When Google launched its web search engine in China, and admitted having to censor search results, we made a big stink about it here in the U.S. And when Microsoft admitted to censoring its MSN Spaces blogs in China, we made a big stink about it. And when any American technology company was found to have collaborated with the Chinese government in censoring the Internet, we made a big stink.
Freedom of speech online is an important ideal, but perhaps we are inserting our own Western societal norms on an Eastern culture that has different needs and desires. And perhaps we aren’t giving enough credit to the Netizens of China to figure out how to get around the censorship of the vaunted Great Firewall of China, the state’s centralized control of Internet content.
That’s the thinking of Marcus Xiang (pictured above), the CEO of PDX.cn, a cell-phone blogging (or “moblogging”) service based in Beijing. I met Xiang at the We Media Forum in London, where he spoke on the Asia-focused panel about how people in China use blogs.
During the panel, one person in the online chat room criticized the Western media for focusing too much on Internet censorship in China, because so many Chinese people can easily get around censorship in numerous ways. For example, people on blogs can use code words for words that are banned online, or think of creative ways to describe banned topics. Plus, technically savvy folks can find ways to visit blocked sites on servers located outside of China, or they can find banned information on lesser known websites.
After the panel, I had a chance to interview Xiang to discuss his thoughts on the subject of censorship. He also talked about the obstacles to widespread moblogging in China, where more people have cell phones than have Net access — but don’t have third-generation (3G) mobile services for speedy uploading of photos and video content. The government is expected to issue 3G mobile licenses by the end of the year.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Mark Glaser: Tell me more about the blogging market within China.
Marcus Xiang: We have a different conception of what blogging is, because of the restrictions on blogging, and because we realize how blogging can play out in this area. There are many companies looking to develop this in other ways. If you look at the example of what BBS [bulletin board services] have done in China, we have thousands of BBS in China, and people are talking about different things and different issues and different interest groups. It’s like gatherings around the web.
Now companies who are doing blogging, it’s the same thing. Companies and organizations have a lot of non-profit blogging sites as well. It’s not all about making money. They want to have a place to gather around and have their story told.
Glaser: From the outside, we always look at what’s happening in China and say there’s censorship in what they’re saying. But people know how to get around censored words, using code words or slang, and there’s no way to block every type of forbidden communication.
Xiang: There’s no way to do that. Some issues are so covered by mainstream media outlets that it forces coverage inside China. If the BBC goes in and does a story about something happening, it damages the government’s reputation.
Glaser: So it does have an effect when an outside media outlet writes about China.
Xiang: Of course, because the politicizing of everything doesn’t do any good to businesses in China who are working on blogging in China. There are political blogs in China that are talking about corruption, that are talking about politics in China.
Glaser: And those get blocked?
Xiang: No, they are open. They’re not blocked. As long as people are being constructive and they’re telling real stories. I think this is a great tool — blogging — so how are you going to use it? That’s the question.
When we look at foreign media, we feel like there’s some kind of conspiracy, because they want to change China from the outside, and they have this Western idea of what democracy is.
Glaser: So people feel like you should be able to work out your own problems?
Xiang: Yes, we’ll work things out. We have had problems like in China when SARS came, the problem of not reporting it. Now we don’t have that [problem with cover-ups], because government changed the regulations and they want officials to be right on it, like when SARS happens. We have a lot of things happening in a positive direction and that happens over time. You don’t get things done overnight. It takes time. Chinese people have patience, but foreign media people don’t. It’s something that Chinese people don’t understand. We are working on other issues in China, we know [censorship is] a problem, of course, we are conscious of so many problems. And we work on them one by one, with different priorities.
Glaser: Tell me more about your company.
Xiang: We provide a platform to let people have different conversations, with a mobile blogging platform and weblogging. It’s a way for people to tell stories and share stories, and they become friends. It has a social networking aspect.
We have more people doing mobile chat than blogging still, because [mobile data costs are] more expensive than talking. We have less than 100,000 mobile blogging. We do have 2 million mobile users who’ve come to browse and check messages and comments. We have a web interface, but we are mobile-centric, so we’re a little bit different than other [blogging] programs.
Glaser: Why do you think it’s slow to catch on, mobile-blogging?
Xiang: We provide the platform that enables multimedia, a combination of images, text, audio and video. For moblogging in China there are many problems. The cost is one issue, the connection speed is still slow. You have broadband for the web, but it still has a way to go on mobile.
Half of Internet connections in China now are broadband. Even in the smaller villages, they have cybercafes with broadband. For mobile, we are waiting for broadband, we don’t have that yet. [Our company is] ahead of that. The other problem is the users have to get used to it, they have to learn it. It’s an educational process. They have to know it.
Glaser: Is the technology a problem or are they not used to photographing their lives?
Xiang: They’re not used to this way of expressing themselves. They’re used to sending an image to their friends, but now they’re sending it to a community where thousands, or tens of thousands or millions of people are looking at it. It takes time for people to get used to the feedback. They have to prepare themselves for that type of conversation. In the community, we have a lot of these conversations going on.
Glaser: Do people use the service to capture and share newsworthy events they see?
Xiang: We have very few newsworthy posts, but sometimes it happens accidentally when they are [at the scene of news]. Blogging we see as a media for the few. If you compare the number of blogs for conversation and the number of blogs for journalism and newsworthy ones, there is no comparison. Blogging is more for conversation and social interacting than for news. I think that alone will have a big impact on society, and help with the democratic process because they will have had this to express themselves. This is very important.
Just conversing is important, because later on, when the law changes, you’ll be used to it, used to talking about different things. So you should have this user behavior going on. It’s good. I see things very positively being a local person living in China. We see all these positive improvements in our lives. I live in Beijing. We’re doing well economically and culturally.
A lot of things are happening in a positive way, and there will be political reform, just like the government promised. They will do it, but it’s just about the timing. When they’re comfortable they will do it.
Glaser: What kind of political reform do you see happening?
Xiang: I don’t know. But it will happen. Now journalists are blogging, politicians are blogging in China. That should be noted. Like in our Congress, people in Congress are blogging. And artists are blogging, singers are blogging. These get a big audience, they are big media themselves. We have millions of page views for just one blogger, so they are very powerful. And they discuss a lot of social issues as well.
Glaser: And they have a following where they can talk directly to their fans without having to go through the media?
Xiang: That’s right. I think it’s quite positive, because we have such exponential growth of bloggers, and that’s the proof. The government has a pretty positive view of blogging. And they want that transparency…
Glaser: But they also have the Great Firewall and surveillance set up too.
Xiang: For a society like China, we are such a diverse society, we have people who are very rich and very poor, and we are over 1 billion people. And it can be very troubling for the government and for us if there’s some type of instability going on. We are enjoying the stability and the growth, and we hope political reform can come alongside stability. We don’t want change like the Soviet Union, where they had shock therapy and they failed. That doesn’t work very well.