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Michael Anti and the end of the golden age of blogs in China

The name “Michael Anti” is known by almost everyone who follows free speech issues. Journalist 赵京, 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 阿华

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.

25 thoughts on “Michael Anti and the end of the golden age of blogs in China”

  1. Don’t you find a slight disconnect between this post and the following one on Shenyang ant farmers? John Kennedy is getting lots of his material from blogs and Web 2.0 video sites like 56.com, and even though those pages are being deleted, they’ve apparently still had an effect. SMS and Gmail might be the glue that connects it all, but those blog and video posts are key ingredients.

    I’d like to know precisely what Anti means by elites. He talks about the overlap between journalists and the most popular bloggers as if that’s not so common in the U.S. Andrew Sullivan? Michelle Malkin? Xeni Jardin? These bloggers all move back and forth between mainstream and blog media.

  2. These are really worthwhile critiques, Dave. Let me say that, when I’m writing posts like this, I’m mostly trying to transcribe the talk, not engage with the speaker – the sheer speed of liveblogging makes it very hard to be critical during a talk like this one.

    I’ll put the specific question of John’s coverage of Shenyang to Michael when I next see him. I’m guessing his response might include speculation that there’s more discussion of the Shenyang protests in chatrooms and bulletin boards than there are on the blogs. But you’re right – John’s post is tangible evidence that there’s a great deal of information being posted in web2.0 spaces, both those controlled by Chinese companies and by non-Chinese ones.

    As for elites, I think Michael is talking about the fact that most Chinese netizens aren’t trying to get beyond the great firewall. They’re engaging with the tools that are maintained by Chinese companies which have censorship and filtering built in. I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to China – most US net users aren’t paying very close attention to privacy, surveillance and net neutrality issues in our country – I think Michael is making the argument that it’s only a small segment of Chinese internet users who are very aware of issues like filtering and censorship.

  3. China is so boring, in regard to anything to do with the internet. Anyone disagree? Yawn……………

    Slow, controlled and unimaginative. Wow, what a future.

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  5. The situation (“government wants to exchange personal freedom for political freedom”) Michael describes could be quite familiar for many Hungarians. (I’m from Hungary.) Our government (at that time) tried to do exactly the same at the end of the 70s’ and in the beginning of the 80s’. And it worked. The people were consuming, and living a relatively free life, until they didn’t pay attention to politics.

    I also use and admire Gmail, but I don’t understand why Chinese (elite) netizens cannot use other (web)mail? Why Gmail dominates in China?

    If the word politics wouldn’t have changed, the Hungarian (and other East European communist states) could transform to a political system which is similar to the current Chinese system.

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  7. Since when do officials use Gmail?
    The clients that i have that are officials use China based 126.com, 163.com and the many other email web servers.

    And as for the comments above its the usual people who don’t actually live in China making judgements on the Chinese internet without using or speaking to one chinese person. As for the China internet being slow and unimaginative i think that is a gross generalisation, with very little understanding of the culture.
    Chinese internet is completely different and has a large volume of content remember over 50% of the internet is now in Mandarin.

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  16. Chinese nowadays are really getting smart enough than they were ever before. they have made a replica of each and every product which they find out to help in any way whether it is money or their social economy..
    For some of the chinese people this “end of golden age of blogs” won’t bring any notice to them as they would have already tought of some other alternative…

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