One of the most fascinating things about living in China over the past few years has been observing how the Internet is changing everything from shopping, to communication, to the way Chinese people think.
For generations, Chinese were heavily influenced by what the Government said in their state-controlled media, determining what is shown on television, the newspapers, radio, books and almost everything in China. It was an incredibly powerful channel to spread the propaganda, and in a way, helped control what 1.3 billion Chinese thought and felt, contributing to much of China’s swift rise into the economic powerhouse it is today.
A few years ago, things started to change. Soaring Internet and social media connections reached critical mass. Whereas the Government controlled virtually all of the country’s mass-communication channels before, the Internet finally gave the average Zhou a voice, and they took full advantage of it.
Social media participation in China is simply staggering. More than 90% of Chinese online have used a social network in the past six months, compared with around 60% in countries such as the USA. And when they’re online, they are more than three times more likely to add content than Americans and Europeans. With websites and social media content created independently of the Government propaganda machines, Chinese consumers trusted it more than the traditional media channels.
Social Media created powerful influencers overnight, many whose opinions weren’t 100 percent aligned with the Government’s. Mass conversations started to challenge Government actions, such as the way they dealt with fast train wreckages, where they built chemical plants and how they cleaned up oil spills. Public opinion actually started changing the almighty Chinese Government policy.
Many observers feverishly commentated on how the power of public opinion had become so influential online, that it would be impossible to restrain it, and the Government would increasingly lose its grip on controlling public opinion. Like many before them, those observers underestimated the power of the Chinese Government.
Less than two months ago, the Government took extreme steps to halt the spread of content it didn’t agree with on social media by threatening 3-years jail to social media users if their ‘untrue posts’ were forwarded more than 500 times. That threat appears to be working, with posts from key opinion leaders on the popular Weibo service, dropping 11.2 percent a day compared to a few months earlier.
The Chinese Government will find, remove and blacklist all the content they deem inappropriate. In additional to automated tools, the Chinese Government employs an army of more than two million monitors searching ever corner of the Internet. That’s one monitor for every 245 Internet users in China, about the population of Slovenia all hunched over a screen finding offenders.
China faces a difficult balancing act of keeping peace with 1.3 billion people all going through extreme social, economic and geographic changes. One of the ways they are dealing with it is pulling back on one of the greatest characteristics of Internet – the free flow of information. No doubt it will become a poster-child for other countries in a similar situation, which will further endorse the policy.
What happens next in the short history of the Chinese Internet is anyone’s guess. My pick is that it won’t be changed for the better.