Did I mention I went to Shanghai at the end of last year? Well, I did. Obviously, the first thing that I wanted to ask anyone I met was along the lines of, “What’s it like to have no freedom of speech?”, but I did manage to restrain myself. It was, in most cases, the second question I asked people I met. No, I jest. I was at my polite, cajoling best and whatever little aresenal I have of interviewing skills was deployed in every conversation. This is a roundabout way of saying that I attempted to ask about freedom of speech without mentioning the words freedom and speech. I figure it’s ok for me to try and find out everything about you if you’re going to politely hover around me every moment that I’m not in my hotel room (Seriously. Every. Moment.).
While people weren’t necessarily forthcoming, they barely hid their discomfort when they felt uncomfortable about the direction in which I was steering the conversation and they weren’t impassive. Some things they were happy to chatter about (for example, Bollywood). Most people I met were quite young (in their 20s and early 30s) and none of them had any hesitation in saying the Chinese government’s decision to ban sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter was silly. Particularly because, as one of my Shanghainese companions told me, only the foreigners really felt the sting of not having Facebook and Twitter. If you’re Chinese, you have a Weibo account. Most people connect to Weibo through their smartphones. They put up photos, voice messages, videos. “So it’s like Twitter?” I said. George, a 21 year-old who told me all sorts of things like how cigarettes in China have serial numbers and which is the lucky serial number to have, smiled at me with a hint of pity and said, “Twitter is actor. Weibo is star.” Then he sat me down and explained to me the wonder of Weibo. I was shown how Weibo works by three people who don’t know each other and are connected only by the fact that they all live in Shanghai. It was a very different China in that virtual space.
There’s an article in Vanity Fair about Weibo and as I read it, I felt like the guy who discovered neon’s glowing characteristics by chance but didn’t end up making the tubelight. Not in a “I should have won the Nobel prize” way, but with a certain sense of déja vu. I didn’t know some of the information in the article, like the fact that there are zombie accounts on Weibo who are going to chased off the social networking site come March 16. It’s the sections about Weibo as place where China flexes its freedom-of-speech muscles that are particularly resonant (to me, at any rate). So far at least, Weibo is a curious hybrid space. It is the Chinese government’s ultimate surveillance device but it’s also the one space where the censors and the Department of Propaganda haven’t been able to assert themselves entirely.
…Weibo has given birth to a new and rapidly evolving language, of abbreviations, neologisms, and substitute words. As Huang’s Ai Weiwei weibos vanished along with any others containing his name, savvy Weibo’ers were evading censors by bending the language, transforming “Ai Weiwei” into the cheerful slogan “Ai Wei Lai,” or “Love the future.” … “Until I signed on to Weibo, I never saw the real China,” says Cai Jinqing. “Now I can follow what’s happening with a village head in Jiangsu province. Grassroots incidents are gaining momentum, becoming the talk of the day. People can speak for themselves, and be heard.”
… When Fang Binxing, widely considered to be the father of China’s Great Firewall (GFW), the technology that blocks users from accessing sensitive sites, opened a Weibo account, furious Weibo’ers nicknamed him “Eunuch Fang” and within 30 seconds posted hundreds of messages including: “Before, the GFW deprived people’s right to freely access the Internet, now people will deprive your right to use microblog,” and “f–k you 404 times”—a barbed reference to “404 error” messages, which appear when you search the Chinese Internet for blocked terms. Censors couldn’t keep up, and Fang’s account was shut down in less than an hour.
I was fascinated by Weibo when people in Shanghai first told me about it but now, after the Indian government has successfully made Google and Facebook tow the line and remove “objectionable” content, I keep thinking about this quote from the Vanity Fair article.
“I’m in denial that I’m in a totalitarian society,” Huang told me over lunch in Beijing. “I’ll pretend I can function how I want to function and see how far I can get.”
That probably sums up what a lot of us are doing these days. Though by that I don’t mean that India feels like or is like China. The way things are going, perhaps it will in the near future but we’re not there yet. We’re nowhere near as smothered or as scared. In fact we’re almost careless with the freedom we do have (which goes some distance in explaining Akar Patel’s ridiculous article).
The most surreal part about Shanghai and the surrounding areas that I visited was that there’s a curious sense of being in the land of the lotus-eaters. Shanghai seemed to me like a gargantuan love child of Lower Parel and Gurgaon in parts — skyscrapers with haunted, darkened windows and snaking flyovers. Other parts, like the beautiful little neighbourhood of Tiangjifang, were a charming combination of quaint and modern. It’s the oddest feeling to walk around a city that is a heady rush of contemporary fashion, art and gadgets and then realising, at the end of the day, that the rush actually keeps you from noticing all the simple, inconsequential disagreements that aren’t allowed. You don’t really understand how much is left unsaid in China until you get on Weibo.
P.S. The photographs are mine. In the unlikely event that you’re tempted to steal them, please don’t. Many thanks.