The SIG-III Blog

Notes from the ASIS&T special interest group in international information

Archive for the ‘Surveillance and propaganda’ Category

What’s in a name?: Questions of privacy in a Chinese social network

Chinese social networkers – the right to be anonymous?

Besides being accompanied by the above photo, which I find perfectly encapsulates the tension between recognition and anonymity among social networkers, Robert Ness’ post to Danwei.org this morning offers some of the best commentary I’ve heard on the right (or lack thereof) to be anonymous on the Internet in China. At issue is the real name system (实名制), or identity verification system. This is a system that requires someone wishing to join an online community to provide his or her real name and photo in order to join. Some like this system because (as they put it) it guarantees the authenticity of someone’s view points – members of an online community will know who said what. The systems proponents further argue that people will think twice before posting any potentially incendiary social or political commentary, as they will not be anonymous. By contrast, critics argue that this system represents Big Brother in action. Many of these critics further feel that the ability to post anonymously leads to discussion of taboo topics that would not be discussed if discussants could be personally identified.

Ness frames this debate in the context of the Chinese social network Zhanzuo.com — in Ness’s words, “one of several sites contending for the role of ‘China’s Facebook.’” The English version of the podcast interview with some of Zhanzuo’s regular networkers does a great job covering the different perspectives on this openness vs. privacy issue.

I confess I was interested in Zhanzuo for another reason as well. In order to reach out to social networkers, particularly on non-U.S. networks, I created profiles for myself on different networks active in different parts of the world (see my MySpace and Facebook, as well as my Orkut and Bebo). So naturally Zhanzuo was something I wanted to check out. I tried using Google translator to get around the language barrier, and to my surprise it wasn’t a total failure. I did get this far:

But when I created the profile I wasn’t able to type in the Roman alphabet, so I couldn’t give my real name. I threw in few random words in Chinese I copied and pasted from part of the page on the faint hope that I would be able to edit that bit of text into my real name once I was inside. Not surprisingly I was not able to do this – while I found the “edit my personal info” button, I was still unable to get the site to recognize my Romanized name. So my Zhanzuo profile is doomed.

But before the name verification authorities deleted my profile, I did try to add a little blurb about myself and the SIG-III blog, partly on the off chance that someone would see it before my profile disappeared, and partly just to see if I could do it. What happened was interesting. My attempts to post to the “about me” section were blocked, with (in Google translation) a rather Orwellian message:

your current state is: not yet audited by administrators, unable to use this function.

Block of the network to promote the real-name system, in order to pass audit, you must:

1. Upload your photos as a true portrait

2. Complete the true information (including name, department, etc)

Within 24 hours administrators will examine your images and information vetted through you can freely enjoy the fun of the block!

If Facebook, typically considered the standard bearer for authentic profile information in the U.S., ever tried anything like this, Facebook users would leave immediately. This amount of verification would never fly with a U.S. audience, thus marking a very significant difference between American social networkers and a certain percentage of Chinese social networkers. And while I wouldn’t presume to draw conclusions about broader social phenomena such as privacy in general and how attitudes towards privacy change by culture based solely upon an experiment like this, I did think my experience with Zhanzuo offered an interesting if incomplete window into attitudes towards privacy among Chinese netizens.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

Written by sigiii

October 4, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part II – Sexuality and Subversion in China

Chinese blogger Mu Mu, from a May 2006 post to her blog

Chinese blogger Mu Mu, from a May 2006 post to her blog

Decisions about when and what to censor can rest on multiple different criteria such as the reputation of the author and the relative visibility of the offending thought – an op ed piece in a major newspaper will be read by more people than if it were in a fringe publication, and as such may be subject to more stringent regulation. But the primary criteria in deciding when and what to censor is (obviously) the overall content of the idea. And as is exemplified by official censorship in China, some topics stand a greater chance of being censored than others.

DeWoskin, who I cited in part one of this article, notes that political commentary will raise the ire of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors immediately, whereas personal, social or sexual content is much more of a gray area. She writes (p. 31) that

It was as if an unspoken compact had been reached between the government and its citizens: we do politics the old way; you do your lifestyles anyway you want.

A Chinese friend of mine in Seattle echoed this thought regarding internet content specifically: an Internet search for “democracy,” “Tiannamen Square,” or “Dali Lama” will return censored results, but a blogger like Mu Mu, about whom we were talking, could get away with posting sexual content about herself.

Mu Mu first appeared on the radar screens of Western media outlets in late 2005, when Howard W. French wrote his article A Party Girl Leads China’s Online Revolution. French introduces Mu Mu as a fascinating mixture of sexuality and political commentary:

On her fourth day of keeping a Web log, she introduced herself to the world with these striking words: “I am a dance girl, and I am a party member.”

“I don’t know if I can be counted as a successful Web cam dance girl,” that early post continued. “But I’m sure that looking around the world, if I am not the one with the highest diploma, I am definitely the dance babe who reads the most and thinks the deepest, and I’m most likely the only party member among them.”

Thus was born, early in July, what many regard as China’s most popular blog.

Sometimes timing is everything, and such was the case with the anonymous blogger, a self-described Communist Party member from Shanghai who goes by the pseudonym Mu Mu.

A 25-year-old, Mu Mu appears online… most evenings around midnight, shielding her face while striking poses that are provocative, but never sexually explicit.

She parries questions from some of her tens of thousands of avid followers with witticisms and cool charm.

Mu Mu has changed a bit since French introduced her. After French wrote his article her blog attracted a large amount of media attention from the West, causing her to shut the original version of it down. If you follow the link French provides, you receive the following error message, saying (in Chinese) that the page no longer exists. Mu Mu started blogging again after the media attention subsided a bit, and her blog has since been through two other incarnations: this one here, and the current version, which exists on two different sites here and here. She has also refrained from posting any semi-nude photos of herself recently, although she is still willing to post provocative photos, such as the depictions of Japanese soldiers in the following post, which I presume deals with perpetually strained Sino-Japanese relations. (If any SIG-III Blog readers speak Chinese and would be willing to confirm or correct this presumption, I would appreciate hearing your interpretation).

Mu Mu also said she “finds it hard to comprehend why her blog is so enticing to westerners,” according to Dave Lucas. Lucas has published an English translation of Mu Mu’s reaction to French’s article. In this reaction Mu Mu uses the Google translator to engage French in a discussion, in which (if I read the Googleified translation right) she says she is glad she is living at a time when China is increasingly socially liberal, points to the challenges of separating one’s personal life from one’s public life (which is why she chose to mix the two in her blog), and reaffirms her belief in the CCP.

Mu Mu is an example of a huge challenge for Chinese censors. Politically she claims to be on their side, but then she writes about being a party girl and partaking in a Westernized liberal lifestyle (and as I discuss below, the contention that Chinese censors only go after political discussion and generally leave social and sexual topics alone does not always prove accurate). From researching her, my impression is that she is very adept at being edgy bout not too edgy as to be shut down by Party censors. Her popularity in the Chinese blogosphere adds to the challenge. With a large following, her sudden absence at the hands of Party Censors would cause a considerable stir around the Chinese blogosphere. But the attention she received from Western media in late 2005 and 2006 threatened to create a politicized crisis between official censors and Western media outlets over freedom of speech issues. I believe this potential political situation is what cause Mu Mu to shut her original blog down as an act of self-censorship and only later begin blogging again when the attention from the West had subsided.

Do Party censors really overlook all this sexuality in China’s Internet sphere?

The short answer is no, although it remains true that the severity of any reaction by official censors varies widely. Simply put, these censors are far less equipped to comprehend and deal with censoring social topics such as sex than they are political topics such as democracy.

But there is evidence of CCP attempts to regulate online sexuality in China. Perhaps the most visible example is the CCP blocking the Japanese portal of Baidu.com, noted in these two reports. (Baidu, whose name is taken from a poem from the Song Dynasty, is not a well known company outside of China, but inside China it is fighting a gargantuan three-way battle with Google and Yahoo. And Baidu is winning – see reports here and here).

Chinese blogger Mu Zimei

Chinese blogger Mu Zimei, reproduced in a report by Jeremy Goldkorn on a Sohu.com story about Mu

In the Chinese blogosphere, Mu Mu isn’t the only blogger blogging about sexuality in China. At the end of 2003 another young woman named Muzi Mei (Or Mu Zimei, Mu Zi Mei, or木子美) received a lot of media attention around the world for blogging the stories of her sexual encounters.

Hannah Beech of Time Magazine writes that

Li Li… isn’t averse to kissing and telling. For the past couple of years, Li has kept a blog–written under the pen name Muzi Mei–that has chronicled everything from her penchant for orgies and Internet dating to her skepticism toward marriage when it means staying faithful to one man… “I express my freedom through sex,” says Li, unapologetically. “It’s my life, and I can do what I want.”

Her blog has been translated into French and German (and she reports an English translation of some of her work, although I was unable to find her on Amazon in English).

She has had less success dealing with official censors than Mu Mu. While her blog was popular enough to give censors a daunting challenge in trying to counter the viral spread of her posts around the Internet, it now seems to be defunct. In the Time article linked above, Beech writes that

Despite government attempts to censor it, the sex diary is so popular that Li’s pen name is intermittently the most searched keyword on China’s top search engine.

An article by Hamish McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald went even further, saying the rise of blogs exchanging views on Chinese politics is a direct descendant of blogs that deal with social issues in China. At one point McDonald essentially says that Mu Mu, with her mix of sexuality and politics, could never have existed without Muzi Mei having blogged about sexuality alone.

Muzi Mei was certainly aware of the censorship threat she faced, and took precautions to prevent her blog from being shut down. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Goff says

For now, Muzimei is among those managing to sidestep [CCP censorship]. “I cannot go too far,” she said. “If my work was stopped that would be bad for me, bad for the development of the internet and free expression, and bad for China.”

Nonetheless she ran afoul of official censors. As Jeremy Goldkorn reports on Danwei.org,

Her online diary stirred up an online fuss which got the attention of the print media, but she was thrown off the gossip pages of the tabloids when [official censors] caught on to the action and issued some of ban on media coverage of her. She has been absent from the media since the first few months of this year [2004].

Goldkorn goes on to quote a 2004 story posted to Sohu.com that painted a very unflattering picture of her:

Muzi Mei, Li Li … she dresses gaudily, but even more gaudy is her thinking and her behavior. She frequently changes sexual partners and even brazenly describes the details of her encounters on the Internet, revealing or hinting at the real identity of the men she has known. All of this caused a great fuss in Chinese society in 2003.

The censoring of her blog may be permanent now. Whether it was a voluntary choice on her part or the result of official censorship, Muzi Mei’s blog seems to have disappeared. The last version of her blog cached on the Internet Archive was in January of 2007.

Mu Mu and Muzi Mei are just two prominent examples of a small but well known (to Chinese audiences at least) bloggers who have used the blogosphere to explore the nexus between sex, storytelling/information sharing, and Internet technology, all at the risk of being censored. Other examples come from a Cai Shangyao article in the Shanghai Star that covers Muzi Mei and Zhuying Qingtong, and Sister Lotus (also translated as Sister Hibiscus — now defunct blog here, reports here, here, here, and here). There is also the slightly different but related episode of a blogger named Hedgehog MuMu (no relation to the Mu Mu discussed above, according to Lonnie Hodge) participating in a blogger beauty contest only to be disqualified for posting nude photos of herself online. (Additional reports here and here).

That every one of these bloggers should face censorship for posting sexual content online demonstrates that Chinese censors can and will censor social as well as political content. Some astute readers may further assert that the political, social, and sexual spheres cannot be discretely separated from each other, and that posting sexual content online can be a form of political commentary. This is certainly true, and I do not at all seek to imply otherwise. This issue is, however, complex enough that it merits a full discussion that I will leave for another time. Beyond that I have additional thoughts that I will put into part III of this essay, which I will add soon. And as always, I appreciate and look forward to reading your reactions to my thoughts.

Work cited:

DeWoskin, R. (2005). Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

Written by sigiii

October 2, 2007 at 1:58 am

Government surveillance

Is it acceptable for a government to monitor channels of digital information, including personal information, that pass within its borders? If a government has a legitimate interest in doing so, how may it build trust among its citizens that it is not unnecessarily monitoring their communications or collecting their personal information? When should a government have its powers in this regard limited?

In the case of the current wiretapping operatings in the U.S. (outlined in this article by Dan Mitchell in The New York Times), to what extent should people around the world be concerned that the U.S. Government may be monitoring their Internet communications?

(The NY times requires a login to read their articles online. Creating a login and password for the NY Times is free and may be done here).

Written by sigiii

August 21, 2006 at 2:29 am