- Web writers walk a fine line between satire and censorship
- 2013 decree making free expression harder for those in China
At the peak of her WeChat blogging career, Laura Lian was earning about $7,000 a month. Writing satirical articles for more than 220,000 fans, she won backing from an investor and quit her public-relations job.
Then it all came tumbling down. Internet authorities shut down her blog, called Shameless China, with no warning. It happened just after she posted an article mocking Chinese men’s hairstyles, including former President Jiang Zemin’s slick-backed coiffure.
“It didn’t dawn on me how serious the situation was,” Lian said. “I didn’t realize I was never getting back this account and all my followers.”
Lian’s story underscores how precarious the world of blogging remains for many writers in China. Well-known bloggers have been jailed and shamed on national TV. Qin Zhihui, a well-known author on social-media platform Weibo, was sentenced to three years in prison for publishing false information to drive web traffic. A 2013 missive by the Supreme People’s Court and top national prosecutor effectively criminalized defamatory web posts that are read by more than 5,000 people, reposted more than 500 times or caused people to hurt themselves.
As one of the 20 million official accounts operating on Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, Lian’s account stood out for its blunt and edgy humor about Chinese and expatriate stereotypes. WeChat, which had 762.4 million monthly active users at the end of March, is a mobile app that blends chats, blogging, shopping, digital wallets and other smartphone apps.
Even before she started Shameless, Lian knew censorship was an issue. China polices and aggressively scrubs online content deemed undesirable or a threat to society, from violence and pornography to anti-government commentary. Tencent said in May that it deleted 85,000 rumor articles and that 7,000 accounts were punished for violating regulations “to maintain a healthy internet environment.”
Canny Lo, a spokeswoman for Tencent, didn’t respond to an e-mail and text message seeking comment.
As a 26-year-old Beijing resident who often crossed paths with the Chinese and expat community, Lian had an keen eye for spotting gaffes and irksome traits from both camps. She didn’t think a light-hearted column about her community’s foibles would offend sensitivities, so she started with a story in April of last year about “the eight types of foreigners in Beijing,” covering hipsters to foreign bankers.
After reading it, a friend told her, “not everyone is as shameless as you are,” Lian said. Because her last name has a pronunciation similar to the Chinese word for face -- “I said, shameless? That’s so me!” -- her blog was born.
Lian went on to write stories about different types of Chinese girlfriends, boyfriends, how to drink with Chinese people, and Lunar New Year survival strategies. Many attracted more than 1 million clicks from readers.
“The blog wasn’t intended to be serious, what I wanted was to humor people and then if they realized that these perceptions existed and that people saw things differently that would be great,” Lian said.
Shameless China also attracted plenty of angry comments, with people telling her to stop writing about China or leave if she wasn’t happy about life in Beijing. Still, the blog prospered, with advertisers for brands, events and parties approaching her and asking her to post their articles. Lian would earn commissions based on readership, making almost 50,000 yuan ($7,478) a month during good times.
Lian was one among a batch of content creators that were able to attract fans and raise funding as social media celebrities in China. About 20 were able to attract funding of more than 10 million yuan each in the 20 months up to March this year, according to Beijing-based mobile-app researcher TalkingData. Those included cyber celebrity Papi Jiang, who raised 12 million yuan from investors including Zhen Fund. By backing such bloggers, the funds are seeking to participate in their future endeavors.
“Good content creators are hard to come by and what we look for are people who are good at learning and adapting,” said Liu Yuan, an investment manager at Zhen Fund, which backed both Lian and Papi Jiang. "Investing in content is the same as investing into any business, it’s the all about the people."
Business was booming, until Lian published her article with the picture of China’s former president. The story attracted numerous comments and close to 100,000 clicks. But within hours, all her stories were deleted and she was notified that her account was frozen because it had violated certain laws and regulations.
“I knew that when it comes to political leaders, it might be sensitive,” Lian said. “But I never thought it would be this serious because my article was just about his hairstyle and it was in English.”
Lian followed WeChat’s instructions and filed a letter of explanation within the 100-word limit. A week later she got a curt response: “was not approved.”
“Even if you shut down my account, give me a clear reason,” Lian said. “Don’t give me a page full of regulations and laws. I don’t even know which rule I violated.”
Despite the setback, Lian is back with a new blog called ShamelessPlus. She’s also thinking of branching out across different platforms such as Weibo, Tumblr and video sites. Still, Lian has only managed to attract less than 10,000 fans after a month.
“Getting all my fans back is turning out to be much harder than I imagined,” Lian said. “But I already lost 220,000 fans, why would I fear losing just a few thousand?”