In the past two weeks, we have experienced the two different systems of the one China – the system in Hong Kong and the system in Shenzhen. This blogpost will analyze the local customs concerning Social Media. We will discuss the most common used platforms, the reason for this difference and the consequences.
First, we will talk about the most common and favorite social media channel: WeChat by the internet giant Tencent. For non-Chinese WeChat and Tencent might not sound like familiar brands, but the application is one of the largest standalone messaging apps by monthly active users. In a nutshell, the app is the combination of WhatsApp – instant messages, Instagram – sharing moments with friends and Apple Pay – paying contactless through the phone. This is not to mention the special functions Chinese appreciate like sharing a red packet (红包) in a group, of which the member can obtain a random amount of money. On the mainland, everyone from the small kid in school uniform to the grandma selling tofu on the street uses WeChat. The simple to set up and easy to use payment function has empowered small businesses to overcome the challenges and fees of using bank cards. Few Chinese know and use the applications WhatsApp or Telegram for messaging. This is different in Hong Kong. We have met some locals and when asked them about WeChat they knew surprisingly little about it. Most of the people we spoke to preferred to use WhatsApp or Facebook for messaging. As we will discuss below, the latter is blocked on the Mainland. One reason for this preference might be connected to this issue. Since the WeChat server is located on the Mainland and accessible by the Chinese central government, the free thinking and independent Hong Kong people do not like to let them read all their private data. Censorship on WeChat is happening on the mainland, where posts of social unrest or criticism is removed from the moments (朋友圈), to preserve national harmony and stability. In recent years, there have been tensions between the citizens of Hong Kong and the government in Beijing, of which the students umbrella movement is most known, thanks to wide coverage in western media (of course not in Chinese Mainland media). Since WhatsApp and Facebook have their servers outside China, there is no option for the central government to interfere in the flow of information. Even though not all people of Hong Kong might want/need to hide their information, the effect of networks plays out in favour of the western messaging apps.
Facebook is often criticized in the western world for its gathering of private data. What must be considered with regards to China, is that Facebook is an independent company that offers a service, and that relies entirely on the users’ trust. So it has little interest in sharing private data with state organizations, who might use it to persecute and punish people for saying things that are critical of state policies. This is ultimately why Facebook is blocked in China when not using a VPN connection. They do not want their data to be stored on state-run servers in China. The same goes for Twitter, where the possibility of getting together to protest is seen as to high by the Chinese government. So both services are blocked in mainland China. As an alternative, the people have access to Weibo, which works as a Twitter/Facebook Hybrid, but controlled by the Chinese government.
Just to finish with a few words about propaganda on the mainland which is little appreciated by most people from Hong Kong and the young urban Chinese. The Chinese government pays some people per positive comment on social media. On ZhiHu (知乎) the Chinese equivalent of Quora where members can ask questions and discuss on the subject online, some users constantly commenting extremely positively on difficult governance questions and some critical answers disappear mysteriously.
To sum up, many division in the domain of social media is connected to the division in free speech and the great firewall that isolates the Mainland from the outside, inclusive Hong Kong.