Commentary

In China, Happiness Is Saying What You Want (Online)

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Despite the Chinese government's squashing of planned protests over the last couple months, demand for free speech is clearly simmering not far beneath the surface of Chinese society -- and social media is clearly central to this trend, judging by the results of a recent poll cited by The Economist.

According to The Economist, when ordinary Chinese folk were asked what they considered the key elements of happiness, 11% of respondents included the ability to express their feelings online. Presuming the figure's accurate, that works out to about 150 million Chinese who find happiness in self-expression on the Internet. I'm guessing there is a lot of overlap between this figure and the 63 million Chinese (4.7% of the population) who currently use Twitter-like micro-blogging services such as Fanfou.com. Separately, fully 87% of Chinese polled by the BBC in 2007 said they thought Internet access should be a basic right -- an interesting result, considering "only" 460 million Chinese, or 34% of the total population, are actually online.

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Of course, it would be a mistake to think Internet access is somehow all about political expression: in 2007, 32% of Chinese Internet users said the Internet had "broadened their sex life." By the same token, online expression is just one element of overall happiness: 40% of all Chinese believe wealth is the main component of happiness, according to a China.com.cn poll. With an eye to growing discontent, Chinese leaders are promising to build more modern housing, improve healthcare, combat pollution, and rein in corruption.

Still, the lack of political freedom is a sore point: in 2007, 79% of Chinese Internet users said they valued being able to express opinions anonymously, compared to 42% in the U.S. And China needs all the happiness it can get: the China.com.cn poll found just 6% of Chinese said they were happy, compared to 82% in Denmark according to a Gallup poll. Gallup ranked China 125th out of 155 countries in terms of happiness.

The Chinese government has made a few gestures in the direction of free expression, including an online chat between prime minister Wen Jiabao and citizens ahead of the annual People's Congress. But for the most part the idea is sharply at odds with the Chinese reality -- including "The Great Firewall of China," manned by tens of thousands of policemen whose sole job is monitoring online activity for evidence of dissent. One common joke (mocking the previous official slogan of a "harmonious society") says online comments deleted by censors have been "harmonized."

Indeed, the real attitude of the Chinese government towards social media is probably best characterized as suspicion verging on paranoia. As noted in previous columns, in July 2010 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a report, titled "Development of China's New Media," sounding the alarm over the subversive potential of online social media, which the authors warn is being used by Western governments (including the United States) to foment political unrest inside China. Among its key suggestions: "We must pay attention to the potential risks and threats to state security as the popularity of social networking sites continues to grow. We must immediately step up supervision of social networking sites."
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