May 09

Tianya and Chinese online: A brief introduction

Written by Buxi on Friday, May 9th, 2008 at 9:04 pm
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Many people probably know that the number of people going on line in China has just recently, officially, passed the number of people going online in the United States . (Many believe China passed the United States long ago, since hundreds of millions login through anonymous internet-cafes where they aren’t “counted”.) But many people might not understand what this really means from a practical impact point of view.

Perhaps due to cultural reasons, or perhaps due to political reasons, or perhaps just due to demographics… just as in the real world, life on the internet is substantially different in China from what it is in the United States. I want to introduce a few of these differences to the English-speaking world.

Tianya remains one of China’s most popular and famous message forum sites (and partly owned by Google). At any given time during the day, Tianya will have anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 viewers. Interesting threads will stay active for years at a time, accumulating tens of thousands of replies. Active threads (like those following recent Olympics torch rallies) will build up thousands of replies within the matter of one or two days. Numerous, significant, nation-changing “movements” have come out of Tianya.

Details after the jump.

Censorship does exist on Tianya, but the amount of open and free dissenting speech on this forum might surprise many Westerner observers (and even Chinese who’ve been away for more than 5 years). Most typically, censorship filters on the basis of certain keywords. If you use a sensitive keyword, your post will be blocked… but this is a mostly trivial block, since you’re given the opportunity to revise the post with alternate phrasing + characters.

Active managers are also on the job. They will delete posts that violate Chinese law, although the boundaries of what this means have changed drastically over the past 10 years. On far rarer occasions, complete topics will become taboo. For example, for a few days after the Lhasa riots on 3/14, anything involving Tibet was removed. In the few days before the Carrefour boycotts scheduled for 5/1,anything involving the boycott was also removed.

Tianya is an imperfect tool for getting a broad view of Chinese society, because its participants are not truly representative of China at large. Surveys suggest that a very large percentage (80%+) are either in college or have college-equivalent degrees, and a significant majority are located in Guangdong province or south China. In China, history tells us that people from different backgrounds often have very different political and social opinions. And there are huge differences between an only child web-designer raised in Guangzhou, and a farmer from Hunan. But even though not representative of China at large, the voices on this site are representative of at least the young netizen in China.

Before you read too deeply into the Chinese internet, you should be introduced to the cast of characters that are (assumed) to be a regular part of the discussion. Below are a list of derogatory labels used to “classify” people holding differing opinions:

  • “50 cent” (五毛): Not the hip-hop artist, this refers to those believed to be paid by the government to write favorable posts (and paid 50 cents per post). Anyone writing a fawning post in favor of the government will inevitably get this label.
  • “rat” (耗子): Similar to above, referring to anyone paid to promote positive news (on behalf of government or anyone else).
  • “race traitor” (汉奸): refers to those suspected of not being Chinese patriots, and working for non-Chinese causes.
  • “net spy” (网特): refers to those suspected of being paid by foreign governments (United States, Taiwan) to slander China.
  • “wheelie” (轮子): refers to those suspected of being Falun Gong faithful, believed to generate some of the more unbelievable anti-government/anti-China propaganda.
  • “angry youth” (愤青): not always derogatory (since some are proud of their status), refers to young Chinese nationalists who are accused of being irrational, and always angry at the outside world.
  • “elite” (精英): like above, not always derogatory… but refers to the academic/intellectual elite who argue in favor of “universal” natural values (inevitably meaning democracy and human rights), accused of being living in an ivory tower disconnected from reality.

Tianya actually consists of multiple forums, with different forums primarily attracting people with similar interests. So the nature and tone of discussion will differ drastically from forum to forum.

The forum “Miscellaneous Chat” (杂谈), for example, tends to attract “right-leaning” discussions critical of authority, critical of the government, and critical of society at large. Most of the participants in this forum are male (80%+ according to a demographics survey), and typical age range stretches from 21-30 years of age. The participants in this forum are more likely to already be working in white-collar jobs, although college students are also a significant percentage.

Traditionally, “Misc Chat” was known for its socially and politically provocative dialogue. Many long-time observers and participants though have complained that over the past 1-2 years that it’s gone into a decline, with irrational trash talking dominating real discussion. Crude discussions about darker topics (murders, prostitution, corruption) tend to be popular. On the political side, government officials are most often described as corrupt pigs, and government media content is treated with great derision. A common refrain from some is “China is hopeless”.

Tianya reports a total of 33 million posts in the history of this forum. Recent hot topics include:

The Entertainment (娱乐八卦) forum has different demographics. It’s been more popular than “Misc Chat” based on number of posts and viewers. A significant majority of its members are female; the largest segment here are university students. The content here tends to be cheerier, with more emphasis on entertainment news. Politics are also a common topic, although posters tend to be more optimistic; government is given the benefit of the doubt on most issues.

Tianya reports a total of 23 million posts in the history of this forum. Recent hot topics include:

And because of recent interest in the Olympics, a special forum has been setup. Various Tibet issues have also been wrapped into this forum. Traffic to this forum will rise and fall depending on whether Olympics-related events are occurring on any given day. This forum is overwhelmingly in support of the Olympics, and critical of those who’ve interfered.

Established only in the last two months or so, this forum has accumulated 3 million posts. Recent hot posts include:

This is only a quick, momentary snapshot of a small slice of the Chinese online world. This can only be a snapshot, because online life in China changes quickly. Forums can be born, thrive, and then die within the span of a few years. They might die due to political pressure, economic mismanagement, or just feuds between important members.

This is only a small slice of the Chinese online world. These three forums represent a small percentage of the 30-40 forums available on Tianya. Tianya itself only represents a small percentage of the tens of other large-scale chat forums popular with Chinese netizens. There are also hundreds, if not thousands of very popular regional or university-based forums.

But with a series of these snapshots, I hope that the world gradually comes to understand that China is not monolithic, that the Chinese in China are not automatons living in an uninformed, autocratic world, and that the Chinese are not at all reserved or shy with their opinions.

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19 Responses to “Tianya and Chinese online: A brief introduction”

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    This makes a nice entry for the wikipedia. Right now the “Tianya club” entry in wikipedia is too simple. I suggest you edit the entry there.

  2. Buxi Says:

    Appreciate the thought. I’m not much of a contributor to Wikipedia, but anyone else should feel free to re-use the content above in a Wiki entry. If needed, you can reference this page as “source”.

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