China's social networks bloom without Twitter, Facebook

Posted at 02/11/2010 4:48 PM

BEIJING - Cissy Ding says she finally gave in at the start of the year and joined China's social networking bandwagon, setting up an account on local micro-blogging service Weibo.

"If I hadn't gotten started, I would have felt totally lame, and out of touch," says Ding, an editor at a women's magazine.

China's domestic social media sites like Weibo are booming thanks to their better knowledge of the world's largest Internet market -- and the censorship stifling foreign rivals like Facebook, Twitter, and Google-owned YouTube.

The 384 million people now online in China, where the need to build connections (guanxi) has always been vital, have fostered an explosion in web networking, led by instant messaging and video-sharing sites QQ and Youku.

But the government, wary of the power of such networks to quickly mobilise large groups of people, has blocked foreign sites such as Twitter on and off for months, which has guided Chinese users towards domestic firms, experts say.

"The Chinese government has been deliberately fostering domestic enterprises which are generally much easier to be controlled," said Xiao Qiang, who heads China Digital Times, a US-based site that monitors web developments in China.

"This is one of the essential components of the Chinese censorship mechanism, which also creates a trade barrier for the world's largest Internet market."

Twitter and Facebook were cut off nationwide in July amid deadly ethnic unrest in the restive far-western region of Xinjiang. Authorities blamed the spread of the violence in part on agitators who used the web to stoke it.

Last month, Google threatened to abandon its Chinese-language search engine google.cn, and perhaps end all operations in the country, over censorship and cyberattacks it says targeted the email accounts of Chinese rights activists.

The ultimatum thrown down by Google has sparked a Sino-US row over Internet freedom, but observers say the problems for foreign social networking sites run deeper, as those sites are simply not tailored to Chinese users.

"Even if Facebook and YouTube were not blocked in China, they still could not compete with the popularity of Kaixin (China's Facebook equivalent), Youku and others," said Duan Hongbin, an IT analyst at Anbound consulting.

"It's like Baidu and Google in China -- generally, Google is better in terms of technology and branding. But most Chinese still prefer Baidu," he said.

"It's not because of nationalism -- the language barrier is one reason. It is normal for Chinese users to use a Chinese-language interface. There are not many web users in China who prefer an English interface."

Youku, which saw its turnover rise five-fold in 2009 to 200 million yuan (29 million dollars) on the previous year, denies it is a YouTube clone.

Liu Dele, the firm's chief financial officer, told AFP that even before it was blocked, "YouTube was very small in China".

There are roughly 180 million active blogs in China, and micro-blogging a la Twitter hit the big time last year, with multiple sites cropping up -- all of them Chinese, such as Weibo.

Fan Jianchuan, a businessman in the southwestern province of Sichuan, made headlines last month when he sent snippets of debates in his local parliament, an advisory body with no decision-making powers, in real time.

Fan said one of his aims was to show "that delegates of the political consultative conference had not come just to eat and drink".

As for Kaixin, it sets itself apart by being "very focused on online games and entertainment", said Renaud de Spens, an expert on new media in China.

In some cases, Chinese online users choose to use both foreign and domestic networking sites, consulting MSN for its view of the outside world and QQ for its youth-oriented flair.

"It's not unusual that they use both programmes at the same time. That enables them to manage several different sets of contacts and relations," said de Spens.

Ding is a case in point: she says she likes to use Weibo to read micro-blog entries from intellectuals and stars, and post the occasional entry herself, but to chat with friends and colleagues, she prefers MSN.