The name “Michael Anti” is known by almost everyone who follows free speech issues. Journalist èµµäº¬, aka “An Ti”, became internationally famous when Microsoft blocked his Chinese-language politics blog hosted on their Spaces service. Before he became well-known as a blogger, Anti worked as a researcher in the Beijing bureau of the New York Times. He was – very briefly – a Chinese correspondent in Baghdad during the Iraq war, but had to leave when the newspaper he worked for was shut down by the government. He’s now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and is studying the question of how blogs and mainstream media have interacted in different countries.
Anti recently returned from Germany, where he served on the jury of the Best of the Blogs, which gave him an opportunity to think about the role of blogs in different societies. He offers two reasons why blogs have social impacts:
– Because you’re having an election, which means that public opinion matters, and blogs become a political mobilization tool
– Because NGOs embrace them and use them to lobby for social change.
Neither of these cases applies in China, he tells us, as there are no elections and no functional NGOs.
He mentions that there are lots of projects trying to monitor China by following internet news – Global Voices, China Media Project, new projects at Hong Kong University. In 2004 and 2005, it made sense to follow blogs to find this “sharp news”. But since 2006, most of the interesting and dissenting news is coming from chat rooms. 2004 and 2005, he tells us, were the “golden years” for the Chinese blogosphere… and they’re over now.
The golden age began with Muzi Mei’s sex diary, where she began detailing her encounters with various men in late 2003, to the shock and tittilation of the general public. It ended, he believes, with the blockage of his blog by Microsoft in late 2005. “The government can control every aspect of speech via keyword censorship, firewalls and self-censorship.”
So the Chinese internet has gone “back to the old years”, and chat rooms have returned to importance. Chatrooms have existed in China since 1998, and they’re popular venues for spreading “sharp news”. (Talking with Anti before his talk, he mentioned that he used to post articles to dozens of chat rooms, switching from one to another quickly, turning a one-to-one medium into a broadcast.) Email is also incredibly important as a space for disseminating political information. Since the introduction of email in China – which Anti says became widespread in 1996 – mailing lists became incredibly important, often used as a space to trade “secret information about politics and religion.” These mailing lists, he points out, connect elites, not the mainstream. “We’re making social change using web 1.0, not using web 2.0.”
Web 2.0 is associated with democratization and decentralization in the US and Europe. These tools make it possible for people to have a voice, and for online voices to become powerful in an offline space. “But this can only happen in democratic countries,” he argues. In China, the problem with these tools is that they’re centralized, living on a single server. Block wordpress.com and you block millions of voices; blog twitter.com and you block the entire service. They’re easy to control via firewalls and government centralized control.
But email and chatrooms aren’t as centralized. There are chatrooms on thousands of servers, and it’s hard for the government to block every chatroom overseas. It’s easy to blog webmail, but people who use POP mail are difficult to block and prevent from talking about sensitive topics. Oddly enough, GMail remains unblocked in China – Anti believes it’s because so many government officials and businessmen use it, and it would be difficult to block it without negative implications for powerful people.
“We don’t need new media theory to explain blogs in China: blogs are old media,” Anti argues. “We had no media before 1996 – we had propoganda.” In propoganda, the party speaks to you – it’s exclusively one-way communication. The internet introduces the idea of bi-directoinal media, and creates media as we understand it for the first time in China in 1996.
“Time Magazine says ‘You are the media’. It’s the opposite in China.” Media has become blogs. Sina.com – a massively important website, because it syndicates content from every newspaper in China – recruited bloggers to create content similar to the Huffington Post. “They’re not really blogs – they’re more like a column.” The rise of bloggy content on Sina brought two new things to the Chinese media world: Hollywood-style celebrity reporting and syndication, the capacity to reach a nationwide audience with a single article.
Anti argues that there are only two places in the world where journalists have become famous bloggers – China and Iran. In most nations, bloggers exist to fact-check and oppose the media. But in China, the most famous bloggers are actually journalists.
The reason for this, Anti speculates, is about human resources. As the Chinese press became marketized and large news corporations emerged, there was a massive shortage of talented journalists. The government has responded by opening almost a thousand journalism schools since 2000, but the graduates aren’t very well trained: “You can’t trust them – they’re really stupid.” The media had trust in the Internet instead, and media companies started hiring “famous netizens”, people who were prominent as writers on bulletin boards and chat rooms. “I am a famous netizen. Before that, I was a hotel receptionist.” But Anti was hired to a newspaper based on his online commentaries, written between 1998 and 2001.
Because so many of the people in the media have an internet background, they have “an Internet heart”. On the surface, they are very conservative, but behind the scenes, they welcome bloggers. This isn’t about embracing new media – it’s about a human resources strategy to staff newspapers. But over the course of about five years, “the Internet changed the inside of Chinese media.”
“The guy who censored my blog – we’re friends. Every week, we get together and eat. We’re very close friends. The guy censored and the guy who censors – we are together.” The public face of internet censorship is very professional: “I know you are right, but this is my job. When you get the job, you can do the same to me.” But inside, the censors are very liberal, people who are living in the era of the internet and the market.
Mosaics of logos of Web2.0 companies, posted on flickr. English mosaic is by Stabillo Boss, Chinese mosaic by é˜¿åŽ
China has copied every aspect of Web2.0. So Chinese users are using Web 2.0 widely… just not the same tools as people use in the rest of the world. “Instead of Google, we use Baidu. Instead of YouTube, we use Tvix.” The only tool that hasn’t been copied is Gmail – Anti says he can’t imagine it being succesfully copied, due to its high quality. He believes that the most centralized services – like Twitter – won’t succeed in China because they’re so easily censored.
Michael warns us that some other phenomena may not manifest as neatly in China as they have in the West. It’s hard for citizen journalists to do strong investigative work without getting paid… which tends to turn them into journalists, not citizen journalists. The only hope for citizen journalists are “internet kids”, who are employed in tech companies and can write in their free time. Videblogging is also unlikely to catch on as fast, as the tools for posting video are very slow, and the cost of cameras is prohibitively expensive.
“If everything is censored in China, what’s the hope?” Anti tells us that he’s hopeful about free expression via social networks. People can use chatrooms and email to replicate the function of literary journals and reviews like the New York Review of Books. These aren’t mainstream media – they’re elite media – and they can work through Gmail, Gtalk, SMS and instant messaging. In some cases, chatrooms might serve as public news, because it’s easy to be anonymous. But the other tools work on top of social networks of elites.
Anti ends us talk with a challenging argument: “China is not America – it’s a bigger Singapore. That’s not a bad thing – you’ve got money, you can go abroad. But you’re not free to lead a political movement.” The Chinese government, over years, has learned how to control the Internet very effectively. It’s turned it from a tool of free expression into a tool for social monitoring. “In 1989, the government didn’t know why Tiananmen happened. Now, by reading the Internet, they know what’s going to happen. They know about movements in their infancy and they’re able to kill them when they’re still young.”
I referenced this quote when asking Michael a question after his talk. I wanted to know what percentage of Chinese users he thought were interested in getting around censorship and expressing themselves freely online, observing that the rise of the internet in China has already created a great deal more freedom than most Chinese people had a decade ago.
Michael’s response began with a story: “When I first came to America, I thought it was very conservative. In China, it’s easy to have sex before marriage, and we are more open to homosexuals. We have no conservative party, and we have no God.” He asks, “Why does the China government allow people to have so much freedom in sex and business?” The answer is that the government wants to exchange personal freedom for political freedom. You’ve got a life now that’s so much better than your parents’ life was. “There’s a generation gap. The children of the 1970s want social change. They remember Tiananmen. But the newer generation simply accepts this exchange” of political freedoms for personal freedoms. As a result, “only very weird people care about political freedom. At least 95% of people don’t care about censorship.”
Anti says that the Chinese government has suceeded in controling the Internet for the majority of people. “I see no hope of changing this situation.” Where he sees hope is in mobilizing and connecting elites, not in changing how the mainstream sees the internet or politics.
Colin Maclay, who’s been involved with an effort to set standards for US companies doing business in countries that censor the Internet, asks Anti about his thoughts on US companies engaging in China. Anti argues that it’s easy to make decisions that would be “morally clean in Congress”, but would have disastrous impacts on China. “GMail is our everything!” If the US Congress forced Google not to interact with China, it would have terrible impacts on China – the right strategy is to let the Chinese people solve these problems for themselves.
We hear a lot of good talks at Berkman. This was one of the very best I’ve heard in the past year. Glad you’re in Boston, Michael – we’re lucky to have you here for a year.
David’s notes, which go into the question and answer session in much more detail than mine, here.