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The State Of Social Media In China

May 05, 14 The State Of Social Media In China

As I am currently on a trip that will take in more than ten countries, I thought I would take a look at how social media varies between some of them. China is a good place to start, because it was the first port of call on my tour when I recently stopped in Shanghai, and it has a very different approach to social media than we may be used to.

The first taste of this difference came when I tried to log into Facebook in my hotel (obviously misplacing my priorities in one of the world’s most historically evocative cities). The WiFi was working perfectly for other sites, but Facebook just wouldn’t load. The screen on my iPhone was white, as if about to go to the site, but things didn’t progress any further. It was at this point I remembered that Facebook and China are not really the best of friends.

I had heard of China blocking or censoring certain sites, in fact I once wrote a redOrbit blog about Wikipedia in China, but I had recently chatted to a friend of a friend who was living in China, and when I asked him if people could use Facebook in China he smiled and replied, “Yeah, of course.”

He must have been referring to the sneaky ways around the system, such as VPN or proxy. Although it was possible that my phone had suddenly decided it didn’t like Facebook, even though it cantered to other sites, it now looked very much as though Facebook was not working in China. And a bit of research confirmed that this was indeed the case, except for a few exceptions such as the plan for the 17 square miles of Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone to be given a pass.

The Chinese government is concerned that to allow its one billion plus people access to Facebook would be to give one billion more people the chance to bang on about missing Game of Thrones. Sorry, I mean the Chinese government is concerned that Facebook is a platform for sharing political ideas, which could lead to protest on a mass scale. Twitter is banned for the same reason, as are YouTube, Word Paress and Vimeo. Perhaps less surprisingly, Wikileaks and Amnesty International are also blocked.

The Facebook ban began in July 2009, following riots in the country’s far western Xinjiang Province between Muslim and Han Chinese communities. Given the role of social media in the ‘Arab Spring’ – the series of revolutions in the Middle East around a year later – it looks like a not unreasonable, if entirely unethical, move.

Lack of access to favorite social media sites in the West may be more of an issue for ex-pats and tourists, and for the companies themselves who would love a slice of the rich Chinese pie (sorry, would like to “expand their global reach” and “connect the world”). Local people are more concerned with the Chinese site Sina Weibo, a microblogging site which was launched just one month after Facebook was banned. It is one of China’s most popular sites and has over 500 million users. Although very similar to Twitter in structure, it is heavily censored, with blocks on links to certain sites as well as many keywords, and manual checking of potentially political messages. Perhaps the closest site to Facebook is the hugely popular Baidu Space, which allows for personalized pages, sharing of photos etc, although again it is subject to heavy censorship.

The conclusion, then, is that social media is alive and well in China to the extent that people can socialize, pose and posture, and check out photos of each other. They can also chat about and share opinions on less weighty subjects such as TV shows, celebrities and sports. They can’t, however, have free and open debate on political and social issues. Although Western social media does, as we all know, contain plenty of non-weighty stuff (I am not snobbishly sneering at that, it is just a statement of fact!), the companies would have to agree to censorship of the political stuff if they were allowed into China, which, one would hope, would be too difficult a compromise for them, even with the lucrative appeal of the Chinese market.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, is currently available on Amazon.com.
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