The missing 1.3 billion

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Missing China: A world map depicting social connections on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=469716398919)

Post-Western World's Facebook page's roughly fifteen thousand followers ("fans") hail from 45 different countries around the world. While most are based in large countries like Brazil, followed by India, Pakistan, the United States and Russia, the list also includes less populous nations like Afghanistan, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. That is, of course, a minuscule and insignificant fraction of Facebook's almost 1.5 billion users, yet it is, along with millions of other Facebook pages of comparable size, an example of how social media allows internet users to read, connect, comment and discuss any imaginable topic, ranging from pop music, religion, relationships and sports to computer games and politics with others, irrespective of national borders. For many users, particularly in large developing countries, social networks are the only way to engage with people in other countries. Language is no longer an insurmountable barrier, as translation tools are freely available. In the case of Post-Western World's Facebook page, it is not uncommon to receive comments and messages from people who speak only very little English or Portuguese.

We have only a limited understanding of how exactly social media and blogs affects the way people relate to the world and think about events and people in other regions of the globe. Contacts and knowledge transmitted via social networks are often superficial, and international travelers are often surprised at how little globalization affects local cultures. Strongly diverging public opinions across different countries or even regions within countries on many issues show that one needs to be careful with easily embracing the idea of a "global conversation". Yet even those skeptical of the actual influence of facebook and twitter will recognize that social media does play a role in the proliferation of international people-to-people contacts, strengthening the diffusion of ideas, narratives and trends.

China boasts 600 million internet users -- more than any other country  -- yet due to Beijing's censorship, Chinese social media users do not have access to twitter and Facebook, which has led to the creation of parallel and censored networks, such as Sina Weibo and Renren. In this sense, they are not part of the same global conversation. That may sound abstract, but has tangible consequences. For example, after completing a masters degree in public policy at the London School of Economics in 2014, a Brazilian student will find it far easier to stay in touch with his former Swedish or Pakistani fellow students than with the Chinese ones. That matters not only on a personal level, but even more so once this generation will occupy key positions in government. The same is true for academics who meet at an international conference, or even tourists who want to keep in touch after having met during a vacation.

For academics around the world seeking to engage with Chinese professors and policy analysts, internet censorship in China poses a series of practical difficulties. Sending each other links to articles, YouTube interviews or blog posts about the BRICS is possible with Indian, Brazilian, Russian and South African counterparts, but more difficult with Chinese partners, who may not be able to access them. Creating a Facebook group for young researchers from each of the BRICS countries is impossible since the Chinese government decided to block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after the 2009 riots in the Western province of Xinjiang.

Considering how important understanding China, its public opinion, domestic debate and government positions will be for virtually every country in the world, a far greater effort is necessary to engage with China than with other, more transparent, societies. The practical obstacles to exchanging ideas and information require even more face-to-face meetings, workshops, conferences, student exchange programs and visiting fellowships with Chinese institutions than usual. A far greater effort should be made to translate Chinese books in the field of social science, and history and politics in particular.

Facebook is currently signaling that it is far more willing to accept the Chinese government's censorship rules than Google in order to access the world's biggest internet market. During a recent visit of China's Internet czar, Lu Wei, to Facebook's Silicon Valley offices, Mark Zuckerberg even placed a copy of a book by Xi Jinping on his desk, and mentioned he had asked his employees to read it. Zuckerberg's promoting of the book struck many as kow-towing to a highly repressive regime. Yet, as much as its actions are driven by increasing profit (as is the case with any other business), Facebook's entry into China -- even if highly censored for now -- would be a small but important step towards strengthening interaction between Chinese citizens and the rest of the world.

Read also:

China’s Wild Hearts

Book review: “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” by Richard McGregor

A Contest for Supremacy in Asia?

Image credit: Paul Butler