Posers for the party
How an online forum catches censors unawares
IN CHINA, the battle to control information is largely waged online. The Communist Party blocks most foreign social media, routinely censors dissenting views and punishes those who repeatedly speak out. It employs around 2m people to police the internet and bombard users with positive messages about the regime. Yet criticism of the party still bubbles up. Even as the authorities try to tighten controls, netizens devise new ways of airing their views more freely. Zhihu, a question-and-answer site on which people mostly ponder mundane topics such as fitness or films, has emerged as a surprising springboard for political discussion.
Internet users everywhere migrate between social-media platforms as preferences change. But in China a site’s popularity is determined as much by users’ pursuit of freedom as it is by their love of fashion. Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site, gained a colossal following after it was launched in 2009 (Twitter itself is blocked). Many users relished the opportunity to air sensitive views and link up with likeminded people. It has since been eclipsed by the rise of WeChat, a messaging app which the authorities find less threatening, and so censor less.
Zhihu, meaning “Do you know?” in classical Chinese, started in 2011 as a copycat of Quora, an American site. It is now China’s most popular question-and-answer portal, with 100m monthly active users (compared with Weibo’s 261m and We-Chat’s 800m). It has evaded some of the strictures suffered by other forums because it is neither a news site nor a means of exchanging salacious videos (a new preoccupation for regulators, who recently called for 24-hour monitoring of livestreaming sites). Zhihu targets young urban professionals, who in China tend to be more willing than others to comment on sensitive topics. In January Zhihu users expressed doubts about the reliability of a televised confession made by a bookseller from Hong Kong, Gui Minhai, who is being detained by Chinese police for selling gossipy books about the country’s leaders.
Though Zhihu does not provide news coverage, questions raised on it sometimes generate news stories. In May former university classmates of a 29-year-old environmentalist, Lei Yang, posted an account on Zhihu of Mr. Lei’s death in police custody, raising several queries that challenged the official explanation. “We demand to know more. We demand that our questions be answered,” they wrote. News of this spread rapidly on other social media, forcing state media to look into the story. Two officers were eventually arrested for “neglect of duty” in their handling of the case—an apparent concession by the authorities to the public’s outrage.
Sometimes it is the answers on the site that create an online sensation. Early this year a 21-year-old man with terminal cancer responded to the question “What is humanity’s greatest evil?” with the answer “Baidu”, the name of China’s biggest search engine. He accused it of profiting from distorted information after his search on Baidu for a cure led him to fork out for expensive and dodgy medical treatment from an institution that had paid to raise its search ranking (he subsequently died). The regulator has since ordered Baidu to give less weight in its search results to the amount advertisers pay.
For its part, Zhihu uses an algorithm that rewards answers from experts, ranking them higher than posts by amateurs. Experts often correct and comment on each other’s responses, too. This enhances the site’s credibility. When news emerged last year that new running tracks in several Chinese schools were made from toxic materials, a heavyweight academic posted extensive information on Zhihu about how such tracks could harm pupils. By providing authoritative insights into topical issues, Zhihu is helping to shape political debate, says Ma Tianjie, a blogger in Beijing.
Zhihu is still vigilant. Like other Chinese portals, it warns users against “endangering national security” and “spreading rumours”. Sometimes it removes questions, such as one in December asking about the arrest of labour-rights activists in the southern province of Guangdong. More often, controversial answers are deleted, leaving anodyne responses to questions such as: “Is [the prime minister] Li Keqiang doing the right thing to avoid the ‘middle income’ trap?” A page on Zhihu run by the US embassy in Beijing (at the invitation of the site’s owners) was taken down in May. A WeChat account run by the Communist Youth League accused the page of waging a “public-opinion war” and trying to “destroy China”.
尽管如此，知乎的行事作风仍然谨小慎微。同中国其他社交网络平台一样，知乎告诫其用户不得“危害国家安全”，也不得“传播谣言”。有时候，知乎也会删除一些敏感的问题，例如去年12月就有人在知乎上问道关于中国南部广东省四名劳动维权人士被捕的事情。相比之下，更容易被删的还是要数那些争议十足的回答，像“李克强（总理）对于跨越‘中等收入陷阱’所采取的措施是否正确？”这类问题下面就仅剩下了些不痛不痒的答案。今年5月，知乎上由美国驻华大使馆（受网站邀请）所管理的页面被撤了下来。共青团（Communist Youth League）利用其微信账号指控该页面可能引起“舆论战”，有“破坏中国”之嫌。
Caution may not protect Zhihu forever. Another Chinese question-and-answer site, Fenda, on which celebrities answer questions for cash, has been offline since early August. What it described as a temporary closure to allow it to carry out an upgrade has lengthened into weeks, prompting speculation that the site has been closed for good. It may be an early target of a new government campaign, made public this week, against sites that promote “Western lifestyles” or hype celebrity gossip. Fenda won notoriety in May after Wang Sicong, the son of one of China’s richest men, responded to the question “What is your favourite sexual position?” His answer, that he would do whatever gave his partner pleasure, may not have been discreet enough.
It has evaded some of the strictures suffered by other forums because it is neither a news site nor a means of exchanging salacious videos (a new preoccupation for regulators, who recently called for 24-hour monitoring of livestreaming sites).
Early this year a 21-year-old man with terminal cancer responded to the question “What is humanity’s greatest evil?” with the answer “Baidu”, the name of China’s biggest search engine. He accused it of profiting from distorted information after his search on Baidu for a cure led him to fork out for expensive and dodgy medical treatment from an institution that had paid to raise its search ranking (he subsequently died).
More often, controversial answers are deleted, leaving anodyne responses to questions such as: “Is [the prime minister] Li Keqiang doing the right thing to avoid the ‘middle income’ trap?”
2006年，世行《东亚经济发展报告》首先提出“中等收入陷阱”(Middle Income Trap)概念。它是指一个经济体的人均收入达到世界中等水平(人均GDP在4000美元—12700美元的阶段)后，由于不能顺利实现发展战略和发展方式转变，导致新的增长动力特别是内生动力不足，经济长期停滞不前；同时，快速发展中积聚的问题集中爆发，造成贫富分化加剧、产业升级艰难、城市化进程受阻、社会矛盾凸显等。