L to R: Ed Peto (Outdustry), Hu Yong (ChinaFile), Duncan Hewitt (BBC/Newsweek). Photo Courtesy of the Bookworm Literary Festival
Last week I was asked to moderate a panel at the Bookworm Literary Festival here in Beijing. The panel was called “Future Perfect : Social Media” and was described thusly by the organisers:
“Due to governmental and technological restraints, social media is different in China - in both form and function - than in other countries. Join us as Duncan Hewitt (Get Rich First) and Hu Yong, the MediaFile Editor at the newly launched ChinaFile and Professor of Media Studies at Peking University discusses the possible social, economic and political implications of social media in China; the way the government is both using and regulating social media and what the future for this powerful media is.”
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject material we opted for an “off the record” approach - i.e. the speakers are not to be quoted - which led to a fascinating, free-ranging chat from two bona fide China social media experts. To get the ball rolling, though, I offered up the following introduction to the subject:
“It has been said that there two internets on the planet: The internet, and the Chinese internet. Of the 2.4 billion internet users in the world, currently around 24% (570 million) of these reside within China, inside one of the most tightly controlled internet environments in the world.
Social media is perhaps the defining technological advance of our age, allowing the individual to publish globally at the touch of a button, completely revolutionising media, personal expression and, as a result, society itself in the process.
When it comes to China, however, from a western viewpoint the Chinese internet is often characterised by what it lacks: Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, true freedom of speech. From this outside perspective censorship is the defining element of the Chinese internet experience.
What of the inside perspective though? Perhaps surprisingly, China has the most active social media population in the world, with a 2012 McKinsey study showing 91% of Chinese internet users visiting a social media site in the last 6 months, vs 70% in super connected South Korea, 67% in US and, astonishingly, only 30% in Japan.
Should this really surprise us? It is a question of degree. Coming from a recent history of tightly controlled media, the Chinese internet user has that much more to gain from social media vs their western contemporaries and are therefore expressing themselves with a fervour not seen elsewhere in the developed world.
Social media has catalysed revolutions and been the scourge of political misdoings across the globe. This sense of threat is writ large through the Chinese governments handling of what is perhaps the greatest ever challenge to it’s control. It knows it must engage with social media, but how has it managed to allow social media’s development, provide enough functionality to satisfy the people and yet still “keep a lid on it”? Or is the lid slowly, inexorably coming off?
Today we will try to cover some of these complexities.”
Many thanks to Hu Yong and Duncan for taking this subject and really running with it and many thanks as well to all at The Bookworm Literary Festival for another great event.