Letter From Shanghai

WSJ Chinese-Language Site Blocked as China Follows Different Media Rules

Ad Age Editor Abbey Klaassen Reports From Shanghai

By Published on .

Abbey Klaassen
Abbey Klaassen
Sometime during the week of Oct. 11, the Chinese-language websites of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal disappeared.

It's not clear exactly why the sites went dark, but the suspected reason is because the WSJ and FT covered in depth an open letter written by a group of retired Communist Party members that called for greater openness in media and less censorship. The letter was published briefly on various Chinese sites before being censored.

The Journal's Chinese-language site still isn't back up; the paper declined to comment. An FT spokeswoman in New York said the site was down "due to technical issues which have been resolved now."

WSJ's Chinese-language website is still accessible outside China.
WSJ's Chinese-language website is still accessible outside China.
As the economy has gotten stronger, you might think China's media censorship would relax more, but it hasn't. The timing of the letter is likely tied to a meeting held this week in Beijing to discuss the party's next five-year plan.

China hasn't blocked the English-language sites and it's highly unlikely it will.

"They're not going to go and piss off all of the expat business community, that would be going too far," Peter Herford, a former CBS news producer who's now a journalism professor at Shantou University, told me by phone. "But their own citizens, hell yes."

It's also difficult, Herford explained, to know exactly who's responsible for the shutdown. Normally it's the Propaganda Ministry that makes these decisions, but in theory it could also be the Agricultural Ministry if it disapproved of something. "The actual decision can come from many other places," he said.

I can't read Chinese, so I haven't been inconvenienced by the outage. In the 72 hours I've been here, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that the drug I miss most in my media habit is YouTube. Links to the site are all over the English-language web and it's nearly impossible for a non-Chinese-language speaker to substitute Youku or Tudou, the two leading online-video sites in China, because they're not in English. (And incidentally, they have little incentive to add English translation because that would just attract foreign visitors, which they can't monetize through ads.)

But while I'm stuck here without many of my favorite sites -- in addition to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are also blocked under the Great Firewall of China -- I've been astonished by the number of expats and digital-media junkies who do access the sites using VPNs.

Even Tudou CEO Gary Wang, whose site has arguably benefited from the firewall, has one on his iPhone 4. In an afternoon meeting at his office, a three-story former nightclub far from downtown Shanghai, he pulled up Twitter, showed me his Facebook app. But while he gets around the blockage on Facebook and Twitter, he deals with very real issues of censorship every day, as his site screens uploads looking for censored topics. Screening for censorship purposes consumes far more of his energy and resources than screening for copyrighted content being uploaded by users. Content companies will sue sites like Tudou for copyright violation when they find content on the site, but the penalties are very low.

"Content is a one," he said, speaking about the scale of time and investment he puts into particular issues and concerns. "Censorship is 1,000."

China's media market doesn't only play by different rules than the West, it's also much, much more fragmented than anything the American ad market deals with. The online market is flooded with BBS, or bulletin board systems, in addition to the Chinese versions of many popular internet sites, said Sam Fleming, who runs a social-media marketing firm in China, CIC. "It's much more complex." The BBS world can be tough to wrangle for advertising, but he does think it's easier for online content to go viral in China than in the west.

"There's a dearth of good content so they go online for entertainment, information and socializing -- more so than in the west," he said.

But the TV market is where it gets really hairy, Seth Grossman, managing director of Carat in China, told me over lunch earlier this week. There's the big state-owned national network CCTV and the nearly nationwide Shanghai Media Group and then hundreds of smaller ones, sprinkled across local markets.

As Tudou's Wang told me, that's why "there could never be a Hulu in China." In the U.S., he said you've got about five players controlling the content, here there are dozens of content providers."

And don't even get me started on the outdoor market.

Abbey Klaassen is the editor of Advertising Age.
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