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Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Party Girl Leads China's Online Revolution - New York Times

A Party Girl Leads China's Online Revolution - New York TimesNovember 24, 2005
A Party Girl Leads China's Online Revolution

SHANGHAI, Nov. 23 - On her fourth day of keeping a Web log, she introduced herself to the world with these striking words: "I am a dance girl, and I am a party member."

"I don't know if I can be counted as a successful Web cam dance girl," that early post continued. "But I'm sure that looking around the world, if I am not the one with the highest diploma, I am definitely the dance babe who reads the most and thinks the deepest, and I'm most likely the only party member among them."

Thus was born, early in July, what many regard as China's most popular blog.

Sometimes timing is everything, and such was the case with the anonymous blogger, a self-described Communist Party member from Shanghai who goes by the pseudonym Mu Mu.

A 25-year-old, Mu Mu appears online most evenings around midnight, shielding her face while striking poses that are provocative, but never sexually explicit.

She parries questions from some of her tens of thousands of avid followers with witticisms and cool charm.

Chinese Web logs have existed since early in this decade, but the form has exploded in recent months, challenging China's ever vigilant online censors and giving flesh to the kind of free-spoken civil society whose emergence the government has long been determined to prevent or at least tightly control.

Web experts say the surge in blogging is a result of strong growth in broadband Internet use, coupled with a huge commercial push by the country's Internet providers aimed at wooing users. Common estimates of the numbers of blogs in China range from one million to two million and growing fast.

Under China's current leader, Hu Jintao, the government has waged an energetic campaign against freedom of expression, prohibiting the promotion of public intellectuals by the news media; imposing restrictions on Web sites; pressing search engine companies, like Google, to bar delicate topics, particularly those dealing with democracy and human rights; and heavily censoring bulletin board discussions at universities and elsewhere.

So far, Chinese authorities have mostly relied on Internet service providers to police the Web logs. Commentary that is too provocative or directly critical of the government is often blocked by the provider. Sometimes the sites are swamped by opposing comment - many believe by official censors - that is more favorable to the government.

Blogs are sometimes shut down altogether, temporarily or permanently. But the authorities do not yet seem to have an answer to the proliferation of public opinion in this form.

The new wave of blogging took off earlier this year. In the past, a few pioneers of the form stood out, but now huge communities of bloggers are springing up around the country, with many of them promoting one another's online offerings, books, music or, as in Mu Mu's case, a running, highly ironic commentary about sexuality, intellect and political identity.

"The new bloggers are talking back to authority, but in a humorous way," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. "People have often said you can say anything you want in China around the dinner table, but not in public. Now the blogs have become the dinner table, and that is new.

"The content is often political, but not directly political, in the sense that you are not advocating anything, but at the same time you are undermining the ideological basis of power."

A fresh example was served up last week with the announcement by China of five cartoonlike mascot figures for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They were lavishly praised in the press - and widely ridiculed in blogs that seemed to accurately express public sentiment toward them.

"It's not difficult to create a mascot that's silly and ugly," wrote one blogger. "The difficulty is in creating five mascots, each sillier and uglier than the one before it."

A leading practitioner of the sly, satirical style that is emerging here as an influential form of political and social commentary is a 38-year-old Beijing entertainment journalist named Wang Xiaofeng. Mr. Wang, who runs a site called Massage Milk, is better known to bloggers by his nickname, Dai San Ge Biao, which means Wears Three Watches.

His blog mixes an infectious cleverness with increasingly forthright commentary on current events, starting with his very nickname, which is a patent mockery of the political theory of the former Chinese Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin, which was labeled San Ge Dai Biao, or the Three Represents.

In a recent commentary, as the government stoked patriotic sentiment during the commemoration of the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, Mr. Wang asked who really fought the enemy, making the provocative observation that only two Communist generals had died fighting Japan, while more than 100 of their Nationalist counterparts had.

"In blogging I don't need to be concerned about taboos," Mr. Wang said. "I don't need to borrow a euphemism to express myself. I can do it more directly, using the exact word I want to, so it feels a lot freer."

Another emerging school of blogging, potentially as subversive as any political allegory, involves bringing Chinese Web surfers more closely in touch with things happening outside their country.

Typically, this involves avid readers of English who scour foreign Web sites and report on their findings, adding their own commentary, in Chinese blogs.

Several bloggers like this have become opinion leaders, usually in areas like technology, culture, current events or fashion, building big followings by being fast and prolific.

One of the leading sites was run by Isaac Mao, a Shanghai investment manager who had built a following writing about education and technology. His site,, was later blocked by the authorities after he posted a graphic purporting to illustrate the workings of the firewall operated by the country's censors.

Mr. Mao, an organizer of the first national bloggers' conference in Shanghai this month, recently went back online at

By far the biggest category of blogs remains the domain of the personal diary, and in this crowded realm, getting attention places a premium on uniqueness.

For the past few months, Mu Mu, the Shanghai dancer, has held pride of place, revealing glimpses of her body while maintaining an intimate and clever banter with her many followers, who are carefully kept in the dark about her real identity.

"In China, the concepts of private life and public life have emerged only in the past 10 to 20 years," she said in an online interview. "Before that, if a person had any private life, it only included their physical privacy - the sex life, between man and woman, for couples.

"I'm fortunate to live in a transitional society, from a highly political one to a commercial one," she wrote, "and this allows me to enjoy private pleasures, like blogging."

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