Internet culture in China thrives despite censorship
One of China’s most popular microblogging services recently instituted a stringent user contract that penalizes bloggers for any comments that are judged to be offensive. Despite this kind of censorship, Texas A&M communication assistant professor Cara Wallis says that new media in China reflect changing values and are an important part of the way young users build their identities and social networks.
Today there are an estimated 513 million internet users and 975 million mobile phone subscribers in mainland China. Still, Wallis believes that people in other countries remain unaware of how lively the internet culture is in the world’s most populous nation. Instead, they focus on the government’s attempts to control the internet.
“Most westerners would be surprised how much discussion is going on,” Wallis said in a recent interview.
According to her research, the majority of internet users in China are unfazed by the reality of censorship. She says most people don’t seek information outside of the “Great Firewall” enough to care about being censored.
“The majority of Internet users are not that concerned about censorship, and they can access the entertainment news and games they want,” Wallis said. “Those who are concerned – dissidents, intellectuals – have ways of getting around the restrictions.”
China has its own versions of Facebook and Twitter, named Renren and Sina Weibo, which are successful in part because domestic providers know how to cater to the public. Sina Weibo has more than 300 million users. In comparison, Twitter has 100 million active users.
The new user contract that Sina Weibo implemented operates on a credit score system where points are deducted according to violations such as spreading rumors, calling for protests, or any other activity that is deemed harmful to the unity of the nation. Repeat offenders face having their accounts deleted should their credit score reach zero. Users may gain additional points by complying with a "real-name registration policy."
“A few years back, the Chinese government tried to implement real-name registration for mobile phones, but this has been hard to enforce and unevenly implemented, said Wallis. “I imagine with Sina Weibo it will be the same because the government has been good at tracking down ‘rumor mongers’ even without real-name registration.”
Still, Wallis noted that internet users in China have become more comfortable with asserting their beliefs online. After a high speed train crash in July 2011, the Chinese government was widely criticized by microbloggers and journalists for attempts to bury the crashed cars and allegedly hide evidence.
Surprisingly, the government allowed the discussion for about a week, during which time the mainstream and official media spoke openly about concerns. Moderators let people blow off steam for a while, before limiting discussion again.
Although the Chinese government has been able to use its own internet presence to legitimize itself through new media, the general population is creating pressure for more freedom of expression.
Since Wallis began her research in China in 2005, she has studied primarily how socioeconomic status affects the way users engage with new media. She focuses specifically on the use of mobile internet by migrant women from rural areas.
Wallis’ book, “Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones,” will be released this fall.