Tea Leaf Nation

In China, A New Space for New Questions

And some of them were never allowed in history class.

Out of democracy, rule of law and freedom, what does China most need now? What is the difference between loving one's country and loving the government? What is freedom of speech -- or, for that matter, freedom

With Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and major news outlets like the New York Times and Bloomberg all effectively  banned in China, and Chinese state media muzzled as always, it's getting increasingly difficult for Chinese citizens to answer -- or even ask -- questions like these. But Zhihu, an online platform that allows Chinese web users to pose and engage the hard questions could challenge the status quo. Meaning 'do you know' in Chinese, Zhihu is an interactive, online platform similar to Quora.com where anyone can post questions, with the best responses upvoted by others. Featuring high-profile Chinese entrepreneurs and public intellectuals among its users, Zhihu is increasingly providing Chinese netizens with a space for rich discussion, one surprisingly free -- at least for now -- from government censorship.

With what a representative claims are 40 million monthly visitors, Zhihu is still far less popular than platforms like Sina Weibo, which boasts 500 million registered users. But over the past six months Weibo, once a promising avenue for free speech, has increasingly fallen under government control. The result is a space increasingly filled with celebrity news, photos of food, and reposts of the latest viral memes -- one losing the free-wheeling candor that once made it so promising to free-speech advocates. That's why Wei Wuhui, a technology expert at Shanghai Jiaotong University, called Zhihu "a step up from Weibo." Because it focuses on answering questions, rather than simply sharing information, it is "more valuable for Chinese society," said Wei.

Zhihu provides a home for the discussions that were never allowed in China's state education system. Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese debate the hypothetical political processes required for reunification; other users sophisticated arguments about the fraught relations between Chinese ethnic minorities and the Han, who make up roughly 92 percent of the population. Some of the repartee that results from sensitive topics can be both humorous and tragic. One commenter asked about the most common way for intellectuals to commit suicide during the anarchic, decade-long Cultural Revolution; another responded, "Tell the truth." "Do Taiwanese generally dislike Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, and if so, why," was a popular question -- and one of the most popular answers was yes, "because they can" in Taiwan's democratic society. 

Relatively open discussions like these help explain why Zhihu's following has grown rapidly since its founding in January 2011. In a country where the education system and media are firmly controlled by a Chinese Communist Party that seeks to command public opinion, some citizens hunger for other, freer forms of information. In an interview Huang Jixin, co-founder of Zhihu, said that citizens with spending power now want high-quality information, not just high quality goods. A former journalist -- and on Twitter, a self-described "incurable optimist" and "pathetic liberal" -- Huang said he became frustrated with traditional media's requirement that he cover subjects about which he had only superficial knowledge. He and his co-founders "felt there had to be something more than journalism" to generate content.

To be sure, when topics veer beyond the edgy and into the forbidden, Zhihu self-censors. Like Weibo and the popular messaging service WeChat, the site often deletes posts it thinks the government wouldn't approve. The Zhihu user agreement clearly forbids posting anything that "spreads rumors, disrupts social order, or breaks social stability" -- clear keywords for political heterodoxy. It's not hard to see that prohibition in action: A search for "six-four" in Chinese, code for the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and subsequent crackdown, sometimes returns a 404 message, temporarily preventing the user from logging in.

Wei captured this tension by praising and shaming the site in the same breath: "Out of all the platforms available to Internet users in China, Zhihu is one of the best places for deep and meaningful discussions," as long as users "don't have any deep and meaningful discussions about topics deemed to be sensitive by the Chinese government." Zhihu users have questioned Huang about what exactly Zhihu deems fit to delete. In one discussion he admitted that sometimes the site's team "has no choice but to clench their teeth and delete certain content." But he argued that Zhihu was ultimately one of the good guys: "Anything that promotes the free flow of information is, in its heart of hearts, a good thing." 

Screenshot from Zhihu.com

Tea Leaf Nation

The Big Bang Theory in Little China

There's a demographic reason why fictitious nerds from CalTech have charmed millions of Chinese viewers.

When producers at U.S. network CBS launched a show in 2007 chronicling the daily lives and dating woes of four nerdy California Institute of Technology scientists and their cute female neighbor, they almost certainly didn't expect to create one of the biggest television sensations in China. Yet that's exactly what they did with The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that has accumulated almost 1.3 billion views since first appearing on popular Chinese video site Sohu TV in 2009. The show's amiable but socially inept protagonists have found a surprisingly robust audience in China -- just as the country has entered a new era of geek culture.

Awkward bookworms like the male characters in The Big Bang Theory are becoming more hip in China, or at least more mainstream: One of China's most popular words in 2013 was diaosi, a once-pejorative term for poor, girlfriend-less geeks that translators generally render as "loser." In one survey conducted by popular Internet portal Sohu, over 80 percent of respondents aged 24 to 34 identified as diaosi. On Douban, a social media platform for television and book lovers, one commenter remarked that "many diaosi were watching" The Big Bang Theory. The state-run newspaper Guangzhou Daily wrote in an August 2012 review of the sitcom that "we have experienced the life of a diaosi," which is why "we see ourselves in The Big Bang Theory."

It may seem odd that young Chinese would willingly label themselves losers, but as non-profit research website Civil China explains, diaosi are different: their status is shaped not by personal failings but "by larger social conditions." By embracing the moniker, Chinese youth are implicitly blaming their lack of material, professional, or romantic success on problems like China's low social mobility, a growing gender imbalance, and the high cost of urban living.

Chinese college students comprise a healthy portion of The Big Bang Theory's audience, perhaps because over 90 percent of all Chinese students identify as diaosi. As China's growth slowed, its class of 2013 faced the toughest job market in recent history. Almost 7 million Chinese graduated in 2013, up 300 percent from 2003. Partly as a result, only 35 percent of graduating college students had found jobs as of mid-April of last year, a 12 percent drop from 2012, according to an online survey jointly conducted by Internet company Tencent and data firm MyCOS.

The relationship challenges that The Big Bang Theory's characters endure also resonate in China, where men outnumbered women by 15 million in 2011, a figure expected to rise to 30 million by 2021. Even those who do land girlfriends may get no further should they struggle to buy the houses that many Chinese see as a prerequisite for marriage but which are prohibitively expensive for many: Purchasing an apartment in Beijing is "almost three times as expensive for Chinese as buying a home in New York City is" for U.S. citizens, adjusting for average income, according to Reuters.

The U.S. sitcom's success has not escaped the notice of Chinese producers. A popular domestic show called iPartment, which depicts friends in their twenties living and working in Shanghai, has translated and adapted entire scenes from the U.S. program for use in its own plot. One 2010 web series even went so far as to call itself The New Big Bang Theory; backlash against its slavish repurposing of the beloved U.S. sitcom led its Chinese producers to cancel it after only two episodes.

But Chinese fans haven't abandoned The Big Bang Theory for domestic copycats, and even potential competitors can't suppress their affection for the show. In a Dec. 8 post on Weibo, China's Twitter, the male lead of a Chinese web series informally known as Diaosi Man posted pictures of himself on-set with Big Bang star Johnny Galecki taken during his Nov. 2013 trip to China. Galecki remarked on Weibo that "everyone has been very friendly" during the visit. One fan offered an explanation: "That's because we have so many science nerds in China."

Weibo/Fair Use