(Photo by Josh Chin)
The thing I love most about the annual Chinese blogger conferences is the chance to make friends and have candid conversations with many people - offline, and offstage.
The best conferences naturally have interesting speakers and panels, but they also serve as catalyst and focal point for community － people you enjoy talking to for hours after the meeting ends over beers and sunflower seeds (a classic Beijing combination). As you can see from these pictures taken late on Saturday night, CNbloggercon is definitely that kind of conference.
Now in its third year, CNBloggercon has evolved into a community platform - an exciting community of independent online writers, digital artists, media techies, entrepreneurs, educators, intellectuals, etc. Tangos at China Web2.0 Review describes it as the "biggest annual grassroot party of China’s web 2.0 startups."
Coming on the heels of the 17th Party Congress, called "shi qi da" ("the 17th big meeting") in Chinese, people jokingly called this "san da" (the "third big meeting"). People even referred tongue-in-cheek to one of the conference organizers, Issac Mao, as "Chairman Mao."
I was especially thrilled to have finally met "Laohumiao" (the guy smoking in the picture at right) whose pen name means "tiger temple". He is a Beijing-based blogger who I first linked to in 2004 when he blogged about a murder that he eye-witnessed on the street in Beijing. "Laohumiao" has just returned from a 5-province blogging trip, on which he documented the lives of the ordinary people he encountered along the way. He was also one of five people on a panel I moderated, titled "Grassroots Media and Professional Media," which ended up being the most controversial panel of Day 1.
(Photo by Josh Chin)
They're all pictured here, from left to right: Zhai Minglei, former Southern Weekend reporter and founder of grassroots publication, Minjian; outspoken blogger "Guo Daxia;" Laohumiao, described above; BeiFeng of the recently banned Bullog (click here for more background on Bullog's launch last year, courtesy of John K. at Globalvoices); and last but not least Zhou Shuguang, aka Zola, the blogger who shot to fame for covering the Chongqing nailhouse story earlier this year. John live-blogged the session here, and you can read his transcript for the gritty details. "Rose" Luqiu Luwei, blogger and journalist at Phoenix TV (a Mandarin-language TV station based in Hong Kong) was originally scheduled to be on the panel, but due to work conflicts she was not able to attend. She is founder of an interesting "pro-am" experiment (combining work of professionals and amateurs) called My 1510. I've spoken to her in the past about the relationship between amateur and professional media and it would have been very interesting to have her perpective on the panel. Last winter she wrote a very thoughtful article titled "Blogging News in China" for Nieman Reports. Maybe she'll come next year, if her bosses let her... given that a couple of my panelists this year required no provoking on my part to start discussing questions of free speech that made some people in the audience uncomfortable.
"Daxia" got people squirming when he complained about how his blogs have been shut down multiple times, and reminded us that Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech for the Chinese people. (More of his views on the illegal behavior of government and party in Chinese here.)
Here's how David Feng at Blognation described the panel:
Rebecca MacKinnon next moderated a panel on citizen journalism, which also saw Beifeng, Zuola Zhou, Zhai Mingfei and Laohumiao take part. IN particular, the man behind Yibao (literally “one person’s newspaper) went onstage and gave his views on grassroots media.
The panel started touching some very sensitive aspects of citizen journalism, namely whether or not the Chinese Constitution protected their rights to freedom of speech, publication and press. The talk got very emotion, with panelists declaring out loud that “you can lock someone in jail, but you will never lock a spirit in jail”.
At this point, views were sharply split between the Western point of view — a guarantee of freedom of speech for everyone — and a more local point of view — feeding the farmers (the vox populi in the audience went along the lines of “China has 800-900 million farmers; do they care more about freedom of speech or that they don’t go hungry?”). Meanwhile, the IM feed, seeing the panel little short of taking those who feed the population with the 7 o’clock news to task, declared that “this conference is full of ideologists or people who believe in a perfect society”, and that with the “20% active, 80% powerless” audience, the talk dealt with matters that cannot be solved at this time. In fact, the chatter at one point said that people got more mileage buying toilets in Beijing than discussing freedom of speech!
Blogger "lonson" points out (in Chinese) that the panel's real issues - once you went beyond the larger free speech problems many people in the room found too headache-making to confront - were about journalistic ethics and the financial bottom line. The relationship between professional media and amateur or "grassroots" media is plenty contentious even when you're not in an authoritarian country - but the politics here make efforts to shape a new, socially beneficial relationship between grassroots and professional media all the more difficult.
Beijing-based freelance journalist Josh Chin whose blog is called "Ch-Infamous" has another take:
Of the events I’ve actually managed to concentrate on, so far the most noteworthy panel (for foreigners at least) has been a debate, moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon, on the relationship between blogging and traditional media. An old topic, yes. But still relevant in China, where blogs count as virtually the only independent source of news. Talk quickly turned from whether bloggers are journalists to blogs as guardians of free speech arrayed against a soul-snuffing government, whereupon the Jiwai.de message board lit up: “Why get talk about such sensitive things?” “Chaos on the stage!” “Is bloggers’ responsibility really so grand?” Most interesting bit came when someone in the audience questioned whether bloggers, who use pen names, don’t manage to evade responsibility for what they write. The answer came from Bei Feng (北风 ) , a former TV journalist from Guangzhou: “Actually, a regular journalist makes a mistake, his newspaper or TV station usually takes most of the heat, or makes the problem disappear. A blogger takes the heat himself. The law makes it possible to hold people responsible for what they write online. For that reason, you’re even more careful about what you publish, you’re standards are even higher. Bloggers have more of a sense of responsibility than regular journalists.”
A bit simplified as arguments go, but not without its merits. It’s common knowledge the Chinese news industry is nearly as corrupt as the government officials it purports to cover. Paid articles and hong bao bribes (explained away as “transportation fees”) are standard salary supplements for regular journalists. Chinese bloggers, at least at this point, don’t seem to be in it for the money.
One issue we did not get enough time to explore in our five-person panel in 40 minutes was the controversy surrounding Zhou Shuguang, aka "Zola," the blogger who played an instrumental role in publicizing the Chongqing "nailhouse" story - the the dramatic story of ordinary citizens fighting real estate developers, on which online citizen media beat mainstream media hands down. Since catapulting to fame with his coverage of one hot story, Zola has taken a great deal of flak for his behavior - in particular, taking payments from other interviewees in exchange for writing about them. He seemed tired and emotionally worn down by all the criticism and by trying to defend his behavior, arguing that he's not a journalist and wasn't ever trying to be. He says he now plans to return to his home in Hunan and go back to his vegetable selling business that he abruptly abandoned when inspired to go and cover the story that changed his life. Zola's problem is a common one for bloggers who shoot to fame after covering a particular issue they happen to be passionate about or an event that they happen to have witnessed: in all his subsequent work, as he searched for interesting things to write about and to live up to inflated expectations, a lot of his readers were disappointed by his lack of professionalism.
Both Zhai Minglei and Laohumiao talked about the importance of grassroots media as a personal action that is different from professional media because it represents the unadulterated voices of individuals. People can now use online publishing tools to document what they see and encounter- as well as their personal perspective on it. The result will inevitably be something different than what comes out of news organizations. Quite often "personal media," which collectively adds up to become "grassroots media," will bring to light events and problems that traditional media simply isn't going to mention - and has a different kind of perspective than that of professionals. The panelists all seemed to agree that if you stifle these voices in the name of professionalism (which Josh points out is rather dubious in much of the Chinese mainstream media anyway), nobody is left to speak out for the interests of ordinary people.
I should emphasize, however, that politics and journalism-related topics were the exception not the rule at CNBloggercon. The focus, as it has always been, was on people's accomplishments in using the web to build commnities in education, charity, free software, commercial collaboration, social marketing, gaming, and many other things. Thomas Crampton, who attended portions of the event blogged some impressions here. Ben at the 8Asians blog writes:
What’s interesting about this event is that it’s much more than about blogging itself. Blogging is great, but in China where speech is censored and there are people that are trying to speak out on this, that, or another thing, this event is really about how the technology has empowered regular people the ability to move forward. Just take a look at the technology in itself. This event even showcases the talent behind China’s equivalents to our Internet fads.
The only other "risky" panel was the final session on day two: Telecommunications Services and Internet Law, which included the blogger "Yetaai" who is suing China Telecom for blocking his website, and Liu Xiaoyuan, the Beijing-based lawyer who tried to sue the blog hosting company Sohu for breach of contract after it censored several of his blog posts. Both of them were given a chance to describe their cases, and Yetaai called for a mass class-action lawsuit of users against the ISP's blocking sites which cannot be shown to be violating any law. Then the moderator quickly moved the discussion on to other topics such as intellectual property and libel. Still, it was gutsy for organizers to give these two men a public platform here in Beijing to make their cases better known - especially since domestic Chinese media has not reported a thing about these lawsuits and very few Chinese Internet users know about them.