The secret world of Chinese tweets

Updated on Feb 20, 2011 01:42 AM IST

Michael Anti and this reporter discuss Cairo over coffee in Starbucks in trendy Soho. At the height of revolution in Tahrir Square, the former computer techie — who calls himself anti as in anti-establishment — tweeted 50 times a day to 34,000 followers.

HT Image
HT Image
Hindustan Times | ByReshma Patil, Beijing

Michael Anti and this reporter discuss Cairo over coffee in Starbucks in trendy Soho. At the height of revolution in Tahrir Square, the former computer techie — who calls himself anti as in anti-establishment — tweeted 50 times a day to 34,000 followers.

Our meeting could pass as a scene in a Manhattan cafe. But we’re in Beijing, the political nerve centre of China where you can no longer search for ‘Egypt’ and ‘Cairo’ on a Chinese Twitter-like microblog. Michael’s Chinese name is Zhao Jing and he is among the estimated 200,000 mainland users who outsmart the Great Firewall to talk on Twitter — a website banned in China since June 2009.

“We’re so proud of Egyptians. They’re braver than us. They deserve democracy,’’ said Michael, a political commentator who tweeted that Chinese ‘totalitarianism’ will be ‘toppled’ some day.

Last week, the Chinese who circumvented the firewalls through proxy servers or virtual private network compared Tiananmen Square 22 years ago with Tahrir Square today. They joked about Mu Xiaoping, a pun on ex-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Deng Xiaoping for his crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989. When Mubarak stepped down, the Internet was instantly awash with Chinese posting comments to ‘wake up’.

From studio number 258 in Beijing, China’s best known artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was also busy tweeting to over 65,000 followers. “Democracy and freedom are highest in efficiency, the Internet is her guard, a new country is beginning,’’ Ai wrote in Chinese.

The artist who co-designed Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium wakes up at 7am and starts tweeting, spending eight hours a day online. When censors shutdown his blog, he just starts a new one. Last October, he filled a Tate gallery in London with 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. The Tate called them seeds of freedom. “Each seed is like a tweet,’’ Ai told HT.

The Chinese Internet revolution is not similar to the online dissent that spread in Egypt. On a regular day, the chatter on blocked Twitter in China is about civic activism and bursts of micro, short-lived campaigns to protest against forced detentions, demolitions, environmental irregularities, corruption and instances of abuse of power.

“Egypt is not a direct threat here, it’s just a metaphor,’’ said Anti.

In early 2009, microblogging literally blazed a trail in China to transform social networking into a news medium. Anti was among thousands of Beijingers who gathered to watch a five-star hotel burn through the night in the complex of China Central Television, one of the world’s costliest new media centres. Nearly all Beijingers had seen or heard of the flaming skyscraper before state media and national television belatedly reported it.

“The propaganda machine was burning. For the first time, I used my blackberry to post news,’’ said Anti. “We suddenly understood how to report big events.’’

China has the world’s highest number of 457 million netizens, an online community bigger than the population of the US.

By 2015, India’s Internet users will grow from 81 million to 237 million and the total Internet population of Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia will surpass that of Japan and US combined.

“Chinese Twitter is the most important connection to foreign media and national comrades who share the same values,’’ he said. “A weak link is better than no link.’’

Late last year, Ai’s tweets spurred a few hundred people across provinces — some traveled on trains; some brought along children — to attend a protest ‘party’ at the artist’s new Shanghai studio before it was controversially demolished.

Ai was put under house arrest in Beijing, while students, lawyers, activists and artists partied and ate river crab; served because it sounds like the Mandarin word for ‘harmonise’.

This reach of a small Twitter community explains why the stability-obsessed Communist Party keeps its eye on pro-democracy debate on a Chinese microblog that is heading toward 100 million users this year, already half the size of Twitter users worldwide.

Sina Weibo, a 140-character Chinese microblog service was launched in August 2009 after Beijing banished Twitter. “I saw foreigners use Twitter and hoped that it would start in China. While waiting, I decided to use Sina Weibo,’’ said salesman Hua Yumeng who checks his microblog every two hours to discuss news and ‘hot topics’ like housing prices.

Weibo comments that could upset ‘social stability’ get deleted before tens of millions get to read them. This week, American diplomats in Beijing quoting Hillary Clinton on Internet freedom watched their posts disappear after Chinese users began reposting them. Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu warned the US not to use the Internet as a pretext to interfere in internal affairs of other countries. By evening, even the Xinhua news report on Ma’s statement was walled. A click on the link led to the apology: Sorry this news is deleted.

The secret service and propaganda officials make a ‘negative’ example of the chaotic, inefficient state of Indian democracy and judiciary when they try to convince Chinese dissidents that democracy doesn’t work. Most Chinese activist bloggers have not visited India and have mixed opinions about its model of governance. But they concede that democratic India doesn’t need to tweet a revolution.

"I am fascinated by India," said Ai. "We need India to be strong and prosperous to be an example to the world. Can I become a citizen of India to campaign for democracy?"

Father of China’s Great Firewall

Angry Chinese netizens booted the Father of the Great Firewall out of the blogosphere last December. Fang Binxing, 50, shutdown his new blog after it was hit by 10,000 hate messages within three hours.

The inventor of the system which blocks mainland Internet users from accessing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and countless ‘sensitive’ websites admitted in a media interview that the technology has ‘limitations’. At home, he uses six VPN accounts to test the system and roam the web freely.

Fang began designing the technology in 1998 when China had hardly one million Internet users. He told the Global Times that the ‘dirty abuse’ he receives is his ‘sacrifice’ for the country.

“Fang concedes his Great Firewall doesn’t do a great job of distinguishing between good and evil information,” said the paper. “If a website contains sensitive words, the firewall often simply blocks everything.”

Fang, who is also president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, defends his invention. “It’s like when passengers aren’t allowed to take water aboard an airplane because security gates aren’t good enough to differentiate between water and nitroglycerin.”

The next day, the Firewall blocked attempts to read coverage of his interview in the foreign media.

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