Internet & Tech

The online masses

China has the world’s largest internet user base – a quandary for Beijing

Actress Yao Chen now has 20.3 million followers on Sina Weibo

It’s called the worldwide web. But is that really the case in China, where the opportunity to browse online or publish information seems a lot less universal?

The politics of the internet has been a favourite topic in WiC’s first 150 editions, and issue 45 was typical, when we asked if China’s internet experience was likely to evolve into something similar to Europe’s and North America’s.

We weren’t convinced, talking more about a ‘walled garden’ web in which international heavyweights like Google and Facebook are refused their place in the sun.

In contrast, China’s own tech titans do get an opportunity to flower – as long as they obey the rules from the top.

Certainly, Western-style convergence isn’t something that the Chinese authorities want to happen. They see a different path, which includes blocking access to sites like Facebook (WiC90) despite almost weekly rumours that the Menlo Park firm is on the verge of announcing its new “China strategy”.

The rules laid down for search engines also proved too much for Google, which chose to exit its core business on the Chinese mainland two years ago.

At root, this is a question of control. The authorities have been unnerved by instances in which incidents of a political nature have rapidly snowballed into cause célèbre for China’s 500 million internet users. This was a trend first covered in WiC18: the case of 21 year-old Deng Yujiao, a waitress who killed a local government official defending herself against attempted rape. A murder charge that could have led to the death penalty was dropped after a huge outcry online that Deng was the wronged party.

There have been more examples of online fury since – at the rich sons of senior officials who kill bystanders in traffic accidents (and think they can get away with it) through to the bureaucrats wearing watches worth more than their yearly wage (see WiC125).

The response from the top has been to try to keep a firm grip on web content, although more in terms of selected filtering than through a complete clampdown.

For one thing, censorship North Korean-style wouldn’t have allowed for the pick-up in internet user numbers nationally or the surge in time and cash being spent online.

Nor is the central government entirely averse to the web as a whistle-blower, seeing it as a way of keeping some of the worst excesses of local officialdom in check.

As a result, the online community is often a vibrant one, and resents any attempt to curtail its viewing pleasure. Netizens so bristled at the imposition of the Green Dam software filter in the summer of 2009 that planners dumped it, red-faced. Fang Binxing, architect of the country’s Great Firewall, the system of filters and blocks that prevents access to ‘unsuitable’ material, has been another target for rebuke. Last year, a blog Fang was authoring was so deluged with abuse that he was forced to take it offline. Shortly afterwards, searches for him by name had to be blocked too, such was the stir after a demonstrator in Wuhan hurled eggs and shoes at him.

Fang didn’t seem to grasp the irony, warning instead against the “activists abroad” who spend their time “thinking only of how, through their fingertips on a keyboard, they can bring chaos to China by taking advantage of the internet’s effectiveness as a multiplier”.

Enough of politics: what about the web’s commercial horizons in China?

Here the landscape is often one in which the top firms have developed Middle Kingdom copies of overseas successes.

Companies like Tencent, Baidu and Youku have all become household names. But probably top of the tree is e-commerce leviathan the Alibaba Group, the controlling shareholder of Taobao (an online shopping platform for consumers: see WiC94), a PayPal-equivalent called Alipay, and Alibaba.com, a leading business-to-business portal.

Taobao in particular is a beast of a business. According to company data, 120 million visitors came to its sites each day last year, with almost 800 items being purchased online every second.

Led by Jack Ma, Alibaba sought out Yahoo in 2005 as a strategic investor. But its progress has been so rapid that it’s an open secret that Ma now sees the Californian firm as an industry has-been – and wants it out of the picture.

The critics counter that most of these companies are mollycoddled and will never be able to compete internationally. Perhaps that’s true, although another online brand that deserves special mention for its domestic impact is Sina, a news portal that has transformed how China digests its news.

We first mentioned Sina’s new microblog or weibo service in 2010. By early the following year it had become a phenomenon, spawning a massive new online subculture of news, views and gossip (see WiC95).

Initially, we introduced weibo as a “Twitter-like” service but the label seriously undersells its impact, especially its social influence.

From online cranks through to respected commentators with multi-million audiences, this emerging breed of microblogs has pulsed with energy and debate. To get an idea of their ubiquity: a recent survey by ad agency JWT found that 79% of 18 to 26 year-olds look at Sina Weibo at least once a day – ranking it the top social media in China among this key demographic.

Of course, this has meant a new headache for the regulators, as well as a challenge to traditional newspapers and television channels, which have been losing a chunk of their audience to feistier weibo content.

The first sign of these two trends converging came after Wenzhou’s tragic rail crash in July last year. While the traditional media waited for guidance on how to proceed, news of the accident was reaching weibo within minutes. Millions read the accounts from people at the scene and then added comments of their own. How did the smash happen, they asked? Why did rescue workers try to bury some of the train carriages shortly afterwards? And why did they try to call off the search for survivors so quickly, nearly abandoning a 2 year-old girl?

Faced with this new level of scrutiny, the authorities have tried to impose new regulations requiring weibo users to register with their real names (WiC120), although many seem to have ignored them. But the censors haven’t given up: the commenting function on two of the leading platforms was temporarily switched off in April and a new “user contract” is to be launched for all the key weibo providers at the end of this month.

It’s a key story to keep an eye on. Even if China isn’t to become a fully-fledged member of the worldwide web, the politics of its internet will still be fascinating, as its web shifts in shape, scale and style.


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