Episode 9: Social Media Madness

Each episode is accompanied by a blog post which examines various elements mentioned in the video at a deeper level and draws connections to the world we live in today. The following blog post is by Kiril Bolotnikov, student at New York University Shanghai.

This episode sees Jesse addressing the topic of social media in China. I grew up with a very simple Western perception that China censors social media—which is true, but certainly not the whole story. China has the largest Internet user base in the world: around 641 million people have Internet access in China, and 1.276 billion use cell phones, by far the most in the world. China may have done away with websites such as Facebook and Twitter, but they have their own social media offerings, and they are extremely popular. The so-called “Great Firewall” may be present, but that has not affected participation in social media, especially the widespread use of websites such as QQ, Renren, Weibo, and Wechat.

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What happened to Facebook and Twitter in China?

The censorship of these two sites is heavily intertwined with the western perception of censorship in China, but Facebook and Twitter were actually both allowed in China as recently as 2009. It was only after a series of violent protests broke out in the northwestern city of Urumqi that both sites were shut down in the latter half of 2009 It is presumed by many that the blocking of these sites was a response to their use as a mobilizing tool for organizers of the protests that rocked those Uyghur ethnic protests. One of the Chinese government’s responses to the protests was a complete communications blackout for the entire province of Xinjiang (of which Urumqi is the capital), but certain websites ended up blocked throughout the country, and as the Xinjiang blackout was slowly lifted, it soon became clear that Facebook and Twitter were gone to stay.

These websites thus ended up on the other side of what is known as the “Great Firewall,” a term coined in 1997 when China passed its first Internet censorship legislation. The term speaks as much to the Firewall’s deficiencies as to its successes—after all, the Mongols overcame the real Great Wall in 1208, beginning a dynasty that lasted 160 years.

So what are the Chinese options?

“Oh you can’t get Facebook in China, so do they do social media over there? You don’t have Facebook and Twitter, but you have Weibo and Weixin.”

As we have said, the restrictive nature of China’s “Great Firewall” does not allow for the use of either Facebook or Twitter. There are certain Chinese websites that are as seen as roughly analogous; Renren is essentially the same design as Facebook, though with more requirements for the providing of personal information, which is meant to target the creation of fake accounts. In terms of functionality however, the similarities have drawn more than a few comparisons.

Weibo, also known as Sina Weibo, is another site that is, again, seen as sort of roughly analogous to Twitter. The comparison can be made right down to the 140-character limit—though a lot more can be said in 140 Chinese characters than in the English equivalent. There are more than 100 million posts made on Weibo per day, and the top 100 accounts have a combined number of 485 million followers. Weibo, interestingly, started as a response to the sudden banning of Facebook and Twitter, which Sina saw as a good business opportunity—rightfully so, as they now have more than 500 million users.

Wechat, or weixin in Chinese, is my personal favorite. It’s an easy free messaging app, similar to Whatsapp, but is also so much more. Connect your phone number, and you can order a taxi on it; connect your bank card, and you can buy movie tickets, plane tickets, pay your cell phone bill. I have even bought clothes, and once came close to buying a mini-fridge. (Side note: I have had a couple different Chinese friends tell me it may not be advisable to add your bank card to your Wechat for security reasons). It also includes a function called “Moments” which is something like a Twitter feed, but you can only see Moments of those who have mutually added each other on Wechat; to protect privacy, you can only see if someone else has liked a friend’s post if that someone is also your friend. Living in China as an expat, it is almost guaranteed that every young person you meet will have Wechat, so its convenience is truly boundless. Wechat has 438 million users, 70 million of which are based outside of China.

Even more impressive, perhaps is Tencent’s service QQ. As of January 2015, there are 829 million active accounts. It is another instant messaging service similar to Wechat that is multifunctional, giving its users access to many other services, even online social gaming.

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I hope that you found this post valuable and informative, and that you now have a deeper understanding of the role social media plays in China. Social media, Wechat in particular, I know have been integral parts of the expat experience, and are used nearly universally by Chinese members of my generation.

Please share it with anyone who you think would find it interesting: friends, family, teachers, students! More posts are forthcoming as we dive deeper into the immensity and many complexities of China.

Asia Society and the China Learning Initiatives appreciate your interest in learning more about China. If there are any topics you want to learn more about, feel free to email us at Chinese@asiasociety.org.

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