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China’s Great Firewall No Barrier to Ugly Online Battles Over Hong Kong Protests

Sarah Zheng  reports: Hong Kong’s summer of protests looks very different from inside and outside the Great Firewall that encircles the internet in mainland China.

On Monday morning, the top trending topic on Weibo, China’s highly regulated version of Twitter, featured a Shanghai tourist who was “harassed and beaten” during a massive pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on Sunday evening. It racked up 520 million views. A prominent video on the topic from Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily showed the man, surnamed Ma, telling reporters about protesters accosting and accusing him of photographing their faces, under the tagline: “Is this the ‘safety’ that rioters are talking about?”

But in Hong Kong, where there is unfettered access to the internet, the focus was on the peaceful Sunday demonstrations, which organisers said drew 1.7 million people despite heavy rain. On LIHKG, the online forum where Hong Kong protesters discuss and organise their action, one hot topic celebrated Weibo posts on Ma that mentioned a taboo – Beijing’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The topic cheered the “first time China’s Weibo allowed public discussion of June 4th”, referencing posts about Photoshopped images of Ma in a shirt calling for justice over the crackdown.

An estimated 1.7 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday. Photo: Robert Ng
An estimated 1.7 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday. Photo: Robert Ng

Since the protests began in Hong Kong in early June, triggered by a now-shelved extradition bill, there has been a clear dichotomy between how the movement has been portrayed online, inside and outside China. Read the rest of this entry »

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When Beijing’s Online Propaganda Goes Awry

Engagement between government-affiliated Weibo accounts and ordinary users can sometimes produce messy results, writes expert contributor Yiyi Lu.

Yiyi Lu writes: Nowadays, China’s social media users are increasingly polarized in their ideological orientations. But several recent cases suggest that the engagement between government-affiliated Weibo accounts and ordinary users can sometimes produce messy results rather than straight propaganda victories for the state.

“When leftist and rightist social media users clash on Weibo, China’s main microblogging platform, one would expect that accounts maintained by state organs and individual cadres would lend their support to leftist users. This has indeed happened in reality, but the reality is also far more complex.”

China’s social media users are generally divided between leftists and rightists. The leftists are typically people who combine an emphasis on domestic political stability, sovereignty and national dignity with a strong belief in the leadership of the Communist Party. The rightists, meanwhile, tend to be liberals who favor democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism.

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“Often, the leftists call the rightists ‘running dogs of the Americans’ or the ‘Leading-the-Way Party’—suggesting that if China and the US were to go to war, the rightists would betray their country by helping the American army find its targets.”

Often, the leftists call the rightists “running dogs of the Americans” or the “Leading-the-Way Party”—suggesting that if China and the US were to go to war, the rightists would betray their country by helping the American army find its targets. Rightists tend to deride the leftists as members of the “Fifty-Cent Party”—implying that they are paid to post pro-government comments online—or “patriotraitors,” self-proclaimed patriots whose extreme nationalism actually harms China’s national interests.

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“Rightists tend to deride the leftists as members of the ‘Fifty-Cent Party’—implying that they are paid to post pro-government comments online—or “patriotraitors,” self-proclaimed patriots whose extreme nationalism actually harms China’s national interests.”

When leftist and rightist social media users clash on Weibo, China’s main microblogging platform, one would expect that accounts maintained by state organs and individual cadres would lend their support to leftist users. This has indeed happened in reality, but the reality is also far more complex.

[Read the full text here, at WSJ]

It is impossible to tell how many Chinese state organs and individual government employees are currently active on Weibo, as they may open accounts anonymously. Weibo offers users the option of maintaining a certified account once their identity is verified by the microblogging service. By the end of 2014, 94,164 state organs and 35,939 state employees had opened certified Weibo accounts. These accounts are referred to hereafter as “government-affiliated Weibo.”
Read the rest of this entry »


CRACKDOWN: China’s Censors Scramble to Contain Online Fallout After Tianjin Blast

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Censorship rates on Weibo up tenfold after the Tianjin blast 

Eva DouEva-Dou reports: The Tianjin warehouse explosion has horrified and gripped China’s netizens, with the topic racking up more views on social network Weibo than the country’s total population of nearly 1.4 billion.

It’s also sent the country’s Internet censors scrambling to make sure online discussion stays within approved confines.

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Censorship rates on Weibo were up tenfold after the Tianjin blast compared to earlier in the month, said King-wa Fu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school who built censorship tracker Weiboscope.

Censorship of traditional and social media is common in China after disasters and has actually been looser this time than in some other recent tragedies. Whereas China’s local newspapers turned into clones after the capsizing of a ship on the Yangtze River in June, Chinese media reports on the explosion in Tianjin’s Tanggu district have been more varied. Discussion of the topic has also been widespread on social media.

[Read more here, at China Real Time Report – WSJ]

But some online comments go too far, such as those that criticize the government’s response or discuss the chemicals inside the warehouse, which officials say they have not yet been able to identify. Those types of postings have been scrubbed, according to Weiboscope and another censorship-tracking site, Free Weibo. Read the rest of this entry »


Is this the Most Powerful Woman in China?

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“She has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse.”

Interview with Actress Yao Chen

The Telegraph‘s Sarah Keenlyside: “Is it like having a superpower?” I ask the actress Yao Chen as she raises her coffee cup to her lips. She breaks into a broad smile as her translator explains my meaning. “I’m getting more mature,” she says, avoiding the question. “These days I am much more careful and cautious.”

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Yao Chen in Syria with UNHCR

China’s Answer to Angelina Jolie

“Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers.”

One could add the word “modest” to that list, because Yao, self-effacing as she is, has more followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) than the population of Britain. That’s 71 million, in case you were wondering. And when five per cent of the population of one of the world’s most powerful (not to mention politically sensitive) countries is hanging on your every word, you have a lot of influence, no matter how cautious you are.

“When I was younger a family member shared the gospel with me. And over the course of that summer I read the Bible and it just answered all of the questions I had about life, so very soon after I was baptised.”

In fact, so great is that influence, she has the ability to change the course of people’s lives with a click of her mouse. Stories abound of children’s operations that were paid for by donations from her Weibo followers, of old ladies who put their entire savings into causes she supports – even of a condemned man who was suddenly hailed as a hero because of her impassioned online defence of his character (he was a friend of her father’s).

How did a nice middle-class actress conquer Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, and turn herself into one of the most influential figures in the world?

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A still from Color Me Love (2010)

So how did a 34-year-old from a small coastal city in south-east China rise from obscurity to become one of Time magazine’s 100 most powerful people on the planet? (Forbes ranked her 83rd among the world’s most influential women.) And, more to the point, why have we never heard of her?

Let’s start with the second question. Unlike her compatriots Gong Li, Jackie Chan and Fan Bing Bing, Yao has never made a Hollywood film and speaks almost no English. Read the rest of this entry »


How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter

Pictures that an Internet poster on China's Weibo microblogging site went viral when it was suggested they were of officials in Lujiang County.

ProPublica has launched an interactive feature of tens of thousands of images that have been censored from Weibo, in an effort to show what topics are likely to be targeted:

How  censors its users is as revealing as the content that appears on the site, and for the past five months, we’ve been watching the watchers. We’ve created an interactive feature, launching today, that allows readers to see and understand the images that censors considered too sensitive for Chinese eyes.

[…] For five months, our software has been quietly checking 100 Weibo accounts, keeping track of every post containing an image and returning repeatedly to see if those posts were deleted. Our collection has grown to nearly 80,000 posts, of which at least 4,200 — more than 5 percent — were deleted by censors.

Read the rest of this entry »


Red Hot Communist Party Sex Party

Pictures that an Internet poster on China's Weibo microblogging site went viral when it was suggested they were of officials in Lujiang County.

Pictures that an Internet poster on China’s Weibo microblogging site went viral when it was suggested they were of officials in Lujiang County.

Racy online photos of Chinese sex party go viral over speculation that Communist Party officials were involved

In August, 2012, China was buzzing over a trove of raunchy photos showing six people engaged in an orgy – some of whom are rumored to be high-ranking Communist Party officials, Meena Hart Duerson reported, for the New York Daily News. Whatever became of this social media scandal? Let’s revisit:

orgy17n-2-webThe series of 181 often graphic photos went viral last week on China’s microblogging site Sina Weibo and have now traveled around the world. [PHOTOS] In the images, which were reportedly taken around 2008, six men and women can be seen performing group sex acts as well as posing for strangely formal portrait-style photos together.

Those involved make no effort to hide their faces, smiling in group shots, including one where one of the men can be seen grabbing the breasts of the woman in front of him.

Read the rest of this entry »