On March 18 at The Bookworm in Beijing, Anthony Tao from Beijing Cream headed a panel of well-known China bloggers, including Jeremy Goldkorn founder of Danwei, Mia Li from Sinosphere, Alec Ash founder of the Anthill, and Tao Stein creator of the Weibo and Wechat microblogs 石涛讲故事. The talk began with an introduction of the history of blogs in China, with proliferation of blogs starting up in the 2000’s with those such as Danwei.org, Sinosplice, Peking Duck, and Shanghaiist. Goldkorn recalled the early days of the blogging environment in China and how it was a time of massive changes in traditional media; there was a major gap between what Western media reporters were presenting and what was going on in Chinese media. Unfortunately, his blog became a victim of its own success and was blocked the government in 2009, and the site was no longer able to function as an effective business as a result. Tao lamented that there is a “glass ceiling” when it comes to blogs about China: there is only so much interest in China itself by Westerners, and the threat of censorship is always present – with the chance of your website being shut down with a single phone call.
Li took a strong stand in defense of traditional media and feels that bloggers aren’t held accountable to the same standards as traditional journalists in terms of supervision, fact checking and publishing corrections when mistakes are made. Goldkorn countered that in his experience, he found many newspapers stealing from bloggers without citing their sources and that not all newspapers have fact checkers. He said that Western media sets an agenda with what he referred to as the “China Narrative”, the same theme that journalists must hold to as determined by their home office back in New York or London. Ash added that bloggers can actually correct mistakes in big media by getting the real facts on the ground. As for the blogs themselves, Tao said that commentors help police the blogs themselves, but Goldkorn quickly retorted “commentators are psycho idiots!”
The discussion then focused on the evolution of blogs in China from standard blog sites, to Weibo, and now WeChat. The pattern seems to be that when a Chinese blogger reaches a certain critical mass of followers, the government arbitrarily shuts down their account, and now we are starting to see this with the recent removal of “known troublemakers” from WeChat as well. Stein pointed out that, from a technical standpoint, much of the censorship is based on algorithms and that this is not unique to China. There is a great deal of censorship on social media platforms in the US of content that could be construed as porn, gore, or hate speech.
Tao then asked each panelist what their recommended blogs were. Goldkorn recommended East by Southeast – a site that is covers news about southern China and Southeast Asia. Li mentioned that there are specific bloggers within websites that are good to follow such as a writer for the Shanghaiist that focuses on LGBT issues. Ash gave a hat tip to the old China blogs of yore such as EastSouthWestNorth, The China Beat, and China Geeks. He also mentioned the satirical sites Ministry of Harmony and China Daily Show. Goldkorn waxed nostalgically about weird bloggers from the old days such as The Gweilo Diaries, which was written by an American with strong Republican leanings who wrote about Asian politics, pro war rants, and encounters with Asian women. Stein claims to rarely follow blogs and defiantly said “I don’t blog about China, I blog to China.” Tao is an avid sports fan and mentioned China Sports Insider as one of his favorite blogs.
Goldkorn defined the “golden age” for China blogs and journalism in China in general as the period leading up to the Olympics in 2008. Ash said that the Internet has moved on now and that the talent has long conglomerated into larger blogs. The days of the quirky individual blogs are gone now. Li said, “Blogs can complement hard news with lighter, more fun stuff to get them hooked and draw people in.” Stein says that everything has moved to apps and that, “nobody uses the web anymore.” Tao asserted that the age of aggregation of blogs is expanding, and he listed Shanghaiist, The World of Chinese, and The Beijinger as examples of sites that are starting to follow this model.
Image courtesy of Beijing Cream.