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Microwaves Make Headline News

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

When Attaturk wanted to modernize Turkey, he wanted to ban the use of the veil by women. He didn’t ban the veil outright, as a boring, conventional thinker might have – he made the veil compulsory for prostitutes. Since China can’t really avoid the encroachment of the Internet and social media, some lateral thinking will be needed if the CCP wants it’s citizens to toe the line online.

China has embraced capitalism in all it’s glory, unfortunately, in their scramble to get their hands on as much money as possible as soon as possible, they tend to clone what they deem to be successful in another country (usually America) and set it loose on an unsuspecting population. A false sense of “if you build it they will come” is the chronic mindset, Chinese English school owners despair that people aren’t falling over themselves to throw buckets of cash at them and shameless clones of western websites get themselves into endless amounts of trouble with their user bases because they delete messages and search results from their databases.

There’s a reluctance to embrace new ideas here. The people have a strange way of making one feel that they’ve made an important contribution to a discussion, or proposed an effective solution to a problem, but at the same time, there’s a lurking sense the idea has been pretty much instantly dismissed in favor of what you might term an old school solution. The closed-shop boys club of the government departments doesn’t really help, and the yes-man mentality compounds matters, all you can really do is sit back and watch them fail, hoping against hoping that someone somewhere learns their lesson.

The Chinese people have figured out one pretty safe rule in life: if it gets blocked on the Internet, it’s probably worth gossiping about. This week, quite a few things, despite the hugely popular microblog service instituting it’s real-name registration, have been blocked: A mysterious crashed Ferrari, the fate of politician Bo Xi Lai, and now, images of tanks rolling down Chang’an Avenue as an alleged military coup gets underway.

Of course there was no such thing as a coup d’tat in Beijing – surely a Beijing correspondents wet dream – and the whole thing started with a single tweet.

Pan Shi Yi, a property magnate with 9.2 million followers has garnered a reputation for posting cryptic messages on his Weibo account. On Monday night, he posted “This evening Weibo was strange indeed, there were some words that could not be sent out on Weibo. I saw a line of commentary dropped several times from Weibo, but what I saw made my scalp tingle; was it gremlins? Better to turn off the computer and go to sleep.”. Over 3,000 users commented on the post, some trying to figure out what exactly Pan was getting at, and others simply advising him to get some sleep.

On Tuesday morning, someone posted a message claiming that “According to reports, Beijing people said that last night the 38th Army was seen on Chang’an Avenue [which runs in front of Zhongnanhai] and an accumulation of police and military vehicles were in front of the Diayoutai State Guesthouse, signaling there will be big changes soon in our government.”. The Epoch Times, a Chinese news portal with Falun Gong (a banned Chinese spiritual movement) published a photo that supposedly showed that there was indeed military action taking place in the capital. Research by Chinese netizens finally debunked the photos, showing them to be nothing more than night rehersals for the 2010 National Day celebrations.

Of course all this rational thinking didn’t do much to stop the single tweet snowballing, turning it from a paranoid delusion limited to a small number of online freaks into stuff that people were gossiping about around the water cooler. One SMS message that I received about the strange case of the black Ferrari suddenly had two naked girls in it. Aside from the fact that the night the accident happened was so cold that snow fell in Beijing, the only details given to the press about the two female passengers were about their injuries and their ages, and since the crash happened at 4am in the morning in the northern part of Beijing, it’s unlikely that there were many eyewitnesses. But we never let the facts – or lack thereof- get in the way of a good story

Rumors, gossip and unhelpful stories fanned by text messaging and microblogging are pretty much part and parcel of life in a country where government departments and spokesmen live in a walled garden sheilded from the people that they’re actually supposed to be interacting with, and simply blocking out stuff that you don’t want people to talk about isn’t the best way to enforce any kind of rumor control, transparency and accessibility is the best way to go because even if you pull the wool over the eyes of the Chinese people, western audiences are much more sophisticated and cynical enough to flatly reject the “because we say so” attitude towards governace.

Nailing Jello to the Wall: What’s Weibo Up To?

March 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The much vaunted Weibo real name registration kicked in today, leaving pretty much everyone confused as to what the bloody hell people at Sina.com are playing at.

This morning, many users were reporting that even though they hadn’t actually filled out their info – giving their state issued ID number and real name – were greeted with a thank you message informing them that they had indeed given their state issued ID number and real name.

Since I hadn’t registered my ID number (I’m not Chinese, and don’t have an ID card) I was pretty much locked out of the web interface.  I’d bought my phone pre-pay SIM card from an anonymous vendor in Dazhalan (which causes its own problems because the SIM card is tied to Hebei province and not Beijing) and Weibo steadfastly refused to send a confirmation SMS to my phone.   Whenever I tried to post a message, an alert box popped up over the text box informing me that I had to register to post.

Fortunately, both the Android client and my iPad client were working fine, and I could quite easily reply to threads started on Weibo, I just couldn’t start any of my own.  For all its security theatre, the real-name registration hasn’t actually prevented those who want to post subversive stuff anonymously.  In fact, they’ve probably compounded the issue, since mobile devices and tablets that are much easier to carry around and photograph Chinese policemen beating the hell out of a disabled beggar on the street than a laptop.

It’s difficult to figure what’s going on.  Most of the whistleblowers, commentators and dissenters who currently use Weibo  are usually the relatively well off middle class, most of whom can quite easily afford a smartphone or even an iPad, which currently allows you to circumvent the registration process. The other group of users are those who are reliant on using smokey Internet cafes that are routinely checked by the police, and you need to present your ID card in order to buy time on the computers anyway.

And how did I eventually register?  I used a false name and corresponding number that I found on an MMORPG forum.

China’s Censorship: A Year in Review

January 2, 2012 Leave a comment

William Farris is running a good retrospective on what gets censored in China complete with screenshots from major search engines from throughout the year

Why is PR So Bad in China?

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Amongst the myriad thousand questions that the Wenzhou train accident last weekend has raised, one that lingers around the most is “why is PR so bad in China?”.  I had previously written about the epic gaffes that CCTV had played on the public, ranging from using footage from Top Gun in a report about a new fighter jet, to Hu Jin Tao visiting the home of a Chinese woman who claims to pay only 77rmb per month in rent.

From start to finish, the efforts of the spokespersons of the various government agencies that are involved in the train crash have been particularly underwhelming:

Wang Yong Ping’s (the spokesman for the Ministry of Railways whos was spotted recently taking the plane instead of the train)statement explaining (or not, as the case may be) why train carriages were buried at the scene of the accident almost instantly became an internet meme when he said

“…During the emergency rescue operations, the area was very complex, and there was a marsh below, so it was very difficult to do our best job. We also had to deal with all the other train cars, so (the earth-moving equipment operator) buried the front car below, covering it with earth, and it was mainly just a case of dealing with the emergency. This was the explanation he offered. Whether you believe it or not, I certainly do.”

Which wasn’t particularly reassuring, especially since, they’ve dug them back up again.

When Premier Wen eventually turned up to do the consolation thing that he’s so good at, he told reporters “I am ill, having spent 11 days in bed, but I managed to come today only after my doctor reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital. This is why I didn’t come here sooner,”.  Not so ill, it would seem, to have met several different leaders of state in the last 11 days, however.  Not only did he lie, accordingly to The Shanghaiist, he lied to the same state controlled media that had in fact been openly reporting on the fact that he wasn’t ill and had attended several meetings:

On July 18, Wen received Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
On July 19, Wen presided over a State Council meeting on climate change and sustainable development.
On July 20, Wen presided over a State Council working session.
On July 21, Wen met up with Cameroonian President Paul Biya.
On July 24, Wen received a delegation from the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade.
On July 27, Wen presided over another State Council working session.

The government appeared to want to use the crash as another attempt to stir up all the emotions that a growing dictatorship needs from it’s populous – instructing the media to specifically focus on stories that were “more touching” whilst telling them not to even think about investigating the causes of the crash themselves, along with terse, clear instructions not to reflect or comment.  The rules were happily ignorned when the journalists found out that no-one was really answering any questions at the press conferences.

The Chinese press has drawn parallels with another train crash that happened last year in Guangdong:

“Train K859 derailed on May 23 last year (the death toll given was 19), and a rescue worker tells our reporters: ‘The accident happened at 2am, and trains were running by 6pm [the same day], so last time the rescue work was even shorter. They used diggers to make a pit, then dragged the train cars into the pit. After that they used tractor shovels to crush them down. Some body parts that hadn’t been taken out were mixed in and buried together [with the wreckage]. A couple of weeks later, after the incident had settled down, everything was dug out again, everything cleaned away and carted off.”

When the company that supplied the railway signals held a “press conference” that was either grossly misreported on or so fantastically awful and mismanaged that it beggars belief and went through all the colours of the rainbow, starting as a calamity, through to a major crisis, and finally deciding on taking flight as a fully-fledged catastrophe (again from The Shanghaiist):

Q: What railway signals equipment has your company been supplying for the D trains?
A: You can check it out from our website yourself.

Q: What is your company’s relationship with the Ministry of Railways?
A: It’s not convenient to talk about that.

Q: What is the government board that is directly in charge of your company?
A: If you’ve made it to this press conference, you should know the answer.

Q: So why are you conducting today’s press conference?
A: Uh. I don’t know. The weather’s been really hot, and you guys have been having a hard time running around outside. (The phone rings.) Uh. Can I take this call?

Media: Can you please show us some respect around here? This is a press conference!
A: Uh. Please let me take this call really quickly.

Finally, when the names of the people who would be providing the “swift, open and transparent” investigation of the Ministry of Railways ordered by Wen Jia Bao, it appeared that almost all of them officials on the investigating committee are currently employed by the, er, Ministry of Railways.  According to the China Media Project’s Newswire, noted scholar He Weifang wrote that “Officials from the railway ministry stand out [on the list]. They should decline [participation]. No one can be a judge of events that directly concern their own interests — this is the most basic demand of procedural justice.”  I don’t think that anyone is holding their breath over that one.

For the most part, the Chinese government seem to have understood that they have lost this propaganda battle for now.  They may have taken the view that it’s probably best for the outrage to burn itself out in the press and in the Chinese cyberscape.  When the CCP decides that enough is enough, they’ll start clamping down on coverage sending the message that it’s no longer acceptable to discuss the failings of the Party.

We Hope For a Miracle

July 28, 2011 Leave a comment

A cartoon currently doing the rounds on Weibo (thanks to Emma Lau for the link and the translation) – the last frame says “we can only hope for a miracle!” showing Ministry of Railways spokesman Wang Yong Ping tied to the train tracks as an out of control train hurtles towards him.