NYT Magazine Article Misconception About the Composition of Chinese Netizens

On the Mar.7th issue of the NYTimes Magazine, an article named “China Cyberposse“, written by Tom Downey, offers an in-depth review of the “Human Flesh Search Engine” phenomenon on China’s cyberspace.   It is one of these valuable times that NYTimes runs something beyond the cliche about Chinese society, and offers insight about how people actually live their lives there.   Yet like most of the other NYTimes articles on China, there are just some little details here and there in the article that keeps on bugging you, and makes you feel like they are not the results of actual experience or careful research, but from pre-conceived judgments.   This comment from the article seems to be particularly misconceived to me:

“While less than a third of China’s population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.”

It seems to be a reasonable inference here:  less than a third of China’s population is on the web, and internet access requires certain income and education level, and thus netizens of China must be from richer regions or are the elites of remote places.

Yet as someone who surfs around China’s cyberspace everyday, I usually have the suspicions that the people who spend most time online in China, the most active of Chinese netizens who dig out stories of corrupted officials and excel at “human flesh searching”, are those who are not that privileged.   My basic assumption is that, if the netizens are the elites, and the biggest beneficiary of the current political and economical system, why do they have so much to vent, and why do they have so much incentive to say things against a system in which their interests are so invested?  It just seems counter-intuitive.   Plus if you look at some of the “trivial” yet most popular discussions online, ( usually on extra-marrital affairs or sexual explorations), you wonder, who exactly are those “elites” that have that much time to go online and talk about those “trivial” issues?

The other side of my instinct comes from my experience last summer doing research about the Chinese migrant workers (those who migrate from rural and remote areas to seek employment in big industrialized cities).  I traveled to a dozen of factories in the Yangtze-delta and Pearl-delta areas to gather data about the working and living condition of migrant workers.  One of the most striking thing I learned is how accessible internet is to the younger generation of migrant workers.  They usually use cell-phones to read news online and do instant-chatting, some of them even try to save up together to buy second-hand desktops to use in their dorms.   Their elders, however, when asked, usually make comments that they are too old for “such popular culture” and would rather save money to send home.  Thus you might argue income level are not the the predominant barriers for internet access, but a certain cultural conception of it.

Since the NYTimes article excerpt really runs against my instinct, I was trying to look for data to support my view.  CNNIC, China Network Information Center, gives out reports twice a year about the internet development in China.  The latest one, the 25th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, comes out in January 2010 ( but it has not been translated into English yet. You can access the English version of the 24th here ).

Three things I found in this report that can support my intuition:

1. The majority of China’s netizens, 52% are NOT from the top 10 provinces/cities with most GDP per capita.

2. The majority of China’s netizens, 75.8%,has only received high school education or less.

3. The majority of China’s netizens, 56.2%, has a disposable income less than RMB1500 ( $220), the most modest benchmark for what is considered to be middle-class in China.

I.  I searched for the list of cities/provinces in China that have the most GDP per capita, and here is the rank for 2009 with the number of their internet users ( those who live in those cities/provinces, not necessarily those who hold registration there, which means that if a migrant worker from Hunan went to Guangdong to seek employment and lived there for more than 6 months, he would be counted as an internet user in Guangdong, not Hunan).

Ranking of Provinces by GDP per capita GDP per capita Number of Internet Users Living in the Provinces
1. Shanghai
RMB 11320.41
11.71mil
2. Beijing
RMB 10298.30
11.03mil
3. Tianjin RMB 9295.48 5.64mil
4. Zhejiang
RMB 6582.88
24.52mil
5. Jiangsu
RMB 6437.91
27.65mil
6. Guangdong
RMB 5861.92
48.6mil
7. Neimeng
RMB 5467.30
5.75mil
8. Shandong
RMB 5262.96
27.69mil
9. Liaoning
RMB 5013.66
15.95mil
10. Fujian
RMB 4854.18
16.29mil
Sum 184.83mil

Since the total number of internet users up to December 2009, according to the CNNIC report, is 384 mil, it leaves people living in the richest Ten Places in China counting for 184.83/384=48% of China’s internet users, not even making up half  of the group.  Also, the fact that the CNNIC report counts the migrant workers as internet users in cities where they are working, means that internet users who are regular inhabitants in those most developed places are much less than 184.83mil.  And if you are not convinced that the migrant workers would count for a large sum of this 184.83 mil, please look for the chart in part III about the income level of Chinese netizens.

II. The chart below is the education level of internet users:                                                                                                       

The horizontal columns from left to right reads:  primary school and below; middle school; high school; vocational school; bachelor degree and higher.

This chart means that 8.8%+26.8%+40.2%=75.8% of the internet users have only received high school level or lower education.   Even for a country like China, where the  average education level is probably middle school or below, you wouldn’t call a high school graduate “an educated elites” .

Also an interesting trend to note is that the percentage of people who have only primary school or less education is increasing, while the percentage of college graduate is decreasing.   This just means that a large percentage of the college graduates have had access to internet for a while already, so it is harder for the group to increase their representation in the whole group.  On the other hand, more people who have primary school education or less have not been exposed to internet before, and thus this group has more potential to pull up their representation.

III.  The third chart is the income level distribution of China’s internet users;  the unit of income on the left is RMB, whose exchange rate to dollar is roughly 1 dollar = 6.8 RMB

There are many discussions, both domestically and internationally, about what should be the monthly income level for China’s middle class.  The most modest benchmark I find, is RMB1500, while others contest that it should be RMB 5000.   If we adopt the more radical standard, this would leave middle class only 5.6% of the internet users, which seems rather counter-factual to me.  But even if we use the modest benchmark, RMB 1500, middle class and above would only count for 43.7% of China’s netizens, not being the overwhelming majority.

There are of course issues with the accuracy people report their incomes.  The CNNIC report was conducted through phone interviews of 72,ooo people, and one can certainly imagine interviewees being modest to speak about their income levels in official surveys.  On the other hand, the RMB 1500 benchmark for middle class is definitely very, very modest as well.  Many of the migrant workers I interviewed in the past Summer, can earn up to 2500 Yuan/month, ( but of course through 16hr*6days of work every week), and I don’t see how they can be counted as the middle class in China.   So if we take the modestiy of numbers on both sides, they might actually balance out each other, leaving the “43.7%” result not too far off from reality.

Conclusion:

The point o f this post might seem to be trivial, since it is not against the main argument of “China Cyberposse”.  Yet I think it is an important issue to bear in mind about who really are the majority of netizens in China.  Contrary to Downey’s point that it is because netizens are the elites that makes whatever happen on internet “less than peripheral”,  I think it is exactly because the netizens are the mass, and the most grass-root population, that makes them so powerful.  They suffer the most from the current system, and they really have so little to lose in this game to hold up to their rights.

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What is HOT in China at the beginning of the Year of the Tiger?

Browsing through Tianya forum, one of the most popular Chinese forums ( along with MAOPU, Xisi)has become a daily habit of mine to follow the interests and concerns  of China’s netizens.  I am always fascinated by the diversity of topics people take interest in, which range from exposures and rage over local governmental corruptions to experience-sharing about how to prevent your husband/boyfriend from having an affair.   Two popular posts after the Chinese New Year celebration especially seem interesting to me, and I thought through them you might be able to have better a  sense about  what are the things grassroot population in China are interested in.   But if you read Chinese, I seriously recommend you visiting the forum yourself.  You might get a little overwhelmed at first, since most Chinese websites do not care much about user-friendly interface and regular visitors of the forum use all kinds of jargons and abbreviations ( some purely for fun, some to better evade censorship).  Yet once you get use to it, you would surely be greatly entertained.  And Chinasmack do provide full translations for some of the most hyped stories on those forums.

“Brother Sharp” is a begger that an amateur phogographer happened to take  some street shots of in Ningbo.  His pictures debuted in a photography forum, yet soon they gained immense popularity due to the his well mashed-up bohemian outfits and his melancholy yet unrestrained air.   Netizens hailed himself as more stylish and avant-garde than Hollywood Celebrities and Korean/Japanese drama actors.

The sad-side story was also revealed through netizen’s “human flesh search engine“.  One netizen from Hangzhou claimed that he  interviewed “Brother Sharp” last year as part of his research project about homeless people who might be suffering from mental illness in Ningbo.  “Brother Sharp” is clearly a victim of  past emotional trauma, the netizen claims, because at times when  “Sharp Brother” is sober, he makes comments that he wants to find a woman to love him, and is trying to make himself feel completed by wearing women’s cloths.

Thus suddenly, amid all the admirations of “Sharp Brother”s handsomeness and style, people are also calling for proper social care for those more out there roaming on the street  suffering from mental illness.  Potential for more activism?  Let us wait and see.    For now, let us see how “Brother Sharp” drove everybody crazy.

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How internet changes the handling of social incidents in China

Today I want to begin with a pretty good summary of how internet change the way social incidents are treated in China.  It was from a speech intended to give at the 2008 Chinese blogger conference by Roland Soong, one of the most influential bloggers in the Greater China Area who translates daily news and updates from the Chinese blogsphere into English.  You can find his blog “EastSouthWestNorth” here.

There are two observations we can get from the pictures he gives: First, after the arrival of the internet, social grievances have many more channels to be heard and its more likely for them to be addressed.  Second, it seems like afte the internet boom in China, western media plays a much less influential role in shaping governments’ response to social incidents.  One reason is perhaps that they cannot be as updated as the p2p communication on net, and another is perhaps, after China’s rise, CCP honestly does not care that much about what foreign media says anymore.  It’s the opinion of the people that they take serious notice of.   And it’s arguably true that, foreign media in general lost their credibility to shape the opionion of Chinese people due to their hostilities – some perceived, some manisfested – towards China’s rise since the 2008 Olympic Games.

In Soong’s view, that’s how social incidents are treated in the pre-internet era:

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.  [If it wasn’t reported, it didn’t happen as far as people are concerned.]

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard (see The Long Road To Petition) with dim prospects.

Yet things start to change around 2003 when Soong himself started blogging.

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.  [But if it wasn’t reported in traditional media, there are other alternatives now on the Internet.]

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard, and nothing ever comes out of it.

5. The Internet forums/blogs rushed to report on the case.  But within approximately 48 hours, all traces of information are erased by order of the authorities.  [Thus, one of the excitements of my blogging activity was to find and translate that information before this window closes.]

6. Western media catch wind of the incident, and follow through.  This creates an international scandal.

7. Senior Chinese officials take notice, and corrective actions are taken.

And that’s how things are done now:

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard and nothing ever results.

5. The Internet forums/blogs rushed to report on the case.

6a. Within 48 hours, all traces of negative (i.e. against the authorities) information are erased by order of the authorities, or else by self-censorship at the portals/forums/blog service providers.

6b. Positive (i.e. on behalf of the authorities) information appear from Internet commentators who are paid by the authorities for their efforts.

6. Western media catch wind of the incident, and follow through with an international incident.

7.  But there are just too many portals/forums/blogs that important information will eventually seep through.

8. Senior Chinese officials take notice, and corrective actions are taken.

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About the Title…

Forgive me if I’m being cliche – yes, the dragon here refers to something about China.  Specifically the cybersphere in China.  It’s powerful, mighty, and full of mischievous funs, yet its strength is seriously limited.  It’s restrained, by one of the most notorious and paternalistic censorship in the world. Yet the dragon is recalcitrant, and it never gives up on fighting and finding its way out.  And that comes the charm of China’s internet.  You never lose the tension and excitement watching this two forces making their moves and combating each other.  This blog is intended to record the fun happenings along the battles.

But why wonderland?  Well, the wonderland to me refers to China.  Forgive me again that I could not settle for a better word to describe my feeling towards the country. China is a wonderland, because of its energy, adventure, and miracles, and its strange figures, extravagant endeavors and bizarre rules.  And to quote a saying about China popular among expats who are living there: its a land where nothing is permissible, yet everything is possible.

The stories of the recalcitrant dragon are set against the backdrop of this wonderland.   I welcome you to join my explorations.

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