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Archive for the tag “Censorship”

Godzilla vs. the SARFT Monster

I’ve been watching a lot of Godzilla movies recently. This isn’t some kind of weird Cable TV accident, like stumbling onto “Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy” at 2AM when you have a microwave burrito in one hand and a vodka cranberry in the other, and thus, tragically, no ability to change channels.  It’s on purpose. I’ve loved Godzilla ever since I discovered him on the afternoon sci-fi serials as a small boy. They spoke directly to the primitive part of the small-boy brain stem that wants desperately to rampage through a model city with a flame thrower. That part sometimes survives into adulthood.

I’m mostly nostalgic for the “classic” Godzilla movies, from the 1954 original up to about the late 70’s, when I was in my tweens.  I haven’t seen many of the modern films from the 80’s, 90’s and naughties, and the 1998 Matthew Broderick Hollywood obscenity is history’s second most flagrant case of pissing indifferently on a beloved piece of popular culture, after the new Star Wars movies. To this day I can’t watch “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” without weeping.

Back in the early 90’s I had a well-worn VHS tape of the Americanized version of the 1954 original, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” in which the Japanese footage is intercut with shots of “journalist” Raymond Burr calling the destruction from nonspecific locations like a sportscaster: Godzilla has just incinerated Yokohama. Three and two with the bases loaded. Looks like the Japan Self Defense Forces are going to make a change on the mound… But, with an eye on  my own son’s cultural indoctrination, I figured it was time to refresh the collection and to finally see Ishiro Honda’s original, Burr-free version of the first movie. It turns out that Amazon sells most of the classic Godzilla oeuvre at knockdown prices. I ordered eight DVDs and I’ve been watching them about one a week for the last couple of months.

Godzilla movies are still good fun. The joy of watching grown men in rubber suits going all WWF on fabulously intricate model cities never goes away. But watching the movies as an adult is a very different experience than it was when I was young.  First, they are, as you’d expect, spectacularly cheesy in virtually all respects: set design, special effects, writing, acting, you name it. In the age of “Avatar” there’s something charming about the pre-digital, in-camera crudeness of the latex, cycloramas, piano wire, little model tanks, and such. It’s a dated look that invokes the 60’s and 70’s like Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures invoke the 50’s.

The series also evolves quickly. The 1954 original was released less than a decade after the Second World War and the same year that Japan experienced radioactive rain from American nuclear tests in the Pacific. Fittingly, it is a moody metaphor for nuclear annihilation and human powerlessness. But the geniuses at Toho figured out approximately instantaneously that the future was in monster-on-monster action. By the second movie, 1955’s “Gozilla Raids Again,” Godzilla is fighting a giant, spiky turtle. The pattern is thus set for the next fifty years.

Godzilla himself rapidly goes from truly sinister to googly-eyed and almost huggable, as though Cookie Monster suddenly grew 400 feet and traded chocolate chips for infrastructure. As Godzilla moves into hero status he’s replaced as villain-in-chief by a motley assortment of other monsters, evil property developers, gangsters, robots, and disco aliens featuring some of the most awesome space-couture since Sean Connery wore a red bikini for “Zardoz.”

Nobody seemed to care much about this curious transition in Godzilla’s motivations. I guess it was a bit like sports free agency in the US. When Deion Sanders was an Atlanta Falcon, he was a gigawatt hate-magnet that sucked bile out of my pores and toward the Georgia Dome. But when he came to the Forty Niners and started running punts back for us I would have airmailed him my sister, if I’d had one. Of course, just as Deion slid back into villain status when he moved on to the hated Dallas Cowboys, Godzilla himself was reborn as a menace in his modern filmography, but that’s outside the scope of this essay.

The other thing that struck me upon watching the movies was that there is no way in hell that similar ones could have been made in China, or would be now.

As I wrote in 2005, no city has ascended the Olympian heights of popular culture until it has been ravaged by a giant monster. Tokyo is clearly way out in front in this regard. It’s taken for granted that monsters are drawn to Tokyo like frat boys to Jaeger shots. Monsters have also afflicted New York, London, San Francisco, Seoul, Paris, Rome, Los Angeles and even Bangkok (look it up). But as far as I can tell, Beijing has been blissfully free of giant monsters. Mothra was reported to be attacking Beijing in “Destroy All Monsters,” but it was never shown on screen, so it doesn’t count. Neither does “Mighty Peking Man,” which was made by the Shaw Brothers while Hong Kong was still British and, despite the name, had no action in Peking (the Chinese name was “Gorilla King”).

Why hasn’t there been a Chinese giant-monster film with a Chinese giant monster? While armies, police forces and parliaments have crumbled before Godzilla and his brethren, there is one bureaucracy that is apparently entirely impervious to giant monsters: the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television. SARFT has apparently erected a monster-proof shield around Beijing and indeed around all Chinese cities. This is not because giant monsters are particularly scary, obscene or conducive to social unrest. It is because they are politically unacceptable.

To understand why China never had a giant monster phase you have to understand something about SARFT itself. SARFT administers all of the state-owned media organizations in China and it sets the guidelines for broadcast and film censorship, ensuring that morals, political ideology and good taste are upheld. It takes the latter mission very seriously, as anyone who watches television or goes to the movies in China knows. This mandate includes approving the screenplays for all films to be produced in China, as well as approving films for distribution and exhibition.

I’m not aware of any official list of SARFT’s decisions, which is too bad because I’m sure it would be fun and educational. You can, however, get an idea of what rings their bell by reviewing their decisions concerning domestic television shows over the last few years and referring to this handy list of foreign films that have been banned or edited for Chinese release. Some recent edits are especially illustrative: removing scenes of ethnic Chinese “space aliens” from “Men in Black III”; culling Chow Yun Fat’s Chinese pirate from “Pirates of the Caribbean III”; garbling references to Shanghai in “Transformers II”; and so on (maybe they just don’t like sequels). Similarly, you can get a pretty good idea of what passes muster simply by going to the cineplex, or, god help you, channel surfing. A few generalizations:

  • The police are incorruptible
  • The People’s Liberation Army is heroic and, ultimately, invincible
  • The modern government is composed of benevolent technocrats who want the best for you
  • No one in China ever gets away with any kind of wrongdoing in the long term
  • There are no superstitions (or they end badly)
  • No one has any sex, though chaste kissing and longing gazes are OK
  • All of history is either dudes with swords and ponytails, famous PLA victories, or the Monkey King (whoever can combine all three without breaking the “no time travel” restriction will do well)
  • Everyone is ultimately happy, and doesn’t complain about news, politics, housing, infrastructure, inflation, rural migrants, pollution or the poor state of television
  • Chinese people are not “space aliens”

So what does this have to do with giant monsters? Everything. Think  about what Japan’s giant monsters perpetrated. They stomped every famous Japanese landmark. They crushed ageless castles and temples. They smashed the Diet (possibly while it was in session). They nested in Tokyo Tower. They repeatedly incinerated the capital. They dug huge, nasty burrows into the flanks of sacred Mount Fuji.

Japanese monsters also rendered the Japan Self Defense Forces totally impotent. Is there a movie in which the JSDF doesn’t get its ass handed to it on a radioactive plate? Actually, that’s a trick question. In 1955’s “Godzilla Raids Again,” the second in the series, the JSDF has its one and only significant triumph against Godzilla, using fighter planes to bury him in ice (at least until the third movie). But rival monster Anguirus had already done the heavy lifting. Otherwise, it’s a total wash. In the first Godzilla movie, the government and army are completely trampled and Godzilla is ultimately vanquished by an iconoclastic, reclusive scientist so tortured by the weapon he has created that he commits suicide rather than entrust the government with it. Not exactly the communist hero archetype (except maybe for the suicide part, a la Dong Cunrui).

By the mid 1970’s the JSDF has traded F-86 Sabres for laser tanks (laser tanks!) and rocket ships, but it’s still getting owned by every monster that heaves itself out of Tokyo bay. In fact, the main job of humans in most of the movies is to flee in panic, be appalled by the destruction or supply Raymond Burr-style color commentary: Look! It’s a flying saucer! Is it? I didn’t know. Oh no! It’s Godzilla! Really? I hadn’t noticed.

Now envision a Chinese monster movie that goes by the classic Godzilla formula. Something scaly and awful emerges from, let’s say, Miyun reservoir, where it has been awakened by decades of polluted agricultural runoff. It follows the Jingmi Road down to the capital, pausing only to snack on the new Expo Center and T3 (we can hope). In Beijing it proceeds to stomp the Forbidden City, trash Zhongnanhai, incincerate the Great Hall of the People and leave nasty footprints all over Tian’anmen Square despite the best efforts of the PLA. It is only defeated when an iconoclastic rebel unveils a weapon so powerful that he tragically kills himself to ensure it doesn’t fall into the Party’s hands.

Who here thinks SARFT greenlights that one?

That’s what I thought. If SARFT had approved a Chinese giant monster movie, it would have gone something like this:

  • Reel one: The Chinese people are peacefully minding their domestic affairs and improving their lives under the guidance of the Party.
  • Reel two: The Japanese (can’t use the Americans – the Japanese and Koreans have gone there already) do something horrible that creates a monster that emerges from the Bohai Bay, skips Tianjin like every other tourist, and heads straight for Beijing.
  • Reel three: The PLA uses domestically innovated technology and socialism to kick its ass before it can damage any historic sites, Party monuments or Famous National Brands. Ba yi, sucker!

I think even Zhang Yimou would have spotted that as a loser.

It’s too bad that giant monster films have never got traction in China. Giant monsters are wonderfully flexible metaphors for modern ills like atomic technology, pollution, industrialization and disagreeable political systems. Even the North Koreans saw the political angle when they created Pulgasari as a metaphor for capitalism and had him attack Kaeson. They couldn’t bear to have him rampage through Pyongyang –that’s just going too far– but they found someplace to put him, thus returning the cinematic favor of the communist space melons from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Surely there must be some appropriate metaphorical deployment of giant monsters with Chinese characteristics. Corruption? Runaway Maoism? Runaway capitalism? Soviet revisionism? The dairy industry? And think of the soft-power angle! Where have you gone, Han Sanping? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you!

But alas, even with the monster-bait of Guomao Tower 3, Yintai, the new CCTV Center, the Egg and the Bird’s Nest it seems we’re destined to be monsterless in Beijing. That’s a shame. Like political cartoons, tolerance of the cinematic destruction of treasured symbols is a sign of political and cultural maturity and confidence. If you can watch a rubber-suit monster smash a tiny representation of your society and not worry that it will somehow erode faith in the actual society, then you’ve taken an important step. And you’ve done a wonderful thing for every small boy in your country.

See Also:

Wikipedia’s list of Kaiju films

Politically unreliable.

Google’s Lame Card Trick

Suppose a magician was inflicted upon you, and he asked you to pick a card, any card. Except that one. No, not that one either. Yes, OK, that’s a good one. Now place it back in the deck… Is that your card? Ta-da! You’d say he was an awful magician, right?

That’s what Chinese internet users are likely to think about the new and improved Google.com.hk that tells you if one of your search terms won’t work. While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular Google.com like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Photo credit: www.buy-magic-tricks.com

Good News! The Press is Out to Get You

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about PR in China to a journalism class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In any student talk the Q&A is always the most fun, and this group was no exception. Among the many good questions asked was whether it was easier to do PR in China because, as I had discussed in my talk, the Chinese media is generally cozier with businesses than their Western counterparts.

Easier to get stories? Yes. Easier to achieve meaningful results with the public? No.

I was reminded of this question by the recent expulsion of hard-charging Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan, and subsequent closure of the AJE bureau in China after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to accredit another AJE journalist. I didn’t know Melissa well, though I had met her, but I respected her reporting and willingness to insert herself into uncomfortable situations, and I was disappointed to see her go. Reporting on China will be impoverished a bit.

That, of course, was the point. The Chinese government has never been comfortable with an adversarial media, and Melissa’s reporting was, like that of much of the foreign press corps, pretty adversarial from their point of view. This discomfort is deeper than cursory annoyance at embarrassing foreign gadflies (although I presume that is part of it). It arises from one of the fundamental philosophies of Leninist political parties: the media are considered Party organs and, as with other Party organs, expected to serve the interests of the Party first and foremost. Media that don’t fit into that model are suspect by definition. You can see this philosophy expressed in the mechanisms of control that the Chinese government maintains over all domestic media, and in the government’s struggles to come to terms with the rise of social media that resist conformity with established power structures.

The Party’s model is rather different from the fundamental philosophy of Western media: that it should be the fourth estate, entrusted with challenging the business and government establishment in the interest of the people. You are welcome to argue about how effective Western media have been in this role in recent years, and there are plenty of exceptions, but as a founding principle the idea of the fourth estate is alive and well and inextricably bound up with our Western ideas of what the media should be (and with the value judgments we render on media that doesn’t conform to that principle). A functional, adversarial media is a necessary component of Western-style liberal democracy, unless you have total faith in politicians and institutions.

I am not going to comment further on the specifics of the Al Jazeera situation (some links to good articles below), but in light of the Chinese government’s recent struggle with rumors and trust issues, it’s worth reflecting on why an adversarial media is sometimes useful, even to the establishment. This is what I discussed with the students at Beiwai.

As a news junkie who still pays for several subscriptions, I’m most definitely a fan of adversarial media model (you could also call it an “independent media” model, but independence is only valuable in that enables an adversarial position). There is nothing like a fantastic piece of investigative reporting that rips the lid off of some secret or scandal or that illuminates the dark corners of business or politics. As long as it’s not my dark corner, that is.*

As a PR practitioner with a company reputation to defend, I’ve experienced firsthand the adversarial media model’s short-term ability to create sleepless nights and great puddles of cubicle sweat. But nevertheless, I still appreciate its value in the long-term. That’s because people are more likely to trust media that challenges me than one they know to be compliant with me, and I need media that the public trusts to get my message out, whether that message is a corporate one, a product review or whatever. If I have to do more work to get coverage in that kind of media, and tolerate some negative coverage as well, so be it.

In China, on average, relationships between businesses and the media tend to be closer and less adversarial than in the west. There is also a range of ethical problems, including poor separation of advertising and editorial, the “transportation claim” subsidy-in-disguise, and more. Together, these make it easier for companies to earn –or buy– good coverage in local media than it would be in many other markets. But they also mean that the public is relatively more skeptical of much of the coverage and turns to alternative voices for much of its information and insight, many of them on microblogs . The result is a devalued media that makes even our best earned coverage less useful and influential, and that makes it harder for me to manage misinformation and rumors about my company.

Sound familiar?

These are generalizations. There are excellent journalists and excellent media in China, and crappy ones in the west. But the overall gap in trust is real. The real sign of progress here will not be in the government showing more tolerance for confrontational Western media, but in its tolerating the emergence of a fully independent, professionalized and adversarial Chinese media. That change, when it happens, will be driven by Chinese journalists. In some ways, it’s already happening.

For those of us in the establishment, there is value in learning to deal with an adversarial media, and in being good at telling our stories and getting our messages across in media that are willing to challenge us, and that therefore lend credibility to the claims that survive their scrutiny. But if you’ve never had to deal with that kind of media, you haven’t developed the skills necessary to do so, and you rely on a tradition of control and management to get your message across, then you are in the realm of propaganda and will face the consequences in terms of diminished trust.

And if your situation is so precarious that there is no way to tell a positive story when engaging with adversarial media? Well, then, your problems are much bigger and deeper than PR skills. Or one uppity journalist.

* Just kidding. Naturally, I have no actual dark corners.

See also:

On the Al Jazeera situation:

On the difficulty of reporting in China:

Good news? A magazine stand at SFO's international terminal on Monday.

Melissa Chan does not compute

It would be a disservice to Melissa Chan, one of the most dedicated journalists covering China, to not to make at least brief mention of the craven and shameless decision by the Powers that Be to deny her application for a new visa, a move which is tantamount to her expulsion from the country.[1]

Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is.  But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly.  Since 2008, when new regulations were announced (if not always followed) allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image.  In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.

Now that frustration has reached higher levels of the government and Melissa is the victim.  Of course, this being China, nobody in the government has the actual balls to say why they chose to expel her.  That would be too embarrassing.  But if you’re going to send your minions out to obfuscate and cover up your own shamelessness, at least send people who can – you know – do a job.

Compare these two press conference transcripts, both starring MOFA spokesperson Hong Lei.

Q: I just want to know whether the expulsion of Melissa Chan should be seen as a warning to other journalists operating in China?

Hong Lei: “I have just answered relevant questions. On the issue of foreign journalists our policies and moves are easy to see. We will continue to provide convenience for foreign journalists reporting in China and we welcome foreign journalists to report in China. At the same time we need to stress that foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations, as well as professional ethics of journalists while reporting in China.”

Q: Under what circumstances will Al Jazeera be given press credentials and visas for a new reporter?

Hong Lei: “The Beijing branch of Al Jazeera is still functioning normally.”

Q: Can you tell us who made the decision to deny Ms. Chan, was it the Foreign Ministry or another department?

Hong Lei: “We deal with relevant matter in accordance with law.”

Q: Can you give us any specifics on why Melissa Chan was expelled from the country because there is a lot of confusion here and unless you’re more specific about it it’s very difficult for us to get a picture of exactly what’s going on.

Hong Lei: “I have already answered this question.”

——————————————————————————–

Q: Can you tell us who made the decision to deny Ms. Chan: was it the Foreign Ministry or another department?

Hong Lei: Honestly? Not a clue. I’m gonna refer you here to our mysterious laws and regulations.

Q: Can you give us any specifics on why Melissa Chan was expelled from the country… because there is a lot of confusion here and unless you’re more specific about it it’s very difficult for us to get a picture of exactly what’s going on.

Hong Lei: She was not expelled… as far as I know, she left of her own volition.

[Laughter]

Q: I think the main concern of the journalists is that the Chinese government, you use the issue of visa as a way to censor journalists’ work in China. Is this a precedent of how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will behave in the future?

Hong Lei: We do this every 14 years or so. So, yeah. No. Maybe.

Q: What could the Chinese government say if a Chinese journalist was expelled from a foreign country?

Hong Lei: Anybody else going to see Hanggai play this weekend?

One is the China Daily Show.  The other is a VOA transcript of an actual MOFA presser from this past week.  Once again China’s government teeters drunkenly on that oh so fine line between “self” and “self-parody.”

One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?

Certainly the timing wasn’t great.  The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks.  Not a good time to apply for a visa.  Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps.  Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would.  It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment.  Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre to experience a sudden involuntary fecal event.

A quotation which was making the rounds on Twitter this past week – and which ended up in a few different posts on the subject — was the old Orwell chestnut: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”

Something rags like The Global Times fail to understand.

China didn’t give a specific reason for expelling the reporter. This ambiguity cannot be criticized. According to foreign journalist sources here in Beijing, Melissa Chan holds an aggressive political stance. According to foreign reports, she has a tense relationship with the management authorities of foreign correspondents. She has produced some programs which are intolerable for China.

We don’t want to see any confrontations between the Chinese government and foreign journalists here in China. Local authorities are more willing to cooperate with them, while foreign media should take an objective and balanced view toward the country. Foreign media should reflect on China’s complexity, which is well-known to almost all foreigners in China. However, some media are only keen to show the wickedness of China to the world.

According to some Chinese people who work or used to work in foreign media bureaus, it is common practice for some foreign journalists to just piece together materials based on their presuppositions when reporting on China. If a foreign reporter cannot stay in China, we can only assume that he or she has done something cross the line.

Finally, Isaac Stone Fish put forward a somewhat controversial theory, that Melissa was the victim of racial profiling.

Issac writes:

Executives and reporters with Chinese backgrounds have many advantages operating in China. Besides language skills and local networks, they can blend in a country where different color skin clearly identifies one as an outsider. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be given less leniency when they don’t follow China’s laws; like they’re supposed to “know better.”

Many foreign news bureaus are hosted in two diplomatic compounds in the Jianguomen neighborhood. As a reporter based out of the compound for two years, I entered freely, while foreign reporters who looked Chinese (and, of course, those that were Chinese), often had to show their IDs to get in. Injustice in China affects more than just the locals.[2]

One wonders – and it helps here to consider the mentality of those officials who make these decisions – if they expected a young woman of Asian descent working for Al-Jazeera to be more…sympathetic, and when she turned out to be tough as nails as well as a highly independent and keen observer of the complexities of China, it was all too much to bear.

I remember an anecdote Melissa once told a group of my students.  She said that when she first arrived, the Ministry folks were all smiles, figuring that any network which plays Osama bin Laden’s mix tapes must be alright.  Six months later the same ministry folks complained to her that she was just as bad as CNN and the BBC.  “Thank you?” she replied.

Melissa was a journalist who, more than most, gave voice to the voiceless and shone a spotlight on those corners of the country in grave need of international awareness and recognition.  A more confident government would applaud her professionalism.  By expelling Melissa, however, the Chinese government has shown how little it really knows about ‘soft power’ or, indeed, how little it cares about showing this glorious country – in all of its nuance and complexity – to the world.

She will be missed.


[1] The further decision to refuse accreditation for a replacement journalist effectively kills the Al-Jazeera English bureau.  One of the less reported casualties were the Chinese staff at the bureau, one of whom, who shall remain nameless, is something of a legend among the Chinese news assistants for his long service and professionalism.

[2] YJ once led a mini-revolt at the compound when she was stopped for the 1000th time while her husband, who had absolutely no business being there except to play basketball, blithely wandered in and out of the gate without so much as a glance.

Facebook + Instagram + China = Take a Deep Breath

So, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion bucks. Awesome for those guys. I, alas, did not get rich in either of the Internet startups I participated in. But you can’t put a price on experience, right?

Deep sigh.

Anyway, Instagram is freely accessible here in China, at least for the moment, and apparently has a small but growing user base. It’s been limited to a certain slice of the China market by being an iOS-only app until last week. It may get picked up more now that it’s on Android as well, especially given Android’s whomping share of the smartphone market in China.

Because Instagram is accessible from China there has been some speculation that it might provide a back-door into the market for Facebook. Well, color me embarrassed, because when I looked at how Facebook might get into China a couple of weeks ago, one scenario I didn’t explore was Facebook buying another, unblocked western social network.

Instagram certainly functions as a posting back-door to both Facebook and Twitter. Instagram posts route to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks through Instagram’s unblocked servers (actually, Amazon’s cloud servers for the moment). There are similar middleman workarounds for posting on blocked social networks, such as Ping.fm, but none come close to providing full access to Twitter or Facebook. And, from what I can see, neither does Instagram. That’s important.

The question that wins you the brand new car is: Will Instagram now be blocked in China? The reason why you don’t have the car yet is that the answer is complicated. China doesn’t block all foreign social networks. It does block the established, heavy-hitting, horizontal sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. But many vertical social networks and newer sites are unblocked. I can get on LinkedIn, Quora, Path, Flickr and Pinterest just fine, without a VPN (your mileage may vary). I can even get on MySpace.

I cannot read the minds of the bureaucrats who decide what gets blocked and what doesn’t, and if I could I’d probably be in a position to be less wistful about the fates of the startups I joined. But there do seem to be a few key factors in determining who stays safely outside the firewall. These include size, perceived influence, how closely the network has been associated with political movements, power to function as tool of mass organization, and whether or not the network has been explicitly associated with content or activities that the Chinese government considers sensitive. On all three counts, I’d rate Facebook and Twitter considerably higher than the rest of the pack. As for Google Plus, I trust this audience doesn’t need much explanation.

So, what happens with Instagram now that it is part of planet Facebook?

It depends. Assuming people don’t suddenly start posting pictures that annoy the Chinese government, maybe nothing. At the moment, Instagram seems pretty harmless, and its one-way posting features to other social networks don’t look like a big red flag. Posts to Chinese social networks like Sina Weibo essentially outsource the content monitoring and censorship. Of course, Twitter once looked pretty harmless. In 2007 I even wrote a short article mocking its triviality, possibly betraying the lack of vision responsible for my current un-billionaire status. Twitter has been blocked for a while now. So much for harmless. The fact that Instagram is essentially mobile only has also probably helped keep it under the radar.

But if Instagram is integrated more tightly into Facebook’s core service and stops looking and feeling like an independent platform, then the risks go up fast. Everything hinges on where Facebook sees the value in Instagram, and whether or not it pulls Instagram into the mothership. The more integrated Instagram is, the more powerful it is as “back door into China” for Facebook, but the more likely it is to be blocked. And if Instagram is suddenly used to post a lot of pictures of a sensitive event in China, it might not even matter if Facebook doesn’t change a thing.

Meanwhile, local photo-sharing clones have been blossoming for a while. Early enthusiasm for foreign social networks in China does not reliably translate into long-term success, while mainstream success in China often does translate into closer scrutiny. Instagram may indeed be a back door into China for Facebook, but if it wants to stay open, it might have to stay a rather small door indeed.

Other links:

Instagram

Smile.

And the reaction becomes the story…

Early last week there was a flood of sensational rumors on Chinese microblogs alleging political unrest and splits among the Party’s top leadership. Last night news broke that the relevant authorities slapped China’s two most influential microblog platforms, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, for not acting strongly enough to suppress the rumors.  Today, attempts at commenting on Sina’s popular Weibo site receive the following message: “3月31日8时至4月3日8时,微博评论功能暂停使用,给您带来的不便深表歉意.” (From 8:00 March 31 until 8:00 April 3, the Weibo commenting function has been temporarily suspended, we deeply apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.”)

More ominously, the BBC reports this morning that six people have been arrested for spreading false rumors relating to the ‘coup’ in Beijing.

As journalist Adam Minter said on Twitter, “Well, if there were any weibo users who didn’t know about the coup rumors before, they surely do now.”  Other Chinese and foreign journalists are also commenting online and the Wall Street Journal has already run a story.

Once again, the reaction has become the news.  Just when it seemed like crazy rumors of a possible coup in the capital were mostly a jape, easily traced back to a certain heavy-breathing religious society based in the US, the CCP leadership has taken direct aim at the tops of their imported Italian loafers and pulled the trigger.  The story had already largely played itself out in the foreign press. Even the tantalizing threads of scandal emerging on a near daily basis from Chongqing had started to run their course as journalists who traveled there found it nearly impossible to confirm any of the wild and tawdry tales being told about Bo, his wife, the corpse, and the cop.  This is sure to keep those stories going for (at least) another week.

Moreover, Chinese Weibo users are now having their Brave New Weibo World disrupted: “What do you mean I can’t tell my friend that her funny cat picture is soooo cute?  Why?”  

Singer Faye Wong’s Weibo account offers a nice capsule summary of the reaction — and a glimpse at what the big story of the day would have been if not for the comment freeze:Faye Wong's first Weibo update today, posted at 8:17

A cod reworking of a famous Meng Haoran poem — “I slept the spring night away, not noticing the dawn / And tossed and turned all night and didn’t get a good sleep / There was a big old wind at night / So bundle up today!” — about the sandstorm that hit Beijing overnight.
Wong is an extremely — not to say pathologically — active Weibo user, and apparently sat there in her jammies refreshing her Weibo page to see if anyone had commented for thirteen minutes before realizing that something was amiss:

Faye Wong's second Weibo post, at 8:30, asking what's going on

“Huh? I didn’t turn off comments. What’s going on? Am I ‘sensitive’ all of a sudden?”

The ‘forwarding’ function for Weibo (similar to Twitter’s RT) still works, and Weibo users are now rapid-forwarding theories and jokes about the shutdown, with one Weibo follower of YJ writing, “Why do you say there are rumors? We have freedom of speech and didn’t violate any laws.”*

The Weibo platforms have been flirting with a showdown with the government for some time. Time will tell if this is a one-off lesson, or the beginning of some very trying days for Sina and Tencent.

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*We have a screenshot but in light of recent events are not posting it here or identifying the user.

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