China’s half-a-billion netizens

October 22, 2013 by Yang Shen

By the end of June 2013, according to a report from China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC), there were 591m netizens in China, of which 27.9% were from rural areas.  According to this report the main source of growth is from middle-aged and elderly people. Over 70% of new netizens this year were mobile internet users using smart phones. The gender ratio was 55.6% male to 44.4% female. All sectors of usage – music, video, games and literature via mobile phone – witnessed double-digit growth of between 12% and 19% from December 2012 onwards.

On the back of these huge increases, Sina and Tencent have become two of the largest internet providers in China, as well as in the world. Weibo, the twitter-like microblog, and WeChat, the mobile messaging app, developed by Sina and Tencent respectively, have dramatically changed the way people live in China. By the end of 2012 more than 500m people had registered for Weibo, of which 4.62m were active users. By the end of June 2013, 230 million Weibo users were using the mobile version, covering half of mobile internet users. According to the State Council, the number of people who use WeChat exceeded 400 million for the first half of 2013.

Online literature is another burgeoning area that attracts significant numbers of mobile internet users; by June 2013, there were 204m online novel readers, with a half-year growth of 12%, accounting for 44% of mobile Internet users.

Weibo has changed the way many people obtain news. Although similar to Twitter, it has one significant difference, in that some sensitive news which would not otherwise appear in the traditional media due to censorship is likely to be posted there. Posts that are viewed and forwarded by a significant number of people can quickly become influential and may have the potential to force the government to respond.

It is well known that social media are filtered and heavily monitored by the government. One study by Harvard scholars found out that “posts with negative criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored…the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.” They concluded that Chinese people are ”individually free but collectively in chains.”  It highlights the government’s strategy of nipping potential collective activities should in the bud. However, scholars are not entirely correct about this point.

Recently the Xi Jinping adminstration has taken some measures to control free speech. For example, China’s superior court issued a ruling that people will face arrest if “online rumours” they create are visited by 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times. This is an approach that targets the general public rather than certain dissidents.

In China, WeChat is the most popular forum for online instant message via mobile. WeChat has changed the way people communicate, allowing its users to text and talk as if using a walkie-talkie via 3G and wifi; WeChat is not only about person-to-person communication, as the function of ‘group chat’ is very popular with young Chinese people. They use it as a way of networking. Some even use it for business conferences with employees who are not in the same city.

Using WeChat has become one of the primary ways to communicate among Chinese people. Tencent, its service provider, has extended this app to online games, shopping and others uses. It is mainly used as an interpersonal communication tool to connect with people that you already know and appears to be largely uncensored. One of the main uses is for gaming; for example, Airplane War, a new mobile game on WeChat, has rapidly become huge in China. The game allows users to compete with their friends for high scores. According to China Daily, there were more than 180m Airplane War downloads within two hours of the release in August. Some users have become so addicted to this game that they have been sent to hospital.

Online literature. which refers to novels that are often written by anonymous amateur writers and then posted online, one chapter at a time, has also expanded rapidly. Readers usually have the opportunity to interact with authors and may be able to have an impact on the direction of the plot. According to the CNNIC report, young readers are behind the popularity of the online novel market. By the end of 2010, 51% of the readers were aged 15-24 and 18.4% were aged 30-39. Most readers (66.6%) spend from half-an-hour to two hours reading online literature at each session, often on the way to work or reading in bed.

CNNIC says the most popular categories of online literature are fantasy fiction, love stories, Kung Fu fiction, and science fiction. They usually involved themes such as time travel and heroes with supernatural abilities. Some novels were based on successful online games; some involved Chinese Taoist themes that advocate the cultivation of vital energy in order to become immortal and stay young; others featured western knights-errant and elves.

Novels on Chinese contemporary officialdom are also popular. Politically sensitive it may seem to be, but authors and editors actually know the underlying rules on what can and cannot be written. After all, the scrutiny of online literature by the Party is not as strict as it is towards traditional literature, where all books published in China are subject to possible censorship; online literature sites are monitored less cautiously.

The prosperity of online literature is related to the shared national mentality. Young people have been taught by their parents, who themselves were involved in various political movements in different ways, to turn a blind eye to politics, and take care of their own business and live a life with material prosperity. Although, for most of them getting rich is beyond their wildest dreams, a strong focus on online novels enable them to retreat from tedious daily life and gain a moment of their owns.

Spending large amounts of time reading fiction prevents them from thinking about the reality of issues such as reform and transformation in China. In some ways, these online literature readers have become the cornerstone of stability and help to satisfy the government’s wish to construct a harmonious society.

Political control remains unchanged, or even more prominent under Xi Jinping’s government. Censorship reflects the government’s determination to continue to prioritise economic development above freedom of speech. So far the approach has been successful. It remains unclear how long the development model will last.

Advances in technology may also improve people’s living standards. Hisense, an electronics manufacture based in China, has recently launched the world’s first internet-connected smart air conditioner. Users are able to control the power and temperature by sending private messages via Weibo. It is said that the technology will be adopted by WeChat, and extend to other electric equipment such as televisions and fridges.

New gadgets have been flourishing and will continue to flourish in the market. The newly released iPhone 5s is popular in China, especially the colour of gold, nicknamed ‘provincial tycoon gold’, a name symbolising the wealth and power of the owner.  However, Apple is exclusive to the urban middle and upper classes. Most of the 160m-plus peasant migrant workers can find much cheaper smart phones that meet their requirements to use Weibo, WeChat, and reading online literature.

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