While visiting China’s three largest cities over the past two weeks — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — it has been easy to see that many Chinese people quietly use Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, to evade government censorship and tap into websites and social media networks their government has banned, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and all of Google.
However, Chinese authorities continue to fortify the “Great Firewall.” Their recent network modifications have blocked VPNs more effectively — which has given rise to Chinese-based social media platforms that entice China’s more than 650 million Internet users (estimated as of January 2015) to inhabit what is essentially a parallel universe online.
Here’s a quick look at those networks:
The Facebook look-alike: RenRen
RenRen, meaning “Everybody,” is very much like Facebook. The major difference is that most users of RenRen are between the ages of 15 and 25 — and they tend to drop their accounts on the network after graduating from college.
The Twitter look-alikes: Weibo
Weibo is a generic term meaning “microblog.” About a half dozen companies offer weibo platforms. The most popular among them is Sina (see www.weibo.com). It helps to think of weibo as offering the functionality of Twitter and the culture of Facebook — meaning weibo users typically post no more than six or seven times a day (usually fewer) and do not engage in the rapid-fire exchanges often found on Twitter. Of note: much more is communicated in 140 characters of Mandarin than English, so weibo messages are more substantive than tweets in English.
China’s most popular social media platform: WeChat, or Weixin
Weixin, meaning “micro message,” is also known as WeChat in English. It is a product of Tencent, China’s largest Internet portal and Web services provider. The network had more than 396 million monthly users worldwide by the end of March 2014, the company reported. “The platform brings together messaging, social communication and games all within one easy-to-use app,” the company explains. “Users can choose to send free text and multimedia messages, video calls or share photos on their closed Moments social network. Others features include mobile games and convenient friend adding services.”
There are several types of Weixin accounts, but the two most popular are personal, which allows users to have up to 5,000 followers, and public, which allows an unlimited number of followers. Public accounts require registration with a valid Chinese resident identification (a “red card” granting work privileges is insufficient). Private accounts require only a Chinese phone number.
For video lovers: Various
Many companies, including Tencent and Sina, have platforms that encourage users to upload very short videos. However, one standout platform with complementary mobile app is Meipai, which allows users to record and edit short videos (less than 60 seconds) and directly upload to a sharing site.
Media Salad’s founder and chief executive officer, Christine Tatum, was honored to travel to China in April 2015 at the invitation of the U.S. State Department. She met with several Chinese media executives and taught concepts in journalism to fellow journalists and students at several Chinese universities.