Chinese journalists use social media for “unfit” stories

Recently I was invited to China and Hong Kong by International Media Support (IMS) to talk to students and investigative journalists about the use of social media in journalism and in the West. Here’s the article I wrote for i-m-s.dk:

To circumvent rigorous censorship in China, journalists have utilized popular social media websites to disseminate information and share politically sensitive news.

- If they won’t let me be a real journalist, then I have to be a citizen journalist, states the infamous Chinese journalist Wang Keqin.

He is known as the father of investigative journalism in China and is among the journalists in China who have fully embraced social media as a way to spread and gather information in a country with significant censorship.

For the 420 million Internet users in China some of the most popular Western websites and social media service are not accessible – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, Flickr, New York Times etc. (see complete list). This has created a lucrative market for Chinese equivalents of the popular social networks (see box below). The biggest Chinese social network is the instant messaging service Tencent QQ with over 636 million users.

How to reach out to the masses online

The day I spoke to Wang Keqin in Guangzhou, he had just posted a story on his blog about an 87-year-old woman who helps children who have been abandoned or simply thrown in the trash. Her 88-year-old husband collects garbage for a living, and over the last 24 years he has found 16 babies in the waste piles. The couple has taken care of 45 Chinese children in those years, many of them with disabilities. When Wang Keqin posted a link to his blog with the story, his many followers on social media, over 400,000 followers across four different social networks instantly responded with donations for the unofficial orphanage.

Wang Keqin uses his blog to share facts and tell stories that he is not able to publish in the print magazine he works for, the China Economic Times.  On the Internet it is easier to post critical content than in traditional media, as the many small bits of content are more difficult to monitor and censor. However, his blog is frequently censored, he says and holds his fist to his ear, to illustrate how his Internet provider calls him to let him know what is “fit” and “unfit” to write on his blog.

In China the government has charged the Internet providers with the responsibility to censor their users. But Wang Kequin’s many followers serve as a protection.

-The authorities are cautious to shut down a blog with so many followers, he explains.

Weibo is the light
For journalist Deng Fei, a writer at Phoenix Magazine, social media like micro-blogging site Weibo have been the biggest change in China in the last several years. He is now the most popular Chinese journalist on social media with over 220.000 followers on Sina Weibo. On the popular Chinese instant messaging service QQ, he has almost 2.6 million readers.

While I talk to him, he is on two telephones, talking in one of them and on Weibo with the other. Before he takes the next call, he tells me:

-We used to say China is the red star. Now we say Weibo is the light.

With Weibo, Chinese journalists can organize many people in short time. Deng Fei was able to raise over 1 million yuan (800.000 DKK/154.000 USD) in twenty days through the website to support his personal project ‘Free Lunch Program.’ The project helps to provide free lunch for poor children in the Hunan Province and so far has supported 600 pupils in five different schools.

Deng Fei finds Weibo different than any other means of communication. Asked about his huge popularity on social media, Deng Fei says:

-Chinese people believe that Weibo is the only channel that can change China. It is the first time we have experienced freedom of speech. On Weibo we can write things that cannot be printed. We call it Renhai, a sea of people.

Comparing the large American social networks and sites with the Chinese equivalents:

China US
Microblog Sina Weibo, over 100 million users (source: Wikipedia)

Tencent

Twitter, 200 million users (source: Wikipedia)
Search engine Baidu Google
Social network Renren, 31 million active users per month (source: Wikipedia) Facebook, over 600 million active users (source: Facebook)
Instant messaging Tencent QQ, over 636 million users (source: Wikipedia) MSN, AOL, Yahoo, Gmail
Internet portal Sohu, Sina MSN, Yahoo
Auction and shopping Taobao Ebay
Encyclopaedia Hudong, over 4 million articles (source: Wikipedia) Wikipedia, over 3,6 million articles (source: Wikipedia)
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