Michael Anti was a NY Times correspondent in Beijing and was a well-known Chinese blogger until the government shut the blog down. He is now a Niemann Fellow at Harvard. He’s giving a Berkman lunchtime talk. (As always, I’m typing quickly, paraphrasing, and missing stuff. You can hear the entire talk at MediaBerkman.)
Michael speaks informally. What happens when decentralized, open blogging meets the centralized, closed Chinese society? From 2004-2005, most dissenting news of China came through blogs. After that, it comes through chat rooms. Chat rooms started in Chinese in around 1998. Now China has gone back to that — very Web 1.0, Michael says. Email and mailing lists are also important for sharing dissenting news about politics, religion, etc. “We don’t use Web 2.0. Why not?” Web 2.0 is democratizing and decentralizing. But blogs aren’t really decentralized because they need centralized servers, which make them easy for the government to control. It is much harder for the government to find chat rooms and shut them down.
Before the Internet, the media were propaganda. With the Internet, people can do the job of traditional media in providing another voice. Michael finds this a more useful way of thinking about the Internet than considering it to be new media.
Sina.com aggregates Chinese newspapers for free. In 2005, they set up their own blog service. The bloggers are VIPs: journalists, professors, celebrities. Blogging has become very mainstream. Like the HuffingtonPost, it’s invited and not really the voice of the people. Bloggers there are like traditional columnists. The bloggers don’t serve as a check on the media; the media are the bloggers.
Michael was a hotel receptionist. He began writing on the Net about the Net. He got hired in 1999 as a journalist on the basis of that. H Thousands of netizens were hired as journalists. Journalism therefore “has an Internet heart.” Journalists welcomed bloggers during the “golden years” of 2004-2005. After that, bloggers and journalists couldn’t post anything sensitive.
The Chinese blogosphere is about recruiting people into the old media, not about new media.
“The guy who censored my blog… we’re close friends.” They talk frequently. “Sorry I have to close down your blog.” “I understand. How about if this weekend we go kayaking?” It’s his job to shut down blogs, but inside he is very liberal.
If you want to find citizen journalism in China, turn to the geeks. And they have “copycats” of the services on the Web that are easier to censor. (Michael says that gmail is popular and very important to the Chinese. It’s too important to government and business to block it.)
There is a network of elite blogs and there are chat rooms. These are the two faces of the social Internet in China. The dark side is that the government has successfully controlled the Internet. Everything is free to talk about except politics.
He doesn’t see any immediate change. China is becoming Singapore, not the US. He hopes that social networking and chatrooms will eventually steer the country towards freedom.
Q: What percentage of the Chinese people are involved in social movements and social networking?
A: Only the middle class and those committed to social change. That’s why I say “elite networking.”
Q: Is most blogging urban or rural?
A: I think blogging happens only in the cities.
Q: What’s the government doing to try to monitor and control chat rooms?
A: Conservatives like chat rooms, as well as liberals do. (In 2005, the anti-Japanese movement spread via chat rooms.) Anonymity is easy in chat rooms.
Q: (doc) Is Red Flag a knockoff of RedHat?
A: Yes. The government doesn’t trust RedHat. It only uses Red Flag. Microsoft gave much of the Windows source code to the government so the government verify there are no back doors.
Q: (ethanz) What percent of Chinese people do you think are aware of the levels of restriction and censorship, and are inclined to find a way around them?
A:The personal life of Chinese is so free that the first time I came to Europe and America I found it so conservative. In China we have sex before marriage, are more tolerant of homosexuality, we have no conservative party, we have no God, it’s very easy to create new companies. The Chinese government allows the people to have so much freedom about sex and business so they’ll accept the political restrictions. The new generation accepts this exchange. Only very weird people care. At least 95% of people don’t care about censorship. I don’t see any hope to change this. In the US, the Internet is Che Guevara. In China, it’s an harmonic ship.
Q: What do you mean by making China into a “big Singapore”?
A: Happy citizens without any political ideas.
Q: (colin) What’s next?
A: Forget anything centralized. E.g., Twitter won’t work. The elites will get further networked. If the political situation changes, China will become liberal very quickly because the media is already liberal on the inside. And if there’s an organizational collapse, the social networks on the Internet will come to the fore. I’m very confident about the future of China because of the Internet.
Q: (me) If there were anonymous blogging, would more people do it?
A: No, because in China it’s all about the name. If you don’t have a recognized name, who cares what you say? Tom Freidman without that name would be no one.
Q: Pseudonyms that gain traction by getting links, etc.?
A: Sometimes a blogger will break news, but after the media picks it up, the blogger is out of the picture.
Q: (colin) Anything that international companies can do?
A: If Congress banned Google from doing business with China, what would happen to gmail? If Microsoft left China, what about Messenger? For Congress, it’s easy to be black and white. But the Chinese people depend on these tools to communicate about freedom and rights. The real cost is Chinese freedom. (Yahoo is different. It’s “a real bad thing.” It “didn’t do any good to China.”) The Chinese authorities want to embrace the Internet, to be part of the international community, not like North Korea. So we should encourage them to do more with the Internet and to continue to say that the Internet is good. The outside world should encourage as well as blame the Chinese government. The Chinese people don’t like blame and don’t like being told what to do.