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China: Bridging the gap? Interviewing bridge bloggers

The Chinese blogosphere, as we all know, is booming. As one of the largest on the planet, it is constantly evolving and simultaneously being set back by the all-too-famous governmental censorship. According to Li Datong, the country’s civil society is being reborn online through the intense cyber-dissent and the breaching of the Green Dam last summer. In his view, not only is discontent with the Chinese government becoming more ferocious in an online setting, but such opinions are also receiving more official notice, namely in shaping the reporting of unrest in Tibet in early 2008.

But how does bridge blogging (the writing and translation of, in this case, Chinese and China-based blogs into English) fit into this online make-up? What is it they seek to achieve? and how, if at all, do they help foster a less black-and-white communication with the West? These are the questions I put to various bridge bloggers dotted around the People’s Republic this week.

chinaSMACK, an entertainment-heavy blog, rests on the premise that “translating and sharing the content that is most hot or viral on China’s Internet, and the comments of Chinese netizens themselves, will help foreign netizens better understand a part of China’s modern society and realize that Chinese people and foreigners are really not so different after all.” Fauna, the site’s translator, wants “to show that Chinese people are humans, too.”

This would suggest dissatisfaction with foreign audiences’ perceptions of China and the related media bias in covering the nation. Indeed, we are all too aware of the dominant Western discourse reiterating China’s systematic breaching of human rights, the controversial treatment of ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, its ‘Great Firewall’, intense media censorship and the ramifications felt by media professionals who do not tow the party line (out of the 175 countries featured in Reporters Without Borders’ recent Press Freedom Index, China came 168th). But however much this discourse hovers around us, it is rarely followed by a cultural understanding: we lack a more complex appreciation of China’s history of foreign imperialism, stark poverty, grassroots revolution and societal and cultural characteristics that would otherwise help us to better understand why such measures are in place.

For Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, bridge-blogging allows the coverage of China to improve, if for no other reason than to make available a wider breadth of sources to a more well-informed outside world. This has

a normalising effect (…) blogs help to fill in more details about Chinese daily life and how it is lived.

Goldkorn founded Danwei in 2003 in order to chart what he considered the exciting change China’s Internet was witnessing through the blogosphere and BBS forums, much of which the West was not aware of. Equally, Chinese themselves are also becoming more aware of the West, its lifestyles and perceptions of China.

For some, however, the initial act of bridge-blogging was only partially in response to narrow Western media framing. Cheng Lingcao established Fools’ Mountain in 2006 due to frustration with Chinese media practices, namely the detaining of blogger Wu Hao, and Cheng’s own desire to add support to the online campaign to free Wu. But, like Goldkorn, Cheng also felt the growing online debate in China needed translating into English to reach a wider audience, with the aim of establishing dialogue, not confrontation.

Yet, for all of bridge-blogging’s attempts at deepening both Western and Chinese perspectives of each other, it has its flaws. ChinaGeeks founder Charles Custer claims

it’s dangerous to assert we offer anything more than ‘a taste’. The Chinese Internet is vast and there are millions of opinions out there. Time constraints alone force us to pick and choose what we translate carefully, so it's obviously not representative of ‘the Chinese perspective’ (I'd argue there's no such thing) and it is all being filtered through a foreign lens, i.e., it's non-Chinese people making the editorial decisions about what to translate and what not to.

The selection process behind choosing what to translate is not subject to strict guidelines. According to Goldkorn, much of it is based on gut instinct and what readers may not expect, all in the context of a changing China.

But, in the opinion of a Fools’ Mountain contributor who wished to remain anonymous this often ticks the box of “anti-China behaviour”. He cites the recent example of Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows’ commentary on Chinese bloggers’ attitudes towards race after the participation of a mixed-race Shanghainese woman in a beauty pageant. Fallows cited many quotations collated on ChinaSMACK, which, in the anonymous blogger’s view,

were extremely racist and vicious (…) however, when I looked into this story, I found ChinaSMACK’s story not only incomplete, but extremely biased. While the few racist quotes were translated to help make the point, the majority of sympathetic comments in China's blogosphere against racism were completely ignored.

While we cannot generalise about the entire blogosphere through this one example, it does show potential problems the bridge faces. Fallows himself stated,

this is not a “blame China” episode but rather one of many illustrations of the differences in day by day social realities and perceived versus ignored sources of tension in particular societies.

chinaSMACK responded in agreement with Fallows. Fauna told me,

my post was about “Lou Jing Abused By Racist Netizens” (…) I do not think it is my “duty” to remind people that not all Chinese are racist. My post is not to “set the record straight”. My post is a translation of the story that is spreading on the Chinese internet.

Besides issues of this nature, there are also several practical problems: getting over the Great Firewall, financially maintaining these initiatives and involving non-English speakers in the dialogue make the bridge a relatively weak one. But, it is an effort in a progressive direction, fostering a deeper understanding on both sides of the globe and linking the crossroads both the West and China find themselves at today.

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  • wrtgbw

    Fauna of ChinaSMAC—

    seriously. neither is chinasmack good nor is it a mirrow of the chinese blogosfere.
    aside that chinasmack moderators are little hitlers who are flushing all coments down when they dont follow mods wish. to much censure for pretending of being neutral and representative.

  • wuzhang

    Chinasmack is not supposed to be a serious blog, it’s only there to dig up scandals and gather more hits. It doesn’t present itself as anything more, nor should it be seen as anything more – hence the name ChinaSMACK.

    • wrtgbw

      ahhh.. thats explain all that heavy censure in Chinasmack.

      • http://cnreviews.com Kai

        Dude, you’re kidding, right? LoL, chinaSMACK is arguably the least moderated blog in the English China blogosphere. Unlike GVO, comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks are regularly posted on chinaSMACK ALL THE TIME. To be moderated by chinaSMACK means you probably did something incredibly bad, like spamming, or trolling with multiple identities (even then, it seems all they do is expose you of doing so).

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  • Ranger_lost_in_Mordor

    chinasmack is just a hack trolling around on the internet with selected posts and comments translated for their own flavour.

  • George

    Because China is so strange and difficult to live in, sites like this tend to become outlets for foreigners to let off steam.

    Chinasmack’s Fauna and Kai (the guy above) tend to gang up on the bloggers and try to stop it, but that’s equally deplorable.

    The whole thing gets a bit messy and wrong really.

    • http://cnreviews.com Kai

      Don’t be ridiculous.

      First, how have Fauna and I ever “ganged up” on “bloggers” to stop people from letting off steam? How does that accusation even make sense considering that Fauna operates a website that let’s foreigners “let off steam” all the time?

      Second, I have nothing against people letting off steam. However, there’s a difference between, say, going to the gym to let off steam versus posting racist idiotic comments on public websites for all too see.

      Third, how is taking people to task for indulging their stupidity “equally deplorable”? With what? How is trying to stop people from insulting others deplorable? Why are foreigners entitled to let off steam in ignorant, destructive, and offensive ways? They’re not. Go hit a punching bag, I’m not going to stop you, much less gang up with anyone to stop you. But please, don’t spout unreasonable nonsense in front of me and tell me you should be allowed to do so “because China is so strange and difficult to live in.” That’s outrageous.

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