These are busy times for Li Li, a 27-year-old pioneer of the Internet in China. Using the pen name Muzi Mei, Li started writing a Web log about her romantic adventures back in 2003. Today, she is working to promote blogs -- Web sites where people post their musings and opinions -- at home and abroad: Last November she was a judge at a blog competition in Germany and she's helping organize one in China. But Li has given up trying to publish her own sexually charged blog in her home country, and last year shifted it to a Chinese-language site in the U.S. -- far from China's cybercops. "With a blog, it's very easy to get attention from everyone," she says. But having her blog hosted in China was "too much trouble," she adds.
Millions of Chinese, it turns out, are trying to get some attention -- though Beijing is doing its best to keep undesirables such as Li out of the virtual conversation. China today has about 3 million bloggers, according to market researcher Analysys International. And there's no shortage of potential recruits: More than 100 million Chinese now use the Internet, up 18% in just the past six months, while the 360 million Chinese with cell phones may soon join in as mobile blogging takes off. "Blogs will go through an explosive growth period," predicts 37-year-old Fang Xingdong, whose writings about technology and the Internet have made him one of China's top bloggers.
No wonder locals and foreigners alike are looking to cash in on the craze. Fang himself is chairman of Beijing Blog Times Information & Technology Co., a startup that operates Bokee, a blogging portal that claims to have some 2 million users. Bokee's main rival, Hangzhou-based Blogcn, claims 2.5 million bloggers, and like Bokee has just launched blogging via cell phones. And both have attracted big-name support: Blogcn is backed by Boston-based International Data Group, while Bokee got much of its initial investment from the Softbank Asia Infrastructure Fund, a partnership between the Japanese company and U.S. networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO ).
Beijing is depending on sites such as Bokee and Blogcn to keep the Chinese blogosphere from spinning out of control. Political blogs in the U.S. have successfully challenged both the government and mainstream media, something China's Communist Party rulers aren't about to let happen. "The U.S. has many famous bloggers, and they have a big influence," says Hu Zhiguang, the 27-year-old chairman of Blogcn. "In China, because of the political environment, it's not possible to have that sort of thing."
The limits are clear. Chinese bloggers can't promote the banned Falun Gong religious movement, advocate Taiwanese independence, or call for China's withdrawal from Tibet -- and the government is remarkably good at keeping such thoughts out of China's blogosphere. While those using Bokee or Blogcn need only provide an e-mail address and user I.D. (not necessarily a real name) to set up a blog, authorities in June started requiring other bloggers to register their real names with the government -- making it easier to track down anyone who oversteps the limits.
Both Blogcn and Bokee have filtering systems that prevent users from writing about taboo topics. A Blogcn user, for instance, who tries to write "Falun Gong" will find the term converted to gibberish on screen. If a forbidden phrase makes it past the filter, the company might get a call from the police demanding that the offending post be removed. "We can immediately fix it," says Hu, who adds that he has gotten only "four or five" such calls in the past two years. It's not just Chinese companies that cooperate with the censors. A joint venture operated in China by Microsoft Corp.'s MSN blocks words such as "democracy" in the subject lines of blogs on its site. Microsoft says it simply is complying with Chinese laws and norms. And China's censors can intercept traffic from overseas services such as the one that hosts Muzi Mei's blog. For instance, San Francisco-based Six Apart, which is home to some Chinese-language blogs, has been blocked from the mainland twice. "China would be an opportunity for us if a Western company could go in and have a dialogue, but right now that's not the case," says Anil Dash, a Six Apart vice-president.
So it's no surprise that most Chinese bloggers focus on less sensitive topics. Among the most famous is a 28-year-old native of rural Shaanxi Province who calls herself Furong Jiejie (or Sister Hibiscus) and posts mildly provocative photos of herself -- though showing more skin would likely be banned. Blogcn offers a "lovers blog" where couples can include romantic background music and whisper sweet nothings into the blogosphere. Others concentrate on travel, cooking, and culture. For instance, 30-year-old Liu Yuan started writing a blog three years ago when she was living in Paris, and has since covered topics ranging from French monetary policy to Chinese TV shows. "China doesn't control [personal issues] too rigidly," says Bokee director Daniel Yang.
TOEING THE LINE
Other fairly safe topics include business and information technology. Shen Yang is a 44-year-old Beijing resident who has been blogging since 2002. In March, he quit his job at a government-controlled media company to care for his ailing mother and blog full-time, following issues such as the development of blogging in China, Microsoft's (MSFT ) upcoming version of Windows, and Internet technology. "At work, I had to write about things related to the news," he says. "With my blogs, whatever I want to write, I write."
As long as bloggers toe the line, the government seems to tolerate their writing as a way for ordinary folks to let off steam -- and is even giving blog companies a hand. Blogcn is headquartered in a Hangzhou municipal building for digital media companies. And Bokee recently invited Xie Haiguang, the vice-director of Shanghai's Office of Public Opinion and Propaganda Leading Group, to give an address at a company event. "With blogs, 1.3 billion people can all speak," Xie says. "They can very freely express their thoughts."
China's emerging blog companies are trying to figure out the next step. Bokee plans to install equipment allowing it to handle 10 million users by yearend and is about to close on $10 million in new funding. Blogcn gets most of its current revenue from advertisers including eBay, but is planning to charge corporate customers for blogs where companies can post internal communications. And it will soon charge for other services, such as additional storage for bloggers who find the 10 megabytes they get for free isn't enough to handle audio and video content.
Still, it's unclear whether anyone will actually make money from China's bloggers. Without the politically charged blogs that are popular in the West, China's blogging entrepreneurs may find it tough to keep readers from drifting away once the novelty wears off, says Analysys' researcher Sun Lilin. He thinks growth will slow next year, increasing from 6 million bloggers at yearend to 7 million by the end of 2007. "Just doing blogs is not enough, because of the restrictions," he says. Maybe so, but with so many Chinese taking to the Internet, there's no shortage of entrepreneurs betting that even a censored blogosphere is a pretty good place to make a profit.
By Bruce Einhorn in Beijing, with Heather Green in New York