China’s 460 million Internet users have enthusiastically embraced social media, especially the many locally developed platforms.
The combination of China’s enormous population, leading-edge Internet and mobile infrastructure and a unique socio-economic and political environment, underpin a burgeoning social media landscape.
What’s driving the explosion?
Many factors are driving China’s the rapid adoption of social media in China. These include:
• Rural-to-urban migration has separated tens of millions of families.
• Loneliness of the post-1970s generation of one-child per family offspring.
• General distrust of information originating from government-controlled media.
These factors have made China’s social media environment significantly different from that of the West. Perhaps the most fundamental reason relates to China’s centrally controlled, one-party government. The Chinese Communist Party operates with two broad objectives -- keeping itself in power and maintaining stability. These mandates pervade every corner of policy, administration and law, especially when it comes to anything that can influence large numbers of people such as the media and the Internet.
Sinification of the Internet
Over the past two decades, as various social media platforms became perceived challenges to Party control, the authorities gradually blocked most of them – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Google left China for Hong Kong.
However, blocking the world’s largest social media platforms did not completely limit social media in China. Policies to constrict foreign social media were coupled with active support of a locally developed and broadly compliant, State-approved online ecosystem. Numerous equivalents to Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are now flourishing in China. Popular home-grown platforms include Sina’s Weibo, Renren.com, Qzone and Kaixin001.
The success of the native sites may be partly due to the blockage of Western sites, but it’s also because local social media better suit Chinese tastes. For example, even before it got into trouble in China, Google never came close to establishing the market share that it has in the West.
China’s Internet is free and untamed – to a point
Although local platforms have developed with the State’s blessing and support, this does not mean that online discourse in China is docile. Contrary to popular belief, postings critical of government representatives are not automatically banned or erased from the net. Topics that attract the most comment and traffic frequently include those that criticize and mock government officials for misbehavior, flagrant abuse of power, corruption or general stupidity.
Other popular topics of discussion relate to social injustice, economic inequality, pollution, greed, poverty, and the many manifestations of rapid changes to Chinese society. The most popular topics on Chinese social media forums are generally gossipy, lurid, provocative, and at times, Jerry Springer-esque. (The website www.chinasmack.com provides a window into current popular Chinese Internet news, stories, pictures, videos, memes and trends translated into English along with real Chinese netizen opinions).
That said, a hot forum topic will often eventually be deleted by the authorities if it is deemed too troublesome. Additionally, although individual cases of officials falling afoul is common fodder for online discussions, more serious criticism aimed directly at the government, the Party and its leadership is generally avoided or quickly removed by the Party’s censorship apparatus.
The government’s current approach to social media might best be described as the “tiger cage.” The government maintains a large cage to contain the tigers (netizens). Inside the cage the tigers are largely left to their own devices. The government has calculated that at this stage it best not to venture inside the cage unless it must.
Differences in consumer use of social media
While a rapidly growing online community is having a significant impact on China, it is still far from agreed how to best engage and utilize this powerful new force. Part of the reason is that China’s netizens’ behavior differs significantly from that of other countries. For example, U.S. Internet users are much more driven by practical needs such as sending email, shopping or selling goods, planning trips and paying bills. In China, users predominantly use the Internet for social reasons, with significantly higher use of forums, blogs, chat sites, as well as video, music and entertainment sites.
Although newer Chinese social media platforms have developed beyond their Western counterparts, other older platforms like Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) are still widely used. Many Chinese heavily rely on BBS forums for peer reviews and comments about everything from clothes and cosmetics, to restaurants and cars, or even for career advice.
The crucial factor is that anonymous postings encourage users to give unvarnished views. Writing under pseudonyms, some users who frequently post on BBSs build sizable reputations and followings. There are many Paris Hiltons in China. This anonymity does, however, open the system to abuse by competitors writing negative comments.
Differences in business use of social media
Another major difference with the West is that fewer corporations in China have utilized social media for business purposes. There are two reasons for this, both linked to the government’s control of the media.
First, in a centrally controlled environment, traditional media (TV, newspapers and magazines) is owned or controlled by the Party. The State-owned media is accepted by business and government as the legitimate forum in which to operate and communicate. China’s traditional media is a bubble, but it is a bubble that the State is familiar with and controls. If an organization wishes to reach decision-makers, it does so where decision-makers communicate and find information.
Second, social media in China is a new medium where information flow is very rapid, largely uncontrollable and potentially harmful. Chinese netizens are often cynical and suspicious of corporate and government efforts to engage them online; they see social media as a peer environment only. This suspicion stems from long experience with State control of mainstream media. More recently, it has been reinforced by instances of companies paying contributors to pretend to be independent as they contribute favorable views of one company while slandering that company’s competitors.
Somewhat like the America’s Wild West of many years ago, the social media environment in China offers opportunities but is also fraught with pitfalls.
As China’s population continues to move online, consumer behavior is rapidly evolving. Social media has grown to become the environment of shared common interests where Chinese consumers exchange opinions, ask for advice and discuss brands; employees discuss companies, salaries and employers’ reputations.
Companies doing business in China need to weigh the opportunities, challenges and risks, then plan their use of social media before taking action.
Jeremy Li is an account director at Racepoint Beijing, a global public relations agency that is part of marketing services company W2 Group.