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An internet cafe in Hefei, Anhui province in September 2010. China has more than 35 million internet users. (Reuters)


So what can you see if you're peering into China by reading blogs from people there?

Quite a bit it seems.

Even with government censorship, social media has taken off in China. And with the country's internet population over 10 times larger than the actual population of Canada, you have to expect the Chinese web can be a lively forum for debate and news.

Gene Law is studying broadcast journalism at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

"It's a gigantic country and people have their opinions," says Stan Abrams, a lawyer and law professor based in Beijing.

Compared to what was going on just a few years ago, he adds, "there's a pretty dramatic difference."

Western onlookers shouldn't be surprised to discover that not every Chinese blog is from dissidents or human rights campaigners.

The majority of internet users there are, like their Western counterparts, blogging and commenting about everyday things, like what they bought for lunch, or if a store is having a sale.

For example, just surf over to the English-language ChinaSmack website, which is based on a U.S. server but run by a woman in Shanghai who goes by the name of Fauna.

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The front page of the ChinaSmack website, an English language website run from Shanghai, in November 2010. It is full of ads and riffs on American pop culture. (CBC screen grab)

She started her blog as a project to practise her English, but it has now grown to over 600,000 page clicks a month.

What makes this blog interesting is that Fauna and her team translate popular Chinese message board posts and their accompanying comments.

Most of these posts deal with the prurient or pop-culture, but there are also more serious social topics that are discussed, such as local corruption, child labour and gender issues.

In these cases, it is often the translated comments that give an outsider a sense of what Chinese "netizens" are thinking.

For example, the comments on one story about a dish called "Boiled Alive Cat" being served in Cantonese restaurants, received a wide range of responses.

One poster said it was little wonder Western countries look down upon some Chinese people. "Since we are working hard to join the world, why not reject some ugly eating habits?"

Another responded: "Cow, sheep, pig can all be eaten, why can't cat and dogs be eaten? I think aside from human meat, anything can be eaten!"

The debate raged on.

Accessibility

Fauna, for one, doesn't believe there are any fundamental differences between Chinese- and English-language blogs in China.

"The idea that Chinese use the internet because there aren't many other outlets to vent is a little exaggerated," says Fauna. "Everybody vents on the internet. Everybody likes to be part of the action."

But how do you find a good blog, one that you can trust?

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Internet lawyer and blogger Stan Abrams, from his Beijing-based website China HearSay. (CBC)

Abrams suggests starting off with aggregators, those websites that collect news and links from the blogosphere and traditional media sources and puts them all into one accessible page.

Accessibility, however, can be an issue if you're in China.

While social media has taken off in recent years — and has been used by some Chinese to organize protests or spread censored news — it can take an effort to tap into it.

Twitter is officially blocked there and micro-blogs on the popular Sina Weibo site are filtered. When jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, his name and the characters for Nobel Prize were quickly added to the filtering blacklist.

Getting past the blockers

There are tricks, of course, to get around filters. Some will use VPNs, the virtual private networks that are routed through other countries, or Chinese characters to represent a word that sounds like another but has a different meaning.

These homophones can be used to skirt software censors and they are also used to express defiance.

Take the "grass mud horse" phenomenon for example. While the Chinese characters represent grass, mud and horse, their pronunciation together is very similar to a sexual profanity.

Some English-language Chinese blog sites

www.chinasmack.com translates Chinese posts and comments into English, usually covers pop culture.

www.chinalyst.net streams updates from member blogs.

www.danwei.org bills itself as a website about media, advertising and urban life in China.

www.shanghaiist.com focuses mainly on the goings-on in Shanghai, but also has links to stories about the rest of China.

www.zonaeuropa.com covers social issues and examines English- and Chinese-language media about China.

This expression is used to show anger and defiance in the face of internet and government censorship, and has spawned cartoons and online "mockumentaries."

Another example is the play on the words "building a harmonious society," the catchphrase of the current Chinese government.

The Chinese internet population has responded to this with irony, commonly referring to censorship with the comment that someone has been "harmonized."

Also, the Chinese pronunciation for harmony (hexie ) sounds like river crab, so you might see someone write "what an example of a river crab society we live in" when they want to indirectly show sarcasm and irony.

Human flesh search

Chinese internet user do have one powerful online tool — a phenomenon known as the "human flesh search" (renrou sousuo ) in which groups of motivated web users will join forces to share information and identify people who are in the public eye.

In the past, this informal search engine has sometimes been used to expose to ridicule celebrities, petty bureaucrats or even the arrogance of some of China's newly wealthy.

But the flesh search has also been prone to abuse, with people accused of crimes suddenly finding their personal information, such as phone numbers, home address or workplace put online.

Some of this has come from the actions of nationalistic fenqing, short for angry youth.

They often seek out those who disagree with their nationalistic fervour and expose them to a variety of abuse. One family, for example, had excrement smeared on their door and received harassing phone calls.

Abrams points out that these "online mobs" act no differently than real-life ones. But Fauna takes a more philosophical view of the human flesh search.

"It's popular if the purpose or cause is popular," she says. "But of course it's something people are concerned about because it can be abused.

"It can be the people's will or it can be the mob's will."

Anti-corruption

Remarkably, it does not appear to be just Chinese citizens who are employing the internet in the cause of transparency and justice.

Local government websites have realized they also have a powerful tool in social media to placate demands for less corruption.

The Xindu district government even has an Online Petition Department that actively tries to engage people online through its message forum.

Who really knows the reasons for this. But Abrams says there is a great deal of experimentation going on now at the local level because the central government has been pushing for more accountability, at least by local authorities.

"It's hit or miss, some cities or localities get it and put themselves out there and in other areas they're obstinate," he says. "This doesn't extend to the central level because they have their own thing."

Despite being an uncoordinated effort, Abrams doesn't believe these innovations will be rolled back.

"At the provincial level they're very happy with it, but how far up it'll go I don't know," he says.

"The exciting stuff is happening in a haphazard manner and that makes you realize it might be a long time before you see this everywhere."