Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Modernized Report about Chinese Blogging

Academic blogging studies of China merge best with real life situations...

[I publish this for the sake of scholarship. I am an undergraduate journalism major. This information certainly does no good sitting idle on my computer.]

Generally, blogging is best covered by bloggers worldwide who are familiar with the technology and language of blogging. Blogging changes constantly, and has loads of inaccuracy associated with it. These two reasons are not good motivations for academics to study blogging perhaps. A good analysis then of blogging, is best done by combining two approaches, as this summary attempts to do.

In a scholarly article associated with the book: China: Caged Media, the author claims bloggers are an annoyance to the 50,000 internet censors in China. An example of this is found in the story of Li Xinde, a rogue blogger who took his laptop and digital camera into the countryside and wrote stories about the people he found. He left the country so fast that nobody in the Chinese government could track him down.

This is perhaps blogging at its best. No printing presses are needed, and no editors with connections to the government can tear apart a real journalistic endeavor.

The problem however, is most people cannot just pack up and leave the country on a whim.

The article then points to more established blogging organizations like Bokee, that allows 2 million of the country’s estimated 5 million bloggers to have a blog webpage. By mid-2005, Bokee became so successful that they had over 200 staff, and some of the new staffers were consultants from major United States corporations like IBM.

The article also claims that Bokee does not allow much freedom. Founder of Bokee, Fang Xingdong, keeps a staff ready 24 hours a day to guard against “sensitive content, including anything critical of the Chinese government.”

Two examples of getting around censoring, according to the article, are found in the “Dog Newspaper” and the “Aggressive Little Snake” blog. These blogs gently conceal what they are doing by blogging about civil rights for canaries, in the Dog Newspaper’s case, rather than human rights. However, some may argue that this forces citizens of China to limit their discussion to trivial topics and then argue for credibility and about serious matters.

Generally, this is all the article has to say about blogging. However, the blogosphere in China is much more complicated and much more involved than this article suggests. Things change fast in a year on the internet.

For example, Ethan Zuckerman, whose popular blog is entitled, “My Heart’s in Accra,” [http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/] wrote about the weblog search engine Technorati which maintains a rankings page that lists the top 100 worldwide weblogs by total hits in that blog’s lifespan. He claimed the top 100 blogs were fairly static. However, three months later, Technorati changed their search algorithm, and that changed the top 100 rapidly. The new algorithm calculates total hits in the last 6 months.[1]

When this happened, some major trends showed up. Of the 20 new blogs that showed up in the top 100, 11 of them were written in Chinese. Tied with Portuguese, this is the best non-English representation in the top 100 list. Some current, but inconclusive studies by US bloggers, are attempting to ping blog hits themselves and find if there really are only 12 blogs in China that deserve being in the worldwide top 100[2]. Pinging a blog hit is essentially the action of tracking where a visitor to a webblog came from, or where a blogger posted. The problem however, is that Bokee blogs are not even showing up on the US side of the internet, and the only ones that are seem to be bokee blogs are ones cleverly linked through MSN Spaces blogs. Thus, these blogs are also not showing up on other websites such as Technorati, and the world blogosphere has trouble understanding what is really going on in China.

A recent study by Baidu, the Chinese search engine equivalent to the the US’s Google, claimed that there are actually 37 million blogs in China set up by 16 million bloggers[3]. This statistic throws the statistic in the article out the window. Research by Analysis International company, found the number of China’s bloggers will be at 33.36 million by the end of Q3 2005 and will literally double from the 14.75 million bloggers in 2004. A projection of 99 million bloggers is expected by Analysis International, by 2008, with an overall growth rate of 65%[4]. Analysis International claims it is the leading Internet based provider of business information about Technology, Media and Telecom industries in China, and claims 10,000 clients worldwide.

One common theme surrounding the blogs in China is censorship. John G. Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, recently testified about Chinese censorship February 15, 2006[5], in front of the House Committee on International Relations. He heads up the OpenNet initiative, a team of researchers conducting empirical testing of China’s internet filtration system.

They concluded that China’s system is “by far, the most sophisticated and extensive in the world.” Their group studied systems by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as well. China’s notorious firewall works differently as well, and on multiple levels of the internet. For example, while Saudi Arabia’s firewall openly blocks a site, deems it inappropriate, and offers a feedback link if one is disgruntled about the blockage. China, however, just makes it appear a site like Google for example, is unresponsive.

Therefore, with these conclusions, Palfrey suggested that it is in the best interest for US companies to enter China’s internet since China is just as capable of filtering internet content themselves. Palfrey claimed that if US companies did not continue entering, Bokee, the large blog provider in China, would simply become stricter and prevent users from saying things the State Security Bureau does not like. Bokee already blocks the publishing of certain words on their weblogs. MSN spaces is seen as the better alternative by some, according to Palfrey and various other blogosphere analysts.

MSN spaces, arguably one of the top 5 bogging providers in China, does not engage in active monitoring of their blogs, and rather have just announced an official policy of taking down blogs only if the government gives a “legally binding notice.” This does not mean MSN ignores government regulations however.

A posting by Zhao Jing on December 29-30, 2005 led the Chinese government to order MSN to remove “Anti’s Blog” according to the Washington Post[6]. The full detail of the post is available online, but the title of one of his posts should be illustrative enough to grasp what the blog was about: “The Beijing News is about to fall into enemy hands. The Guangming Daily wants to completely take control.” Essentially, “Anti’s Blog” wrote about Chinese media and was very controversial. Jing predicted this move and wrote that if the government rejected his blog, Microsoft would “sell me out,” he said. Immediately after Microsoft censored his blog, Zhao posted a message online cursing Microsoft and the young Chinese programmers who censor the internet. A few weeks later, he admitted that MSN Spaces is China’s most lightly censored blog. In a Washington Post article[7], he said, “In this political system, everyone has to compromise. It’s not black and white. Many of the people who delete my essays are also my friends.”

The Washington Post article is perhaps one of the best, personal examinations into the world of blogging in China by a US journalistic organization. It is NOT black and white after all. It appears that many in China are resentful at Microsoft for coming into their country, as one Chinese college student claimed in an essay to Zhao, urging him to use a Chinese blogging host. Xingdong, head of Bokee, also complains about MSN censorship; however his site actively blocks weblogs that may not appeal to the government before the government even looks at the webblogs. Isaac Mao, co-founder of one of China’s first blogging firms, suggested a boycott of Microsoft. This is all contrary to what appears to be the other millions of Chinese internet users like Zhao, who like Microsoft because more slack is provided.

Microsoft recently offered Zhao a copy of all his deleted posts on a CD, but would only send the CD to him if they could use an address outside of China. Therefore, it seems that to avoid the brunt of Chinese blogging censorship – one must leave China. It would only seem this way though.

New strategies are now emerging to break the grip China has over expression. One example is called bridge-blogging. Bridge-blogging is essentially posting a blog outside of China in a Chinese language and making it accessible to Chinese people as well as United States visitors. Bridge-bloggers often distribute web addresses and ways of getting to their pages through printed instructions – given to Chinese citizens.

Another possible way of breaking Chinese censorship is simply to use an “information broker” or a program such as Freegate, in order to break into the world beyond. Freegate lets people access sites beyond the firewall of China, and also changes it’s address constantly so China cannot block it or tract the user’s IP. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, pay the founder of Freegate money to send out emails featuring links to their stories. Kenneth Berman, manager of the anticensorship office of the International Broadcasting Bureau to which Voice of America and Radio Free Asia belong, says the bureau pays about 5 million a year to combat internet censorship abroad[8]. Many people, such as Palfrey, believe information brokers were becoming very popular in China. The main problem with these forms though, is that one is essentially taking “a red pill,” and cannot communicate easily to others in the country who are still not plugged into the rest of the world. Bill Xia, a Chinese hacker in North Carolina and founder of Freegate, likes the Matrix analogy, and says the digital bad guy in sunglasses (referring to Mr. Smith from the movie) “guards the internet like China’s Public Security Bureau guards the internet.[9]

Bridge-blogging seems to be the best way of blogging, and information brokers are the best way of receiving information from the world in which to blog about perhaps. Susan Stevens, a Las Vegas graphic designer, belongs to an “adopt a blog” program[10]. She has adopted a Chinese blogger by using her own server in the U.S. to broadcast the blogger’s work. She said, “this is where technology excels. We don’t have to have anything in common. We barely have to speak the same language.”

In conclusion, unless directed to better academic examinations of blogging – it appears that blogging has been best explained by the popular press and other bloggers who best understand the information. It also appears that private companies are taking the initiative to investigate the matter due to speculation. A few non-profits relating to press freedom and information flow are also popping up with legitimate handles on the topic. This is not to say that academic study does not exist, but for this topic, it appears that best understanding the reality of the Chinese blogosphere needs the attention of all sorts of people from across the globe, in multiple professions. The intention of this article was to examine the Chinese blogosphere and also show how other bloggers and alternative sources of information may best work with traditional academic understanding of such a new concept as blogging is.

[1] http://www.technorati.com/weblog/2005/09/50.html

[2] http://datamining.typepad.com/data_mining/2005/07/24_hours_of_blo_1.html

[3] http://www.cwrblog.net/40/some-blogosphere-statistics.html

[4] http://english.analysys.com.cn

[5] http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/jpalfrey.html

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/20/AR2006022001304.html

[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/18/AR2006021801389.html

[8] Fowler, Geoffry., Chinese Internet Censors face ‘hacktivists’ in U.S. Wall Street Journal February 14, 2006.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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