What your web experience would be like in China

April 24th, 2010 by xgz

China’s internet penetration is far less (29%) than the US (74%), but the total number of users, 384 million, has far exceeded that of the US, 228 million. Although people tend to use the web for pretty much the same purposes everywhere in the world, the web experience in China in many respect would be quite different than in the US.

The top uses for the web in China, according to the 25th internet survey report (http://down3.tech.sina.com.cn/fdl/doc/cnnicrep25-201001.doc), are for online music (84% of users), news (80%), search engines (73%), instant messaging (71%), online games (69%), online videos (63%), blogs (58%), and emails (57%). Compare this with the top uses in the US according to data from Pew Research (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0921862.html), which are emails (91%), search engines (88%), map/directions (86%), research hobby/interest (82%), research product/service (80%), weather (79%), health information (74%), news (72%), and travel information (72%). This contrast is already very interesting. Chinese don’t use emails as much as Americans. Instead they use instant messaging far more often. Americans tend to use the web to help with their entertainment, using it to research their hobby related topics or to gather information for their next trip. For Chinese, on the other hand, the web is the entertainment. A vast majority of them listen to online music, watch online videos, and play online games. Americans also use online business far more extensively than Chinese.

Although online music and video are leading uses of the web, Chinese cannot watch youtube because it is blocked by the GFW, the Great Fire Wall of China. Also blocked are the most popular social network website facebook, as well as twitter and flickr. The government never announces nor it gives a reason for blocking a website. That makes it hard to tell the difference between network outage and blocked sites. Recently after the Yushu earthquake, in most of China it is impossible to access the USGS website usgs.gov. The earthquake was determined to be 7.1 in China but USGS rated it as 6.9. Rumors then started flying on Chinese internet that the USGS website was blocked because the Chinese government did not want people to know that the earthquake was really only 6.9. Why? Because the buildings that collapses were supposed to be able to withstand 7.0 earthquakes. This is a very good example that the GFW does more damage to the Chinese government than its intended benefits.

Speaking of censorship, one of the most commonly used phrases on the Chinese net nowadays is “sensitive word.” In China, it is common practice for the administrator of a web server to install a software that automatically filters out offensive words in any web postings. Perhaps this is even required. It is not clear what algorithm such a filtering software employs but the results are often hilarious. For example, Beijing Normal University posted an ad for graduate school applications on a website. The first requirement was that all applicants must support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The only problem was, that the phrase “Communist Party” was filtered and replaced by “sensitive word filtered”. So the requirement became “all applicants must support the leadership of Chinese sensitive word filtered.” I did not make this up. You can check the link for yourself here:
http://kaoyan.studyez.com/news/18185.htm if you can read Chinese.

Censorship also leads to other kinds of bizarre results. One thing is what we call “chopped head and tail”(掐头去尾). It works like this. Suppose you want to say “students expect the teacher to teach.” But the word “sex” is not allowed on the web, and the filtering software detects the word in your sentence. Where? Oh by combining the tail of one word and the head of another. And it gets filtered. So the sentence becomes “student sensitive word filtered pect the teacher to teach.” Of course in actual Chinese it would be some other words but the effect would be equally bizarre and one is often left wondering what on earth was the original phrase that was filtered.

5 Responses to “What your web experience would be like in China”

  1. Avatarram

    Very interesting. The chopped head and tails result is pretty funny.

    Since online video is so popular, it would seem a good way to express political views. But how is Chinese online video censored? It would be much harder to censor video content than text by automated means.

  2. Avatarxgz
    Author Comment

    There must be tens of thousands of paid workers responsible for screening online videos. Chinese law requires all posters must register their accounts in real names so anyone posting offending videos will likely suffer real consequences.

  3. AvatarLara

    Well heck, how would they know if you posted a video under your real name or not? Just post it under “students expect” and watch the GFW tie itself in knots trying to figure out your name.

    The story about the seismic rating on the official site after the Yushu earthquake reminds me a lot of stories I read about Mao’s tours of farms in the 1950s: He saw wheat fields so thick with plants that kids could stand on them, vindicating his agricultural policies. The moment his entourage left, the kids were taken off the benches they’d been standing on and the triply-packed wheat was thinned back to a survivable density. Millions died of starvation because local officials couldn’t manage to tell the big guy he was WRONG. 55 years later, more of the same.

    Anyhow, I also read of an interesting use of the internet in China; someone posted an anonymous video of a well-dressed woman deliberately stomping a kitten to death. This offended so many people that a group created a site devoted to tracking the woman down – some of those 300+million users must know something, was the reasoning. Eventually her identity was discovered; she lost her iron rice-bowl job, and so did her videographer. So internet vigilantism is another interesting use. Let’s hope the Chinese version is more precise than in America – I have in mind the Tea Party psychos who threw a brick through a congressman’s brother’s window after the health care reform vote – the TP folks had looked up the wrong address on the internet…..

  4. AvatarMei

    How would they know if you register with a fake name? Trust me if they need to find you they will. If they can’t, the “masses” will often help them find out. You can only successfully hide yourself if 95% of the population is on your side — and in most things that the current government censors (Falun Gong, pornography, Tibet issues, even criticism of the communist leaders), the offender would not have anywhere near that level of peer support.

    Just look at how people treat Falun Gong on Baidu forums — you can’t see Falun Gong posts in public posts of course, but occasionally you’d see really irritated forum member posting something like “just stop harassing me you Wheels! I alreeady know what your opinion is and i never want to hear from you again”. “Wheels” is what people use to get around the Baidu filter for “falun gong”. Apparently the Falun Gong people would fish for private emails from forums and then repeatedly spam them with their propaganda materials. A lot of the banned ideologies (Falun Gong, Tibet-independence) really don’t inspire the citizens to risk any inconvenience (let alone their freedom and life) to help.

  5. Avatarxgz
    Author Comment

    The link for the graduate school application, http://kaoyan.studyez.com/news/18185.htm, does not work any more. This story was so widely reported on the Chinese blogs, they have to do something about it. No, they didn’t remove the link. They replaced it with some nonsensical list of English sentences that you can use to expand your English vocabulary. However, someone already took a screen shot of the original page, and it’s here:
    You can make out the offending sentence (highlighted with a rectangular frame) in the picture.

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