
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