Speak to me—intelligence programmes can only read

In sci-fi literature ‘low tech’ is a way of evading control; simple technology is harder to trace than more advanced. Zeng Jinyan, blogger and human rights activist, writes about how Chinese dissidents often use a simple way of mobilizing social movements and spreading critical information: the app WeChat is not based on writing but on the human voice.

July 8 2015 Text: Zeng Jinyan

Each individual Internet company employs approximately 1,000 censors. Between 20,000 and 50,000 Internet police and an estimated 250,000–300,000 Internet commentators sponsored by central and local governments participate in the Chinese online censorship effort. Though state censorship policies and crackdowns create a chilling atmosphere, social media users have developed strategies, such as morph, to resist censorship. Various research, rights advocacy and political organisations, as well as companies (including online game companies), are working on introducing, providing, promoting or/and selling proxy tools to Chinese Internet users. In April 2010, Japanese AV actress Sola Aoi’s Twitter account was found and promoted on Chinese social media by a netizen. In a few days, more than 15,000 Chinese netizens went beyond the Great Fire Wall to virtually meet Sola Aoi on Twitter, despite the block. Technically, new IT developments already provide options for Internet users to break through the censorship system. However, some questions have not been answered yet. Who wants to break through the Great Fire Wall and who is able to access proxy tools? What is the relationship between using new social media and the development of social ties for activism in Chinese people’s real lives in the context of state censorship? The social conditions in an Internet user’s real life, and the social relationship influenced by the social media, can partially explain the complicated dynamics.

According to an official Chinese report (CNNIC, January 2014), the number of active micro-blog users in 2013 was 27.83 million fewer than in 2012. Recent research shows that probably 300 million out of 500 million Twitter-like Chinese micro-blog Weibo users have not published any posts and all Weibo content is generated by around 5% of the users. Nevertheless, the number of WeChat active users has increased to 355 million this year. Released in January 2011, WeChat, a Chinese mobile phone software similar to WhatsApp plus Facebook, provides heightened privacy choices for its user, which has satisfied the Chinese people’s needs of not publically sharing divergent opinions due to cultural and political reasons. The potential users of its voice message function largely include youth, minorities, aged people, people who cannot read or write/type and people who cannot afford a computer and Internet service in their daily life, in other words, the information-less, who are marginalised by IT development. Thirdly, different from Weibo, WeChat treats mobile phone users as its major target group. It did not release a webpage application until July 2012. It provides online banking, shopping and game services as part of its mobile phone APP package. In China, 0.5 billion out of 0.618 billion Internet users access the Internet via mobile phone, and, in 2013, 54.4% of new Internet users were from rural areas (CNNIC, January 2014). The information-less, such as factory workers and youth, largely rely on mobile phones for Internet service.

Though “censorship” is applied on WeChat, several factors probably make WeChat stand out in terms of social activism. The cost of filtering voice messages, whether by software or manual censor, is extremely high, as it must account for users’ diverse dialects and accents. The location function of WeChat largely enhances the forging of place-based activism networking. WeChat’s exclusive friend/family circle function generates not only better quality information—compared to what is provided by the state propaganda and censored mass media—but also social capital, resulting in the expansion of a user’s online/offline personal relationships. Mobile devices always play an important role in the distribution of information during protests around the world. The rich post-totalitarianism Chinese regime has quickly adapted to the changes introduced by the Internet and mobile devices. The state agency develops advanced strategies based on the same tools: to identify, monitor, discredit, restrict and dismiss dissidents, thereby legitimatising the party’s state power in its soft policing.   

Existing research has demonstrated that social media has been improving the Chinese user’s social and spatial mobility and has been creating new social relationships, such as a citizen-government relationship. In Professor Ai Xiaoming’s protest against child sexual abuse in 2013, her photo of her nude breasts provoked pathos, respect, anger, courage and various other emotions. In her case, through contentious conversation on social media, dispersed netizens built up shared emotions and opinions on fighting child sexual abuse. The social tie is critical social capital, which increases community recognition and the ability of mobilising collective actions. However, dismissing the potential of collective expression and action is the priority of the Chinese state’s agenda for social control. For example, when there is a collective action, the local government responds by blocking mobile phone signals and some instant messaging software services. How much social media can assist the Chinese people in achieving a civil society is still unclear.