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Social Media Transforming China Despite Censorship

Social media in China, increasingly one of the most censored countries in the world, is flourishing. Professor Cara Wallis shares how Chinese social media looks different than people might think.

Courtesy of College of Liberal Arts, Texas A&M University

Social media in China, increasingly one of the most censored countries in the world, is flourishing. Though major social media platforms are blocked, the Chinese have created their own market for social media—and they haven’t looked back.

Cara Wallis, Department of Communication professor

Cara Wallis, a professor in the Department of Communication, recently presented her research on the state of China’s social media at a conference in the U.K. titled “Social Media and Transformation in Contemporary China.”

To conduct this research, Wallis traveled to China multiple times and is fascinated by the use of social media from a cultural perspective.

“I specifically look at marginalized groups within China, such as female migrant workers, feminist activists, and young creatives, to see how social media has empowered or disempowered them,” Wallis said.  “I want to see the long-term usage of social media platforms in these groups.”

China is rapidly gaining a place on the world stage as one of the globe’s greatest powers. With over a fifth of the world’s population, its presence is only increasing. In what some have called “the Pacific century,” it is hard to overstate the importance of understanding this dominant culture.

“It seems when most people think of social media in China, all they know of is the censorship,” Wallis said. “And while that is important to understand, it’s only one part of the story.”

Wallis describes the state of social media in China as booming: social media is more integrated into the lives of the Chinese than even our lives in America. While access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may be restricted, Chinese entrepreneurs have creatively come up with other solutions to make up for it.

Wallis at a BBQ restaurant in Beijing. Photo: Cara Wallis

One example is WeChat—one of the most popular social media outlets in the country. This app combines status and picture sharing abilities like Facebook and Twitter with communication abilities like texting and calling, but goes beyond just a social medium. It also acts as a mobile payment app; along with other mobile payment counterparts, paying with cash in China is virtually extinct.

“The Chinese don’t really care that they don’t have access to Facebook; they’re satisfied with what they have,” Wallis said.

Another interesting use of social media in China is the creation of communal spaces. Different demographics create communities on social media platforms for the purpose of informal learning; that is, the sharing of informative “how to’s,” helpful tips and tricks, and the cultivation of interests.

“In the migrant workers’ social media communities, they share info pedagogically, like how to wash your hands well,” Wallis said. “And in the young creatives’ community, there is a cultivation of art where they seek to learn from each other, and not just promote their own work. Where Americans might be more social, the Chinese are social but also seem to be more learning oriented.”

Even with censorship increasing greatly under the current government, social media is flourishing because of its diverse uses. Groups like feminist activists find ways to get around censorship efforts, such as promoting the #MeToo movement by using code words or characters that will avoid detection.

There is much to gain from having a greater understanding of different cultural patterns around the world, especially from a culture that will set the stage in many ways in years to come.

“It’s crucial to be a well-rounded person, to think critically, and to understand cultural differences and social history, and the liberal arts helps a person do that,” Wallis said. “Especially with social media in China, we can see that there is a lot more going on than we might realize.”