Chinese internet aficionados saw the popularity of their personal websites rocket after paying tribute to the country’s hottest taboo and now it seems everybody wants a go at blogging…
With the results of the fifth annual ‘Bloggie Awards’ fast approaching, millions of people all over the world are creating their own blogs – most in search of huge readerships to match their efforts.
Back in 2003 some lucky bloggers watched their website hits rocket. The taboo that caused this upsurge was the life and times of a journalist called Muzimei – and any site that mentioned her name attracted enormous interest.
Visitors flocked in their millions to Muzimei’s own site to read about, you’ve guessed it, sex.
And it was lurid sex.
One notorious incident she noted in her online dirty diary was of a backstreet doggy-style encounter with a rock star.
Since sacked from her position as a magazine journalist, the writer has retired to the relative obscurity of penning erotic novels.
Her fame is assured as the original Belle de Jour, the sex writer who has dominated headlines in the British online community.
But if you’re wondering why you have never heard of Muzimei, there’s a simple reason. She’s Chinese.
In addition to exemplifying the changing sexual climate in modern China, the Muzimei phenomenon is also indicative of another trend.
Her explicit diary gained the attention it did because it was published online as a weblog.
Combined with the publicity surrounding Muzimei, the rise of service providers who provide cheap or free software and web space are giving Chinese weblogs (or ‘blogs’) unprecedented popularity.
These software companies enable people to build their own websites regardless of their technical competence.
All you need is a PC and Internet access and, hey presto, you’re your own publisher.
It’s estimated that there are now 300,000 blogs in China.
Not all, of course, are kiss-and-tell columns like Muzimei’s blog.
They cover subjects from politics to pop music, most are simply the personal ramblings and musings of some of China’s 80 million Internet users.
But in a country where freedom of expression is discouraged to say the least, the medium’s growing popularity is worth examining.
One of the new wave of Chinese blogging stars is ‘Topku’; his site has thousands of readers each day.
“Blogging gives us freedom of expression and a tool for instant communication,” he says, “enabling us in the Internet space to search for greater trust and a balanced point of view.”
“The rising number of bloggers is a necessary trend,” says ‘Zheng’, another well-known Chinese blogger who writes about “learning, resources, thoughts, and expression”.
“When the commercial media ‘flipped’ the Muzimei story,” he continues, “the impact it made only amounted to a tiny little wave in a rising tide.”
While perceptions of blogging are still tainted by Muzimei’s sex-and-scandal approach, the medium is slowly proving to have other uses.
“In terms of reporting major news from abroad,” claims Topku, “I (in my blog) am always faster than many Chinese media outlets; many of their reports are often a day later than mine.”
But Zheng has concerns about where the trend is going.
“In terms of politics, the function of blogging as independent media is slowly emerging in China. However its impact is not yet clear. I worry, as soon as a small force of power (impact) comes into shape, it will become the target of regulations and repression.”
This has certainly been the case before.
Last March, the Chinese government first closed down two major local service providers, BlogCN and Blogbus, while various personal sites were purged of political content.
Another provider in the US, Typepad, was blocked altogether and rival hosting company Blogspot has been inaccessible in the Chinese mainland since 2003.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Shanghai have been installing video cameras and software in the city’s Internet cafés to track user’s activities, and there are countless other examples of government action against Internet usage – perhaps timed to coincide with controversial events such as the Taiwan election and reform in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong freelance writer and blogger Yan Sham-Shackleton (aka ‘Glutter’) spent time at official government news agency Xinhua and has an inside perspective.
“Headlining things that censors want to block are June 4th Tiananmen Square related events,” she confirms. “I know… I worked at Xinhua and personally had to block such items from appearing on the site.”
“The government is trying to get more control on cybercafés, forums, and blogs,” says Julien Pain, head of the Internet desk at press freedom organization Reporters Sans Frontiers.
“I believe that China is moving backward in terms of freedom of expression,” he states.
“Filtering blog service providers is a very aggressive measure since it is not selective. However, in a country where at least 61 people are jailed for what they published on the Internet, this is not really surprising.”
Glutter is unnerved by these actions; her own site was one of those blocked under the recent crackdown. “It’s significant in the fact that China will not allow any kind of dissent, no matter how small, to exist,” she explains.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re one person who has no political clout, read by three, any kind of dissent must be shut down… They do this because allowing any free expression might cause people to rebel.”
But others, such as Jeremy Goldkon at Beijing-based media and advertising consultancy Standards, disagree.
“Emperor Qin burnt all the books he could find when he took over in 221BC,” he points out, “and leaders of China have been trying to control information ever since then.”
“The Chinese Communist Party is no exception. They are still committed to controlling the information flow into and around China. Blocking blog-hosting services is a tiny part of that.”
In many ways, says Goldkorn, the Chinese authorities are fighting a losing battle.
“The amount of information available to the ordinary citizen in China in 2004 is unprecedented. The Internet and low-price copying technologies such as DVDs are responsible for this flood of information. Compared to this marvellous information flood, the censors are merely an annoyance.”
The reasons for the blocking of blog hosts and various other media outlets (for example the BBC website) may be even simpler than this, postulates Joseph Bosco, an American journalist, author and visiting Professor of Media at a Beijing university: “They block these networks because they can.”
“I do not believe the government will stop blogging,” he adds. “I do believe they are going to monitor it and trim it back frequently for some years yet.”
Perhaps the shadowy legions of perhaps 40,000 Internet censors are not attempting Canute-like to stop the online tide but merely demonstrating that whatever is out there, they are still in charge.
“The significance of Chinese blogging is more symbolic than actually effective or influential,” continues Bosco.
“However, symbolism in this regard is very important. The fact that there are a reported 300,000 main land Chinese bloggers is powerfully prophetic of what could be.”
And to perceive the Chinese enthusiasm for the Internet as only a political phenomenon, says Zheng, is to misunderstand its wider significance.
“Because of China’s special political environment,” he concedes, “blogging has a political meaning that other countries may not have…”
“However, I would like to see the meaning of blogging from a broader perspective. It allows the media to get away from capitalist control, enabling it to become a sector that is not limited by market rules. Everyone can have a tool, a channel.”
Where it may seem to the outsider looking in that China’s controls on blogging and the Internet are measures of repression, this is not how everybody views matters.
“We should not read it only at a political level,” says Topku, “because to most Chinese people, this has no meaning. Many Chinese citizens are accustomed to a stable and quiet life. They are used to the so called freedom and democracy that is given by the government.”
Topku approaches the subject not as a politico but as a patriot. “I love my country. I also love the freedom and democracy I have,” he asserts.
“When government feels that their governance is being threatened, they will find ways to protect themselves. Every country is the same… Of course the government in China should be more open-minded, [it should] trust its people can make their own judgments and choices but not just control their people.”
“As the economy further develops, education becomes increasingly available and the awareness of democracy and the rule of law deepens in peoples’ minds,” concludes Zheng, “people will have better knowledge of how to become citizens and use legal means to protect their interests. The country’s political environment will become more open. It is only a matter of time.”