Hong Kong: It was spring 2002 when Isaac Mao, a Shanghai-based software engineer for US chipmaker Intel, first came across Internet blogs.
He was immediately struck by the freedom of expression the online journals offered ordinary citizens, and with a fellow blogger from a remote part of east China’s Fujian province he set up CNBlog.org, China’s first online discussion forum about blogging technology.
“We discussed how blogs may change China,” Mao said in an interview. “We didn’t imagine how this would end up changing the social and even political scenes within the Chinese community in less than five years.”
In Communist Party-ruled China, the media, including the regular Internet continues to remain tightly controlled and monitored by the government.
Blogs by their very nature, offer a means of dodging censors, allowing more freedom of expression and, ultimately, freedom of thought. And in China’s context it acquires a new meaning altogether. For long they have been repressed a nd forced to say things which are politically correct. To find a voice and a medium to give vent to their feelings and emotions means a great deal to them.
According to Mao, “they need this tool to give them the freedom to express themselves. Blogs can then be a very empowering tool.”
The power of Chinese blogs was demonstrated recently by the international coverage given to a lone woman whose defiance of developers had spared her home from demolition in central China’s Chongqing city.
Photographs of her house balanced precariously on a mound in the midst of a construction site were circulated all over the world after first appearing in China’s blogosphere.
Bloggers manage to evade censors by posting their comments on websites and then linking the site to other blogs and webpages, allowing them to form a social network.
“Due to political reasons from the past, Chinese people don’t like to share their viewpoints, they tend to hide themselves so they don’t trust each other. But blogs help people to trust.
In China the population of bloggers has surged to 20.8 million, the largest in the world. Blogging had transformed community links throughout the country, allowing urban bloggers to team up with surfers in rural areas and international users to develop new technologies to get around censorship.
It has also allowed people to make a living through blog-based advertising and other online investments. Many professionals are also translating Chinese blogs into English.
It has become valuable in helping the world learn about China and vice versa, instead of just relying on traditional media it is helping generate more social interaction and sharing.
Politically, it has actually helped dissolve misunderstandings between citizens of China and Taiwan, considered by Beijing a renegade province. Instead of traditional quarrelling, this has built a new bridge between the two sides.
But as the number of bloggers increases, censors are also becoming more stringent. China announced last year that it will require bloggers to register with authorities under their real names to prevent people anonymously disseminating “irresponsible and untrue” information.
Mao, however, believes it is simply too late for the authorities to take control for tech-savvy online users are outsmarting them all the way.
However, Chinese bloggers face stiffer challenges from unexpected quarters, namely, international Internet portals like Google and Yahoo. As these companies seek access to the lucrative Chinese market, they are increasingly prepared to do Beijing’s bidding in the censorship wars.
Both, for instance, use sophisticated filtering technology to prevent users accessing information on issues considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government.
Mao believes the biggest barrier to free thinking is, ultimately, self-censorship within the Chinese mind - the traditional Chinese education system that makes people reluctant to express their opinions.
Too used to being controlled, people are accustomed to one-way thinking. They do not know how to respect diversified opinions. It will take people time to start commenting freely on social problems.