Social Networks, a Chinese perspective
What makes the Internet in the People Republic of China (PRC) so specific is that there are more than 500 million people connected, a large part of them via mobile devices and still growing. That figure will be soon twice the USA population! A second very specific but very important thing is the language they use, even if different ethnic groups speak different dialects they all write the same characters, this is the reason why Chinese programs on television have Chinese character subtitles.
With such a big population online able to share in the same language, social networks in China are a huge phenomenon, most of it misunderstood by westerners because when they talk about Internet in China they mainly focus on the censorship and forget many other factors that are at least as much important as the control from the central government.
These factors are very heterogeneous; they start from the size of the Internet users base, to the specifics of the Chinese language and the fact that social relationships are at the roots of the Chinese society, and even censorship could maybe have a positive impact.
There is nothing new in saying that the Internet use in China is closely regulated and controlled by the government, that does not hide it but instead present this as a task of “harmonization” those goal is to make sure that nothing against the harmony of the PRC can take place online. However, even if the matter is quite well known and understood by the specialists, the image depicted in the Western media is quite incomplete. On one hand, it is true that censorship is difficult to describe, because it usually hides the way it works to avoid people using this knowledge to bypass it and for even more obvious reasons, people fighting against it have to hide themselves and the way they work. On the other hand, we do not really need to know every detail but the effects of censorship. In the same way as we do not really know how YouTube censored a video but the fact that the music contained was protected by a copyright make it clear the reason why it was removed.
As a matter of fact, the Internet in China could be seen like a huge Intranet, because since 2003 all communication between Chinternet and Internet have to go through a “Great Firewall” (GFW) that forbids some sites and controls the others. The official name of the GFW is the Golden Shield project (金盾工程or jindun gongcheng) and it is operated by the Ministry of Public Security (Norris, 2009). However, the GFW has no impact on communication on Chinese mainland web servers, where censorship takes place in the same way as anywhere else, each country controlling directly the web sites on its territory. Indeed, before going further we should remind and make clear that censorship exists everywhere in the Internet. In the Western countries it can be for ethical reasons with pedo-pornography or for legal reasons with intellectual property (IP) or even for cultural reasons. The USA are considered one of the less restrictive country in this area thanks to the First Amendment of their Constitution that guaranties freedom of speech, this allows some organizations to host a website there in order to make public ideas that are illegal in most countries, like revisionism. However, there are exceptions to the free speech and everything is not allowed because there are still at least cultural and sometimes legal censorship. For instance all the major news networks agreed with the White House to never broadcast any speech from Osama Bin Laden and some information, like how to build nuclear weapons are classified which means you cannot talk or write about them. The recent rulings around Wikileaks and Snowden also demonstrates clearly that the freedom of speech can reach some limits when a state considers that it may make it at danger and that legal actions are engaged in order to control information, to censor. To make it short, we can consider that in the same way as YouTube controls the uploaded videos do not infringe the IP of anyone, Weibo controls that the messages do not infringe the PRC rules. The first one is maybe less proactive than the latter, but we have no indicator to corroborate this or not. When western sites apply censorship via legal channels, they mainly control IP and some classified information, when the Chinese government censor ideas, it is in order to improve the society harmony… This may have an impact on the political side, however, it has almost no impact on business online.
Big is beautiful
In December 2012 there was 564 million Internet users in China (CNNIC, 2013) with a penetration rate of 42.1%, this number could grow up to 700 million by 2015 (BCG, 2012) and still only 51% penetration. Actually, there are 245 million Internet users in the USA with an 80% penetration rate.
According to http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm Asia accounts for 44,8% of the Internet users with 1,077 billion people connected, out of them 538 million are mainland Chinese. To make it short, China Internet users alone accounts for half of Asia users which in turn accounts for half of the total Internet users.
Figure 1 – Worldwide Internet users
Another thing to consider is that most of these users are accessing the Internet via their mobile phones. By the end of December 2012, China had 422 million mobile phone Internet users and we can now consider that 74,5% of the Internet users are accessing it via their mobile phone.
Specifics of Mandarin
The Chinese language is very unique and in order to better understand the nature of social networks in China we definitely need to open a parenthesis and describe some of its fundamentals. Mandarin or Putonghua (普通话), “common language”, is the official language of the PRC. It is in fact the dialect of Beijing and became the official language of the whole country more than 300 years ago, after the Manchus conquered China in 1644 and settled their capital in Beijing. Out of the many dialects of spoken Chinese, it should be also noted Cantonese (Hong Kong and Guandong province) and Hokkien (Fujian province and Taiwan). As we explained earlier, it is important to notice that these are spoken languages and they all use the same writing. All Chinese dialects are tonal languages, the same word pronounced with different pitches may mean different things. In Mandarin there are four tones and for instance the sound “ma” can mean horse (马), and also mother (妈), swear (骂), wipe (抹) and others. Some sharing the same “horse” root pattern and some not.
Written Mandarin is a non-alphabetic system that instead of codes that indicate sounds is a system of codes that indicate meaning or ideas. Thanks to this, the tremendous leap toward abstraction required by an alphabet did not happen in Mandarin and it is difficult for a westerner to understand the strong consequences this can have on communication. There are two main considerations that are important for our subject, the first one is the compact characteristic of the language and the second is the high frequency of homophones.
Because they represent ideas, Chinese characters carry several different meaning with them, they are often combined in pairs to focus on a specific meaning and make up a word but it is still a very compact language if you consider that words are made of two letters. Then, the typical Twitter like 140 characters limit for messages as to be translated as a 70 words limit, like this very paragraph.
The second important factor is the high frequency of homophones in sinograms, thus it is possible to write different words that have the same pronunciation, or almost the same with only tone differences. This allows to replace in an online discussion a sensitive word like “harmonization”, the official word for censorship, by “river crab”. Both share the same Pinyin “Hexie” when we forget about the tone, have the same pronunciation but the first one is written 和谐, the second one is 河蟹.
Because of censorship, many Chinese people are quite distrustful of the official media and they are looking for alternatives to have unbiased information. For this reason, they have a lot of expectations from social platforms where anyone can engage in any conversation and also because the personal connections are something very important in China. This is called guanxi (关系), this word is made up of two characters that mean litteraly « close relationships », but really they represent what we call in western country the « network » or « social network ». Like in the west, this concept existed long before Web 2.0 platforms, but with much more weight and for instance the exchange of business cards is very important because every one keeps precisely track of who they met and where. In such a big country people tend to prefer to work, to discuss, with other people they have already met than with strangers, as expected. Then, it was very easy for the social network platforms to explain their concepts and the added value of keeping track of long distance relationships via the Web.
The most popular social network in China is now Sina Weibo, usually named shortly Weibo (http://www.weibo.com) without the brand name. It was started in June 2009 after the government blocked Twitter and partly because of this, mainly because it uses messages of 140 characters, it is presented like a copycat of Twitter. But it is more than that, it also allows posting pictures and videos but the main difference comes from the language itself, as we just developed in the previous part we have to remember that 140 Chinese characters have to be considered as a minimum of 70 words and usually more. Thus, if a Tweet is a sentence, a Weibo is a paragraph. It is also very popular, like Facebook in western countries, then it is sometimes presented by the western media as a mix between Twitter and Facebook. In fact it is still something different, and the best way to understand what is Weibo is to consider it is a blogging platform, something every Chinese know because the “bo” in Weibo stands for “blog”. In fact, the translation for Weibo (微博) is “micro-blog”, a blog of short messages. Thus, the western equivalent of Weibo is maybe Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com). There are more than 500 million active users on this platform, 99,9% communicating in the same written language, Mandarin Chinese and this is really the place for huge numbers. The most popular account is the one of an actress, Yao Chen or姚晨, followed by more than 52 million people. Her Weibo can be found with the standard Weibo numeric address http://weibo.com/1266321801 or a more personalized one with her name http://weibo.com/yaochen. Not only local celebrities are present on Weibo, several international celebrities and brands have understood they have to develop a channel to communicate with their audience overseas. Louis Vuitton for instance is present on Weibo since 2010, later followed Chanel, Coach, Hugo Boss, Reebok and many others.
In this changing environment, some can be tempted to go too fast and another example is the presence of Robert Downey Jr., interpreting the iconic Iron Man on screen, on Weibo (http://www.weibo.com/RobertDowneyJrCN) with 182,000 fans (or followers) and some 30 updates. When looking closely at “his” messages, it is very easy to identify that they all come from Fanstang (http://www.fanstang.com), an Hollywood web-marketing company that helps Western celebrities reach Chinese fans and consumers via their proprietary platform, bridging the gap with Chinese social websites. Robert Downey Jr. is also present but not active on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RobertDowneyJr), with 12,000 followers but no tweet at all. Then, it is easy to realize that this is not social networking but communication strategy and if we compare the figures to the one from people that are really behind their accounts, it is clear that Chinese or Westerners are behaving in the same way, they like to interact with the celebrities, not with the community managers hired by a communication company.
The Weibo social network is a very dynamic one and almost every company in China has a “Weibo”, from Fashion brands that are using the network very intensively to attract more customers via promotions online to grocery online shops that advise their customers of a delivery via instant messaging.
In fact, this is not new because Weibo is far from being the only or the first one. The ancestor and the first big Chinese social network was an instant messaging one, QQ which evolved into an impressive aggregation of online services, all arranged under the Qzone label. Because it benefits from the anteriority of the QQ instant messaging service, it can display more than 600 million registered users, most of them connected via their phones but the blogging service (Tencent Weibo, http://t.qq.com) is may be not active as the Weibo one.
The last important player in the Chinese social network arena is RenRen (http://ww.renren.com). It is really similar to Facebook, at least for the design and has similar functionalities, plus some others. It is very popular among the University students, but again, not widespread in the general population like Weibo.
There are also many other social networks trying to address specific audience like Ushi, (http://www.ushi.com) that targets the professionals like LinkedIn does in western countries.
This list could not be considered complete without mentioning WeChat or Weixin. It is mainly an instant messaging service and it is only available on mobile devices, phones or tablets. But it provides as well a blog like the usual social networks and other functions in order to facilitate meeting new friends, it is for instance possible thanks to geolocalization to get a list of the WeChat users around and there are even more adventurous possibilities like “message in the bottle” where any user can drop a message “in the sea” and any other user can collect it. WeChat is actually a huge phenomenon in China because it allows live chat, voice chat and even video calls. All of these are virtually free because they go through the Internet and it tends to replace the basic text SMS systems. China has the world largest mobile phone population with more than 1,150 billion active accounts and about 300 million 3G accounts in march 2013 (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/26/china-mobilesubscribers-idUSL3N0CC0WK20130426).
This list is far from showing a complete list of all the social network platforms available in China, but outside of the web sites we have mentioned above, the other platforms have only a tiny impact compared to the several hundred of thousand users having regular conversations on Sina Weibo or WeChat. However, an important thing to mention is that there are a lot of BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) in use in China, they are very similar to the portals that where famous in the western world before the Web 2.0 technology added interactivity to the user’s experience. These BBS in China as well are not Web 2.0 platforms and thus lacking interactivity, but they allow users to post messages in several thousand of forum and are also a great media for information. China’s most famous online forum in the beginning was “Shuimu Tsinghua” or水木清华 (SMTH BBS, at http://smth.org) which was set up in 1995 at Tsinghua University, it was closed to the outside world in 2005, and reopened partially in 2006, however with tight control over the users. It was followed by the creation of several other forums, the most famous being “Xi Ci Hu Tong” (西祠胡同) at http://www.xici.net, Tianya Forum (天涯社区) at http://www.tianya.cn, the Strong Nation Forum (强国论坛) at http://bbs1.people.com.cn and “KDnet” (凯迪网络) at http://www.kdnet.net. These community forums have attracted a massive audience and developed rapidly, even after the rise of web 2.0 social networks, which usually have also a BBS system as well (http://163.com, http://sina.com, http://qq.com, http://sohu.com). Because this phenomenon does not exist in western countries where BBS have almost disappeared, we tend to ignore it but it should not be sensible to mention online communities in China without mentioning the BBS platforms.
To summarize, on the technical side, we have to note that even if most of these platforms may have started being considered as copycats of similar western social networks, however now all of them have many more functionalities than their western equivalents.
On the content side, the Chinese social platforms are also very specific because of the size of the online communities, any small rumor can become viral in minutes. This was also a way to react to censorship until recently, because people there needed to react faster than the censors. There is a point of no return after which a message cannot be erased without getting more attention than if it is ignored. This is known as the Streisand effect, called after the name of Barbra Streisand, the American actress whose attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently generated further publicity. However, the government was concerned that rumors can spread so easily and hidden behind the goal of protecting individuals from defamation there introduce a new law in September 2013 where people will be charged with defamation if online rumors they create are visited by 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times. As a consequence, several influential bloggers have reviewed their account, discarded old messages and soften their messages but this law may not have much impact on the average user, which has limited impact and may still feel hidden by the crowd.
As a conclusion we will review the important points concerning social networks in China. At the moment, Sina Weibo is the most popular overall, used as well by businesses and individuals. Its challenger is Weixin/WeChat, accessed by millions of mobile users sending billions of messages. Censorship is performed by the websites to apply the laws from the central government and may employ a lot of energy because of the size of the networks and the complexity of the language full of possibilities to hide messages. This has almost no impact on business but obviously a lot of impact on political conversations.
BCG (2012), China’s Digital Generation 3.0, The online Empire, Boston Consulting Group, http://www.bcg.com.cn/en/files/publications/reports_pdf/BCG_China_Digital_Generations_3.0_ENG_Apr_2012.pdf
CNNIC (2013), Statistical Report on Development in China, China Internet Network Information Center, http://www1.cnnic.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/201302/P0201302 21391269963814.pdf
“First Amendment”. Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute. http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment
Norris, Pippa; World Bank Staff (2009). Public Sentinel: News Media and Governance Reform. World Bank Publications. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-8213-8200-4.