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.”