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TECH: The Internet and Social Networking in China
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altThose thinking of coming to live in China may be worried by headlines such as the one which appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 2010: ‘China makes Skype illegal’. The reported restrictions of many popular websites give an impression that living here is like committing social networking suicide. But living in China, you soon become used to the restrictions on blog sites and other internet websites, particularly blocking of popular services such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. For most people these restrictions are either a minor irritation, or accessed anyway via a proxy or a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
 
Even without a VPN you probably haven’t noticed any changes with Skype. Most people continue to use the service without any problems. But internet calls are only legal when using one of the Chinese state owned telecom carriers: China Mobile or Unicom. Computer to computer communications, however, are still possible 3 years after the reported crackdown. If you downloaded Skype in China it will have been via the TOM website, (a Chinese joint venture with Skype) which will have provided you with a modified version that has the required content filters to make Skype conform with local regulations. 
 
Newspapers focus on China’s obsession with the monitoring and censoring of communications as the reason for blocking these sites. In the case of internet phone calls, China is the world’s largest market and they had been eating into the profits of the state owned China Mobile and China Unicom. So, there is also a business case for discouraging Skype use. 
 
If you feel that life would be unbearable without Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Skype, you may feel sorry for the Chinese consumers. But of course, the vacuum created by their inaccessibility here is being filled with home-grown equivalents. But does a market without the creativity of the rest of the world or the competition that these popular foreign websites provide, mean that the Chinese ‘socially engaged’ person is poorly served?
 
Jego
Jego is China’s equivalent to Skype. It has been developed and is owned by China Mobile, and therefore an answer to plugging the loss of income from calls made over the internet. It was launched at the beginning of June and primarily aimed at people wanting to make international calls into or out of China. Surprisingly the registration of new users was suspended within a week of the launch, but this is only expected to be temporary. 
 
Tencent QQ 
QQ was launched in 1999 and provides a social network with personal web space for adding photographs, messages and videos.
The main feature, however, is the instant messaging window, which opens automatically when you log in. It’s rather like MSN Messenger was. QQ is used by just about everyone in China. There are over 800 million active QQ accounts, not far short of Facebook’s 1 billion users. It is China’s second most popular website. Even if you haven’t used this site, you will have heard, in restaurants and subways, the knocking sound coming from people’s phones to indicate that a friend is on line, or the ‘cough cough’ sound which indicates that a message has been received.
Sending attachments is easy with QQ and is surprisingly fast. Using QQ mail, you can send files of up to 1GB, far more than the 20MB limit of E-mail providers such as Outlook. At a basic level it’s free, but you can upgrade it and get access to more games, more music and get rid of the advertisements for a small fee.
 
altBaidu
Baidu is the Chinese equivalent of Google. It is by far the most used search platform with 70% of online searches in China. It has a built-in translator, so it can search in Pinyin, English and Chinese characters. Like Google, it contains images and videos, news etc. Although it lacks the excellent Google maps, it has a host of other features such as a dictionary, music, movies and a searchable community question and answer database. The music and movie sites are hugely popular and any mainstream MP3, film or TV program can be found and downloaded. Even some more obscure music can be found. There is also a TV channel where popular foreign TV programs and a lot of sport (inaccessible online via foreign TV networks) can be streamed - if you turn your VPN off.
A search on Google.com using the word ‘Snowden’ gave 110,000,000 results of which the 1st page was entirely news items about Edward Snowden and a Wikipedia entry about him. In the same search using Baidu the top 3 were discussion boards about the whistleblower, a consultancy company, then a news item and a song by ‘Doves’ available as a free download from Baidu. Although not a very scientific study, the differences in search results may reflect the way the two search engines work, but equally this could be a reflection of what Baidu’s predominantly Chinese users want to see.
Of course, all the content is currently free- although you sometimes have to pay for higher quality downloads. There are plans to make users pay for film and music in the near future.
 
Weibo
Weibo is a micro-blogging website very similar to Twitter, but has a far larger user base. Twitter estimates to have 21 million active users whereas Weibo has 50 million active users. As well as being popular with Chinese celebrities, some foreigners have also joined; David Beckham, for example, has over 2 million followers. 
Using Weibo is very similar to Twitter. It is restricted to 144 characters, the same as Twitter. However, a recent analysis of key words used, showed that the information tweeted is subtly different. The most commonly shared content on Weibo is jokes, images and video, most of which are ‘re-tweets’. The effect is less comment on shared comment, but there is also less sharing of news stories compared with Twitter. 
 
Actor Tao Chen who has 8.9 million followers has reportedly turned down offers of CNY 100,000 per promotional tweet. 
 
RenRen
Has been called the Facebook of China and is the biggest Chinese social network. Most functions are the same as those in Facebook. You can update your personal status, share photographs, articles and external links, leave a message or comment on photos, blogs, status, etc. Activities can be held online by calling on friends to participate. There are also several peripheral applications, such as online mini games.
 
The games are hugely popular. RenRen has won several awards including top 10 best Games developer 2012. Online gaming is their biggest revenue earner with USD 26 million in the first quarter of this year, up 53% from last year. People who use both Facebook and RenRen report that they are similar to use and post similar information to their Chinese friends on RenRen and foreign friends on Facebook.
 
There are 194 million real name users of RenRen, 40 million unique logins per month. While small compared with Facebook's 1 Billion users, it is still the 5th biggest website in China. 
 
Such surveillance is taken for granted by Chinese users and so is the ability to download films and music for free. If China proceeds with plans to try and make users pay for them, it’s going to be much more unpopular than filtering out ‘sensitive words’ has been. With the largest base of net users in the world and (as estimated by the International Federation of Phonographic Industry) being responsible for 99 percent of all music pirated, it’s also going to find enforcing the alien concept difficult and costly. And unlike blocking Facebook or Twitter, there would be no corresponding advantage from protecting home-grown businesses.
 

by Robert Watt
 
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