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China’s social media copycats find ways around censors

Posted on 13 February 2011

The next time you post online, spare a thought for the 500 staff at Renren whose sole job it is to censor the mainland’s homegrown social networking site.
By Lana Lam, for the South China Morning Post

Every day, in an office in the central city of Wuhan , they sift through millions of posts to spot anything the government might deem too sensitive. This is reality for privately held Renren, dubbed a copycat of Facebook.

“There are around 500 people in one city to scrutinise all the users,” said Jeffrey Zheng, head of marketing and advertising for Renren in eastern China. “We also have a keyword-match system.” And if Renren failed to censor? “Our CEO would have to have a coffee with the government.”

Use of social media has exploded. Renren has 170 million users, primarily on the mainland, of whom 28 million spend at least an hour on the site a day. Like users of Facebook, which is banned on the mainland, Renren users post status updates, share links, upload photos and blog.

Despite censorship rules, social media sites on the mainland are creating innovative ways to subtly circumvent the government.

“If you compare the situation on freedom of speech right now, maybe with two or five years ago, actually the Chinese internet is much, much more open than before,” he said.

The rise of microblogs has also shone a spotlight on censorship.

Users of Sina Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Twitter, doubled to 103 million in the period from March to June last year. Weibo, which means microblog in Chinese, claims to have half the market, with 50 million users on the mainland and 600,000 in Hong Kong.

“Yes we have a team on censorship,” said Meg Lee, general manager of Sina Hong Kong. “This is policy … and definitely we have to follow.

“But I agree that the government is more open. Many government departments, the police in different provinces, they open Weibo accounts to share information with their citizens. I think they will treat this as a communication tool.”

Yuan Li, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal‘s Chinese-language edition, said it had 430,000 Renren followers and 124,000 on Weibo. “It’s growing really fast.”

She sees social networking sites as a way to tackle censorship.

“I really like social networking sites because in China, we are foreign and our servers are based in Hong Kong. There are a lot of limitations in terms of what we can do, what we cannot. Could portal sites like Sina.com beam back to us? That was very difficult to do in the past, but with Renren, we’ve seen that we can post links on those websites and we can drive traffic back.”

Lu said 2011 would see a more transparent market. “Hopefully the Chinese Web [will] be more open.”

For the full article and more, visit the South China Morning Post.

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