SHUTING LI WRITES – China is globally known for its uber-firewall and the aggressive censorship of social media.
Since 2009, following the Urumqi riots, almost all non-Chinese search engines, microblogs and social media sites that people use elsewhere in the world have been gradually blocked in China. That includes services provided by Google, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and even the storage site Dropbox.
Looks like it’s time to welcome Instagram to the block party. As the world’s eyes turn to Beijing to see how it will handle pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, mainland Chinese users have lost the ability to share pictures on Instagram or load any of its newsfeeds.
If we needed a reminder, this is it. The Communist Party’s policy of Internet censorship is so extreme that hopes for a free media in China any time soon are delusional.
Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of social media users, or at least the appearance of users.
China’s biggest social networking site, Sina Weibo, has an active user base of 280.8 million current members. That’s off about nine percent, at least in part due to heavy regulation and Internet censorship, but it still beats Twitters’s 271 million active monthly users.
Weibo has a feature called “hashtag instant hottest topics,” however both “Instagram” and “Hongkong” joined the long list of terms that are currently blocked on the microblog’s keyword discussion feature. Fifty-seven percent of Weibo timelines are empty, according to a survey of 30,000 users by Professor Fu King-wa at the Journalism and Media Studies School of the University of Hong Kong. This means that more than a half of Weibo users are zombies — not active at all.
Just 5 percent of Weibo users write original posts, while other people merely re-post from them, according to such studies. In Weibo, the more reposts a Weibo got, the more value it generates. But as a user you also need to be mighty mindful of what you’re writing: A new law puts people at risk of up to three years in jail if they opine on a sensitive topic and their writing attracts more than 5,000 clicks or is forwarded or retweeted more than 500 times.
Tencent WeChat provides a more intimate social media experience, in which you can select which of your friends can view your content via “moments” (as opposed to letting the whole world in, a la Weibo.) Currently, WeChat has a user base of about 272 million monthly active users. Even though WeChat seems to promote a more user-friendly atmosphere, due to the current Hong Kong Revolution period, Wechat users who have linked their account to a Hong Kong area code simcard have been unable to show any of their pictures to users who link their accounts to a mainland China cell-phone number. The photos with the sensitive keywords are uploaded successfully, but in a classic case of shadow- banning, the user is the only one who can view the content.
Due to all these heavy punishments and internet censorship constraints, cyber activists wanting to escape content blocks by Sina Weiboan have started the alternative “Free Weibo.” Firechat, an application that you can download on your smart phone by using a mesh network lets people within relatively close proximity message each other without censorship. So far the app has been downloaded 10 million times, especially by Hong Kong protesters trying to stay connected during demonstrations.
An interesting and recent new twist: China has delayed entrance of the iPhone 6 into the Chinese market, as the Apple IOS system cannot be easily managed or blocked by China’s super firewall, making it just about the only way to access, for example, GMail accounts, short of using VPN to tunnel in.
At the end of the day, I am a Chinese citizen who wants to express my passion for my country’s continuing growth and development in a world that is continuously connected through globalization. It is because I love my country that I want them to realize this.