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Sue-Lin Wong

In China, A New Space for New Questions

(Screenshot from Zhihu.com)
(Screenshot from Zhihu.com)

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.”

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Sue-Lin Wong

Sue-Lin Wong is a former intern at the New York Times Beijing bureau currently living in China.
  • Lina

    Great article. I heard about Zhihu a few months ago, and just by watching their intro video on the site, I couldn’t really tell just how it was different from so many other platforms. I was interviewing some Chinese college students about their news habits a while back, and one of them mentioned to use this site to find explanations or alternative explanations to official news. To my surprise, many of the interviewee’s used Weibo to collect news from official sources, and did not listen to others, because they thought there were simply too many rumors and luanqi bazao information. Even if Zhihu selfcensor so much, could this a new place for listening to the big V’s? And how is it different from Baidu zhidao/tieba`?

  • Venetian

    First time I actually hear about Zhihu! Thanks for the article! I feel TeaLeafNation is really great, truly informative, unlike much of the expat-centric and stereotypical websites about China mushrooming around the web. Keep it up guys ^^

  • David

    I first signed up for Zhihu about two years ago, and then completely forgot about it. Just about one week ago I revisited the site, and started participating. Since I’ve had a lot of free time in the last week I’ve gotten quite involved (one might say addicted). I’ve asked 29 questions, answered 111 questions, gotten 794 感谢 (thank yous), 3,668 赞同 (thumbs up), and 7,220 关注者 (followers). Needless to say, this is way more attention (and in a very short period of time) than my English-language blog has ever gotten. I can only attribute this to the fact that I’m an American with fluent Chinese who can answer lots of questions about the US, and even answer questions about China, and that there aren’t a lot of people like this on Zhihu (yet). Frankly, I’m quite surprised that with all the foreigners in China who speak decent Chinese, there aren’t more using Zhihu. Perhaps a lot of those foreigners speak Chinese, but don’t read and write it, which is necessary if you want to engage on Zhihu.

    Anyway, so far my experience has been pretty good. It seems like Zhihu users are a pretty self-selecting group who are a cut above the average Chinese internet user. Definitely a more substance-oriented, intellectual bent to the content there. Not all of it is so substantive, of course. At first, a lot the responses to my answers were “wow, this foreigner’s Chinese is so good/so cute”. But as people have become more familiar with me, they’ve been responding more to the actual meat of my posts, and I like that.

    As a foreigner who’s got a grasp on China, but still has lots of questions, Zhihu is an invaluable resource. And the fact that I’ve now got 7,220 followers (and counting) means that any time I put a question out there, people immediately see it, and I get instant responses (much moreso than on Quora)

    So far I’ve been a little careful treading around sensitive issues. My plan from the beginning was to use Zhihu to kind of test the waters and see what can get through the censors and what can’t. So far I’ve only had two questions censored. It was “Will Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption extend to members of his own inner circle”?
    This question disappeared about ten minutes after I asked it. I then posted the question “what sort of questions in Zhihu get censored”. This one lasted for about an hour and got several responses before it too was taken down. Since then I haven’t asked any highly sensitive political questions, and as a result haven’t had anything else censored.

    I did post a question which I thought might be politically sensitive, about the “Five Mao Army”: “Is the Five Mao Army an actual system where people actually are employed to write comments and get paid for them, or is it just a saying referring to anyone who posts nationalistic comments online?” This question has been up for several days now, attracted lots of attention and comments, and so far has not been taken down.

    I notice that sexual content doesn’t seem to get censored at all. Nor does discussion of illicit drugs.