Like every nearly everywhere else, Chinese society has been inexorably changed by by the rise of the internet. But China’s unique political and social atmosphere has led to the development of an internet culture and net-user habits that are quite different from pop culture on the English-speaking web. So what’s so special about the Chinese internet?
A different way to browse
China’s internet is often used differently from the broader internet because of the inherent differences between Chinese characters and the roman alphabet used by many other languages. Until recently, it wasn’t possible for web URLs -- the addresses for web sites -- to use Chinese characters. This meant that Chinese websites had to use URLs like “baidu.com” instead of “百度.网”; and the former can be difficult for many Chinese users to remember and type because they’re not used to using the roman alphabet and the English words like “index”, “downloads”, etc. that often appear in web URLs.
For this reason, Chinese websites often feature a huge array of links that cover virtually every inch of screen space. Although this looks aestheticlaly unappealing to many Westerners, especially in contrast to the clean minimalism of Western sites like Google, this kind of design is functional in China as it allows for users to look for and click on the chinese characters for the content that they want, rather than having to try to remember and type out web addresses that use a language they don’t speak. Many of China’s most popular websites are so-called “portal” sites -- sites with thousands of links to all kinds of content right on the front page. Users can set these sites as their home page, and then proceed to browse the internet by clicking, without having to worry about typing out URLs at all.
Politics, censorship, and puns
Everyone knows that China’s internet is censored. This censorship is sometimes subtle, but it is often overt, and on social media, censored users often receive messages informing them directly that their post has been censored. Reasons may or may not be listed, but many of China’s internet users are quite savvy, and over the years have adapted ways of circumventing this censorship when they want to.
One of the most common ways of skirting automatical web censorship tools is the use of puns, references, and other jokes to replace text that, if the correct term was used, would likely be censored. For example, when Chinese users wanted to write about June 4th but found that typing that date in Chinese resulted in censorship on Chinese social media, they began calling it “May 35th” instead. When Chinese users wanted to express their support for Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is a political prisoner in China, they used a popular colloquial expression that means “floating with the waves” but that sounds much like Liu Xiaobo’s name.
Entertainment and shopping
But most web users are more interested in games, entertainment, chatting, and shopping than they are in politics. Watching TV online is very popular in China, and contrary to popular belief outside China’s borders, the country has several websites that allow viewers to view legally-licensed television content online for free. Shopping online is also wildly popular -- perhaps even moreso than in the West -- because of the extremely cheap and quick shipping for users in major metropolitan areas.
Of course, Chinese net users also use the web to chat with their friends, and much like the English internet, the Chinese web is full of its own memes, slang, and inside jokes and references that change almost daily. It can be difficult to keep up with -- just like the English-language web is -- but if you put the time in to understand it, China’s web is a fascinating place.