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Free Weibo – Celebrating the Freedom of Weibo

Fighting for freedom of speech in the censored world of Weibo – that is the mission of Free Weibo, a platform that uncovers all the search terms blocked on Sina Weibo.

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Fighting for freedom of speech in the censored world of Weibo – that is the mission of Free Weibo, a platform that uncovers all the search terms blocked on Sina Weibo.

Several countries around Europe celebrate freedom this month, as it has been exactly seventy years since the end of WWII. With the commemoration of war in the past and recurring terrorist attacks in the present, press freedom and freedom of speech have become the focus of debate, with   some arguing that “you’re either for free speech or for censorship”. Over 50 organisations called on governments this month to protect freedom of expression on World Press Freedom Day.

On the other side of the scale, there is North Korea and, a little closer to the West, China. Although modern-day China allows considerable freedom of speech, censorship remains tight. China’s social media platforms, such as Sina Weibo or Tencent’s Weixin, have given Chinese netizens more freedom and opportunities to express their opinion on various topics. Nevertheless, online censorship is more alive than ever. Approximately 12% of all ‘weibos’ (‘micro-blogs’ or ‘tweets’) are filtered by online censors, and China’s 642-something-million Internet users are posting less because of it.

 

“The centralized control of information is scary.”

 

Combating the Great Firewall of China, Free Weibo was launched in 2012. Free Weibo is a search engine that allows users to look for search topics that are blocked on Sina Weibo. It gathers data both directly from Sina Weibo and from WeiboScope, a project by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. “I think the centralized control of information is scary,” one of the anonymous cyberactivists of Free Weibo told TechinAsia in the year it was launched: “The more freedom of speech, the better”. Free Weibo does not only raise awareness for online censorship, it is also a rich source of information for researchers, journalists and curious netizens who want to know more about what is blocked on Weibo. Free Weibo is not the first platform to reveal Weibo’s censored content; Blocked on Weibo also documents what is not found on China’s most important social media site.

Ever since the launch of Weibo in 2009, China’s social media watchers have continuously noted its see-saw play between freedom of expression and censorship. With each new technology, from the more public Weibo to relatively private Weixin, netizens find novel ways to express their thoughts and ideas, and the leadership has to decide whether or not (and how) to counter these new developments. China’s recent ban on wordplay is a telling example. This law, that prohibits internet slang and the playful adaptation of Chinese proverbs, supposedly was implemented to help children learn proper use of language. But adapted Chinese proverbs and slang are also used in all kinds of (online) communication, and putting a ban on them enables authorities to incriminate people on the basis of ‘creative use of language’.

Free Weibo provides an overview of hot blocked content and topics on its homepage. Recent censored topics include Xu Chunhe, the man that was shot to death by a policeman in Northeast China on May 2, or the student protests on Tiananmen in 1989 – its anniversary is coming up on June 6th, a time when online censorship becomes extra tight. Not all topics are politically sensitive; pictures that expose nipples are removed as well – in that perspective, Sina Weibo and Facebook or Instagram have the same rules on nudity, although the latter are arguably even stricter on so-called decency guidelines.

It almost goes without saying that the website Free Weibo has been blocked in China. Even so, the website ensures that censored topics are revealed and read by netizens all over the world. The site was nominated for the RNW Digital Activism Award in 2014.

 

“Who are you to tell me that I should be happy with what I have?”

 

In Cyber-Nationalism in China (2012), Ying Jiang challenges Western media portrayals of censorship in China, arguing that China’s Internet environment and economic growth has created many opportunities, and that “the majority of present-day Chinese people tend to be satisfied with the existing more relaxed, though still limited, freedom of expression” (63). One of the anonymous co-founders of Free Weibo does not agree: “(..) I don’t share your view (..)”, the cyberactivist says: “(..) that Chinese are ‘happy with the status quo’. Who are you or who is anybody else to tell me that I should be happy with what I have? It’s not enough that I can make stupid jokes on social media and not get censored.” Regardless of whether or not millions of Chinese netizens are satisfied with China’s modern online environment and the opportunities/limitations it offers, Free Weibo’s founders are determined to fight for freedom of speech, and celebrate a free Weibo. They still have a long road ahead. As one of the co-founders writes: “When I want to talk about how pollution is killing my kids on my microblog, I get a knock on my door. I don’t think that’s right.”

 

By Manya Koetse & Maaike de Wijs

 

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Digital

Key Players, Digital Trends & Deep Dives: China Internet Report 2021

SCMP just launched its latest China Internet Report. (And What’s on Weibo readers can get a 30% discount on the Pro Edition!)

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As China’s tech sector has been facing an ongoing crackdown by Beijing regulations, a lot has been changing in the country’s digital environment over the past year. The new China Internet Report 2021 by SCMP gives an overview of the latest trends and developments.

When it comes to China’s online landscape, nothing ever stays the same. Over the past year, political, economic, and social developments and measures have once again changed the Chinese digital environment.

Giving a comprehensive overview of the key leaders and major trends dominating the Chinese online field, South China Morning Post (SCMP) issued its fourth annual China Internet Report.

China’s internet population has now risen to 989 million – last year’s report indicated an internet population of 904 million. By now, there are 853 million mobile payment users, which indicates that over 86% of the entire mobile internet population uses mobile as a way to pay.

As China’s internet population is still growing, and new online startups are still popping up every day, there have been tightening regulations on multiple fronts.

As laid out in SCMP’s report, regulations mainly focus on the four areas of antitrust, finance, cybersecurity, and data privacy. Regulatory actions targeting the monopolistic behaviours of China’s biggest internet companies are still ongoing, and the new Data Security Law came into effect on September 1st of this year.

While Chinese tech companies are seeing increased scrutiny at home, they have also been facing intensifying geopolitical tensions between China and other countries. Over the past year, the various probes and shutdowns into Chinese companies by countries such as the US and India have meant a serious blow to the market share of Chinese apps.

Meanwhile, the SCMP report highlights the trend of various older and newer Chinese (e-commerce) apps “downplaying” their Chinese origins when entering foreign markets. Shein is a good example of this development, but other players including Zaful, Urbanic, and Cider are also experiencing more success outside of China while not explicitly marketing themselves as Chinese e-commerce apps.

Another noteworthy trend explained in the new report is how China’s shifting demographics are creating new niche segments to compete over. The COVID-19 crisis is partially a reason why China has seen an increase in senior internet users, with an increasing number of online products and content catering to the elderly.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) even issued special guidelines earlier this year for web pages and mobile apps to carry out so-called “elderly friendliness modifications.” Since this user group is still expected to see significant growth, the “silver economy” is an area that will only become more important in the years to come.

To check out all the main trends for 2021, China’s latest internet statistics, its top tech competitors, internet companies, and more, here’s a link to the free report.

The free report is 55 pages long and gives an overview of China’s latest internet numbers and players, covers the top cross-sector trends for 2021, including the tightening regulations and the bumpy road ahead for China’s tech IPOs.

The Pro Edition of China’s Internet Report 2021, also launched by SCMP, is 138 pages long and provides a deep-dive into ten relevant sectors – featuring insightful and useful analysis, data, and case studies relating to China’s e-commerce market, content & media, gaming, blockchain, fintech, online education, healthtech, smart cars, 5G, and Artificial Intelligence.

The China Internet Report Pro Edition is priced at US$400, but the team at SCMP has kindly reached out and made it possible for us to offer a special 30% discount to What’s on Weibo readers.

You’ll get the discount by using the discount code: WHATSONWEIBO30, or by clicking this link that will automatically include your discount code.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Digital

How Social Media Is Speeding Up Zhengzhou Flooding Rescue Efforts

Chinese social media are speeding up local rescue efforts after Zhengzhou saw the heaviest rain in 1,000 years.

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Social media is utilized as a tool in the response to the floodings in Henan province. Once again, Weibo facilitates active public participation to provide immediate assistance to the people facing this natural disaster. 

On Tuesday, July 20, heavy rainfall caused major disruptions in the central province of Henan. The amount of rain over the last three days in Zhengzhou is reported to be the same as what it would usually receive in an entire year.

It is reported that Henan Province has initiated the highest-level emergency response to floods, and China’s State Flood Control and Drought Relief Bureau has dispatched a workgroup to Henan, initiating level III emergency response rescue work.

Since the evening of July 20, news and information streams on the heavy rains and floods have been dominating Chinese social media. In the midst of the disastrous events, Weibo has become an online space for people seeking help, those disseminating information on available resources, and for other related activities that help netizens engage in emergency management and accessing information.

The volume of such messages is huge, with thousands of netizens seeking ways to help speed up rescue work and actively contribute to the emergency relief efforts.

The organically improvised response protocol on social media includes the following guidelines:

  • Verify, summarize, highlight, and spread online help requests posted by people from different locations
  • Remind people to delete help-seeking posts once they have been rescued or have found assistance.
  • Disseminate relevant knowledge relating to emergency care and response, and public health information, such as how to deal with different disaster scenarios, warning people about the safety of drinking water during floods, etc.
  • Share information regarding mental health and psychosocial support during the different phases of the disaster.

 

When posts of people trapped by the heavy rain started to be published on Weibo, many online influencers, no matter what subject they usually focus on, participated in spreading help-request posts that were not getting a lot of online attention.

Erdi 耳帝, a music influencer with nearly 15 million fans on Weibo, has been retweeting the online posts of people asking for help since the night of July 20.

The social media influencer Erdi has been kept retweeting asking-for-help posts since the night of July 20.

An example of such an online emergency help request (求助贴) is the following post of July 21st, 17:15 local time:

Our entire neighborhood is cut off from water and electricity, the water level is rising to chest level, and we currently have no drinking water at the moment. Need help urgently.

Status: Verified, pending rescue.
Seeking help: Wu M**, phone 13*****27
Number of people to be rescued: five or six thousand
Location: Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, Zhengdong New District, Shangdu / Xuzhuang Street intersection, east courtyard of Shangdu Jiayuan Muzhuang district (we can’t exit the building, there is no water, no electricity, no supplies, and it’s been 24 hours)

Once people who have been trapped by the water are rescued, the user who published the post will delete the original post to make sure other emergency posts are also noticed and disseminated.

Some Weibo users engage in organizing scattered online information in one single post, e.g. posts regarding local electricity leakage, making this information more accessible and easier to understand.

One post that was among the top-shared ones this week, is a picture that includes contact information of rescue teams of both officials and civilians. When realizing that some people were unable to upload the picture due to poor internet connections caused by the heavy rain, an up-to-date and full-text version was quickly shared by netizens.

Some Weibo users listed various methods to get assistance for hearing-impaired and deaf-mute people affected by the floods, advising people to download various apps to help to communicate and translate.

Besides the more general practical advice and emergency action plans shared by Chinese social media users, there are also those who pay attention to the importance of personal hygiene during these times. Some are sending out information about menstrual hygiene needs during floods, reminding women to frequently change sanitary pads and try to keep the genital area clean and dry due to the risk of infection. A hashtag related to menstruation during the flooding momentarily ranked fifth in the top search lists (#河南暴雨 如果你出在经期<).

Information on mental health support is disseminated all across social media.

People also try to provide mental support in other ways. A student orchestra spontaneously performed at the Zhengzhou station, where dozens of passengers were left stranded in the night. The video clips of the performance went viral, with the young musicians playing two widely-known songs, “My People, My Country” (我和我的祖国) and “Ode to the Motherland” (歌唱祖国). Many social media users shared the clips and expressed how the performance moved them to tears.

Some video clips that show how ordinary people save ordinary people amid such a natural disaster have also been widely shared. One video shows citizens of Zhengzhou standing in a line and use a rope to pull people from an underground floor where they were trapped by the water flooded.

In all the aforementioned ways and many more, Weibo has become a public platform for Chinese people to respond to the Henan disaster, efficiently communicate and keep track of help requests, organize and disseminate related information, and provide access to timely knowledge and relevant advice.

With so many online influencers and ordinary netizens voluntarily joining in, the online information flows are quickly circulating, allowing for necessary public communication channels while other resources and communication methods are still overwhelmed or in the making. The last time Weibo was used as an efficient emergency communication tool was during the early days of the COVID19 outbreak in Wuhan.

“Please stand strong, Zhengzhou” and “Hang on, Henan,” many commenters write: “Help is underway!”

Also see our previous article on the situation in Zhengzhou here.

By Wendy Huang

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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