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The apps and websites offering a window into China

Chinese apps
REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Chinese government propaganda app Xuexi Qiangguo, which literally translates as ‘Study to make China strong’, is seen on a mobile phone in this illustration picture…
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Chinese messaging and social media app WeChat is at the center of a battle between the US and China for geopolitical and technological dominance.  A potential ban of the app, proposed by the US government in August, would cut off an important window into China.

With over 1 billion active users globally, WeChat is one of the few communication channels connecting millions of Chinese immigrants or Chinese Americans with their families and friends in China. The app also offers precious insight into daily life there, through accounts run by media organizations, key opinion leaders, and individuals. Posts on the platform showcase rare displays of discontent towards the Chinese government, with users sharing restricted articles on topics like the coronavirus pandemic, briefly dodging censorship by the platform and the Chinese government with creative use of emojis and coded language.

The bans on WeChat and fellow app TikTok by the Trump administration (citing national security concerns), make them the latest casualty in the political fight over the future of the internet. While US courts examine the validity of the bans, TikTok is exploring a deal to spin off its US operations into a US-headquartered company. WeChat’s owner Tencent is yet to detail its plans.

A WeChat ban would be a great loss for people who want to understand China. But here are four other important Chinese websites available to users outside the country that could fill the void. You’ll need to be Chinese speaking, or have a translation app handy, to access these sites. (The Chrome browser translation works pretty well, and we’re also fan of this extension, if you want to learn more about specific key phrases.)

Weibo

Launched by US-listed Chinese tech company Sina in 2009,  Weibo is often described as “China’s Twitter.” The microblogging site has nearly 500 million registered users, providing a useful gauge of mainstream sentiment in China, albeit one filtered for politically sensitive views.

Weibo allows overseas users to sign up using their Facebook account or email. A good way to dive in is to look at posts under Weibo’s “trending topic” column, which shows how many views different topics are attracting. Because all Chinese social media sites are under heavy surveillance by the government, trending topics aren’t entirely organic and often reflect the government’s agenda. As an example, a misleading description of an interview given by an Italian doctor, believed to be part of Beijing’s efforts to sow confusion on the origin of the novel coronavirus, received over 490 million views in March.

Still, users can get a snapshot of opinions by searching related keywords on the site, then looking at the latest or most popular posts under the hashtag containing the words. Users could also follow the accounts of major state media outlets such as the Global Times and People’s Daily, which have over 21 million and 121 million followers, respectively.

It’s not unusual for the government to direct Weibo to delete user accounts, but the site also monitors for and takes down politically sensitive statements. That said, users will still catch flashes of dissent on the platform. Weibo users have expressed some anger towards government policies, and shown support for the anti-government actions, such as recent protests in Hong Kong, using coded language or songs. On Oct. 12, its users shared birthday wishes for Li Wenliang, the Wuhan-based doctor who was reprimanded for being among the first to alert the public about the virus, and then contracted it himself. More than one million people have left comments on Li’s last post on Feb. 1. Li died a week later.

Weibo is not available to users in India without a VPN. The platform was part of a recent, sweeping clampdown in India on more than 100 Chinese-owned apps and websites, including TikTok and WeChat.

Zhihu

Zhihu started out as an invitation-only website in 2011 and has been dubbed “China’s Quora” (the question-and-answer site’s name roughly translates to “do you know?”) Many of the sites’s 220 million users are middle-class entrepreneurs, graduates of prestigious universities, and tech company employees—a common joke in China is that the average Zhihu user has an annual income of over 1 million yuan, lives in the US, and flies frequently across the world. Similar to Weibo, the site also has an “explore” channel displaying trending topics,  and a “questions waiting to be answered” column that shows the topics being discussed the most, or that are linked most closely to the user’s interests.

Zhihu used to be regarded as relatively liberal and even featured posts mocking the Chinese government. When Chinese president Xi Jinping removed presidential term limits in 2018, for example, one post compared him to an exhausted bus driver who refused to get off work. But the site has been under much greater scrutiny from the government after opening registration to the public in 2013. Beijing’s major propaganda arm targeting youngsters, the Communist Youth League, has registered an account on the site, and there has been a decline in politically sensitive posts, likely a result of user self-censorship.

In 2014, Zhihu created a function named “comments advised to be amended,” which the site uses to deal with comments deemed as politically sensitive or inappropriate flagged by users, by prompting the author to alter the post in order for it to be published. Not even the Communist Youth League can escape monitoring: In 2017, the site flagged and hid one of its answers about the Chinese military as too politically sensitive. In response, the organization published an article criticizing Zhihu’s censorship of its post, saying the site should instead censor other posts expressing incorrect values.

Douban

This film and book review site, with around 160 million users, is a good place to read Chinese takedowns of Western movies (Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan recently scored 4.9 out of 10), and get a sense of what entertainment the Chinese government considers dangerous, with sensitive movies or books frequently erased from the website. For example, some users found in mid-August that the page for V for Vendetta, a dystopian political action film featuring a masked freedom fighter, had been deleted from the site for unexplained reasons.

Despite this censorship, the site is regarded as one of the last corners on the internet for China’s liberal users, with around 600,000 forums that feature discussions on topics ranging from “I am too freaking poor” to “anti-marriage self-help group.” The wide range of subjects and a relatively relaxed atmosphere allow users to discuss things like politics more easily, although the site has been subject to some government crackdowns. In September, the website halted functions such as rating and commenting of books for a month at the request of China’s cyber regulator, after some users gave China’s controversial national security law imposed in Hong Kong one star.

Jinri Toutiao

With the simple name “today’s headlines,” this hit news app was one of the earliest successes for ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok. Its powerful content recommendation algorithm has made it China’s biggest news aggregator, with over 260 million active users. The site provides an endless list of sensational news articles, grabbed from media partners and individual content creators, on topics ranging from Xi Jinping’s latest decree on cyber safety to whether the US will be destroyed by Covid-19. Like Weibo, Toutiao’s comment section offers a glimpse into popular Chinese sentiment on social issues.