Internet forums and bulletin boards occupy a very unique and important place in the Chinese Internet, much more so than I’ve noticed in the English-language Internet. To truly understand the nature of the Chinese Internet, you need to regularly read posts in the most popular Chinese Internet forums. Chinese Internet forums are also an interesting window into the minds and attitudes of China’s younger generation (students and young professionals), who form the majority of China’s Internet users. Some key things you should be aware of about online forums and bulletin boards in China:
They are a powerful counter-balance to the official media
Although a lot of media/news reforms are happening, the Chinese government will always hold a tight rein on official media and publications. This drives Chinese Internet users to bulletin boards to voice or read different viewpoints and disclosures by whistleblowers which would normally be censored or ignored in the mainstream media. For example the 2007 Shanxi slave incident moved into the national spotlight after being disclosed in Tianya, a popular Chinese internet forum.
A tendency for mob/herd mentality
Many comments on posts take extreme or simplistic viewpoints (e.g. you are either right or wrong), many are also vulgar. This makes forums a prime breeding ground for rumors, half-truths or gossip that can be manipulated to sway public opinion. Heard of the so-called “Human flesh” search engines? This is a phenomenon where vigilante users go online/offline to search out and publicly post information on a targeted person. Grace Wang was a previous victim - many users had accused her of being a traitor during a protest at Duke University. I’ve also heard of Chinese companies employing people to write favorable posts in bulletin boards to promote their products - I guess this would be called “bulletin board marketing”?
Internet forums are also subject to censorship
While scandals involving provincial-level or city-level officials are discussed on Internet forums, censorship still often occurs when discussion topic is about the national government, national leaders or important national issues. For example you will almost never see any criticism of members of the PoIitburo – any discussion of these individuals is usually in praise. All Internet forums at least implement simple keyword filtering.
In a country that has so many people and is undergoing such rapid change, there never seems to be a shortage of issues to talk about in online forums, e.g. Baidu supposedly censoring news about Melamine in milk powder, a University student getting poisoned, a security guard beating a poor person, girls posting pictures online to get famous, ….