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China/Taiwan, news & events, series

RT: “Following” underground Web dissent in #China [part 1/2]

In this first post, I’ll make an argument that social media platform Twitter is a near-ideal tool for Chinese citizens to spread information and circumvent the Great Firewall. In part two, I’ll explain how I use Twitter to learn about China-based news developments, giving two examples of stories that have been developing over this weekend.

I first created my Twitter account [@TheRabens] about 15 months ago, because I had to for a journalism class. I wasn’t an active or enthusiastic user. The class ended, and I considered deleting the account. That was until I found my first Chinese dissident’s account on Twitter and started following him/her (don’t remember who or when it was now).

Now, I am an active Twitter user (I even make lists, like this one for China news). But at first, the only reason I stayed was to witness this strange moment in history, this 100% unique convergence of language, technology, culture, and politics.

To me, Twitter seems in many ways tailored to suit Chinese dissidents. First of all, it’s simple math:

English usually takes several characters [letters] to create a unit of speech [word]. Not to mention a precious character wasted for each space between words. Chinese writing (and more importantly to Twitter, typing) has no spaces between characters, and one (or two) characters equals a unit of speech. Also, no spaces needed. Tweeting in Chinese is actually several times more efficient than tweeting in most any Western language.

Also, Chinese idioms (成语, pronounced “Chengyu“) are fixed expressions,  often 4 characters, that act like proverbs, aphorisms, and cliches all rolled into one. (This is hard to explain to non-Chinese speakers, so just check this out). You can think of it like this: Centuries of historical folklore, or the contemporary significance of a modern phrase, crammed into the character count of “ROFL.”

Second, Twitter seems tailor-fit for disseminating information in China because many dissidents are separated by large distances; also, because using standard Chinese written characters to communicate avoids any regional, dialect-based language confusions.

China has approximately the same landmass as the United States. The language has several main dialects, and several dozen local accents. But typed, online communication equalizes many of these difficulties.

But efficiency and convenience mean nothing if the social media service is banned completely, as Twitter is in China. Luckily, the Great Firewall only requires a solid VPN to bypass, and so many dissidents in China are in fact already using Twitter to communicate, and have been for years. (I don’t know an official number on how many, but I’ve heard rumors of between 20,000 and 30,000)

And although the Great Firewall can censor discreetly by keyword(s), Chinese phonetics are such that many characters may share the same sound with a different tone, or even the same sound and same tone (much to the ire of Western learners of Mandarin). Therefore, in Chinese Web-speak it’s possible to use different characters with similar phonetics to a sensitive or banned phrase. Bam. Censors bypassed (temporarily).

For example, the phrase “Fuck your mother” was on the early list of banned search terms in China. Someone realized that “grass-mud horse” was a near-perfect homonym for “Fuck your mother.”

”]The Grass-Mud Horse became a legendary Web-dwelling animal: legends (and a supporting cast of mythical beasts) were created; things went viral.

This is one of the oldest, and funniest, examples of Chinese Web-users bypassing the Great Firewall. But it’s definitely not the only one. If you’re still curious, check out the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon at China Digital Times.

[Note to those not Chinese literate: These phrases and their explanations may be hard to make sense of. Even for one who’s studied the language 4 years, it’s tricky at times. But give it a try, and hopefully it’s enough to just appreciate the humor, ingenuity and subversion of these phrases.]

Rather than go on, I’ll leave this topic open for debate in the comments section. Check back for my post on Sino-Twitter in action…

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