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October 28, 2009

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Young Netizens: 'I,' not 'we'

WEBSITE business manger Shao Yibei describes herself as "a tiny water drop in the ocean of Chinese Netizens longing to shine." But she never knew she would shine overnight or make a big splash.

She became an instant sensation back in February when a friend uploaded a five-minute video clip, in which 26-year-old Shao sang the blues about love and pressure to marry. She accompanied herself on the guitar.

The song, her own composition, is called "The Song of an Overaged Intellectual Young Woman."

She sings of a fictional 31-year-old intellectual whose parents are pushing her to marry but who cannot find the right man.

It touched a nerve.

"My friend uploaded the clip just for fun," says Shao, "but none of us expected what would happen the next day."

Response from the virtual world was overwhelming, leaving more than 300,000 hits during the first couple of days. Shao also received thousands of proposals to "become your friend" on her blog.

Movie producers invited Shao to compose songs while her first album is under preparation.

Sharing ideas

"I find it difficult to communicate with others in real life, so music is my way of expression," says Shao. "But it's the Internet that makes me 'heard'."

Shao is now best known as folk music singer and blogger "Shao Xiaomao."

"It's such a happy surprise to see my ideas being shared by so many people. I'm not alone," says Shao.

However, doubts, criticism, satire and even verbal abuse come along with praise. Shao learns to face them.

"If I can express my ideas freely, why shouldn't others?" she says.

Shao's mother, a high school teacher, can't quite come to terms with her daughter's "Internet incident."

"My mom first felt ashamed that I was talking so directly in my song about marriage, which she thought should be private," says Shao.

"Then she blamed me for standing out on the Internet even though she knew it wasn't me who started it."

In a country like China where modesty and humility are traditional values and "I" is likely to surrender to "we," Shao and her peers are part of a revolution in which more and more Chinese identify themselves as individuals in the cyber world.

Differing opinions toward the Internet held by Shao and her mother reflect some of the profound changes since China adopted reform and opening-up policies in the late 1970s, says Hu Qiheng, chairwoman of the Internet Society of China.

The Internet is playing an important role in raising the public awareness of individuality and citizenship in China, by "providing a platform for the Chinese, who tend to be silent in real life, to express themselves and exchange ideas," says Hu.

On April 20, 1994, as vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hu applied to the National Science Foundation of the United States to be connected with the Internet, and thus ushered in an entirely new cyber world for the most populous country in the world.

The first Internet users in China were more than 1,000 scientists. Fifteen years later, the country's Netizen population surged to 338 million, according to a report released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in July.

"Everyone is someone on the Internet, which has been shaping a new generation in China. Between their own interests and the mainstream social values, they are more freely pursuing the former than their parents did," Hu says.

The Internet has broadened information channels for the general public, and "more importantly, the distribution of information is interactive and real-time," says Chen Jiangong, a CNNIC senior analyst.

Zhang Jie, a 26-year-old magazine editor in Chongqing Municipality, has found surfing online indispensable in her daily life since she first had access to Internet 10 years ago. Like most of her friends and colleagues, Zhang relies heavily on the Internet for things like working, entertaining and shopping.

"The Internet does not only bring convenience to my life, but more importantly, it reforms my mindset," says Zhang.

Diverse voices

Before there was a thing called the Internet, there was less accesses to information and a lack of diverse voices from the media.

"It didn't matter much whether you read one newspaper or 10 because what they said was similar. But this has been changed by the Internet," Zhang says.

Tianya Forum, a virtual social community based in the southernmost Hainan Province, is Zhang's favorite and is one of the most popular in China. Every day she reads entries from "Tianya By-talk," which focuses on hot social issues.

Founded in 1999, Tianya lets people transform themselves into anyone they want. Zhang chooses to become a Netizen named Caocao or Grass.

The latest hot topic to engage her is the crackdown on mafia in Chongqing.

"There are plaudits as well as doubts of its long-term effect," says Zhang.

"Different opinions stir scepticism and push me to look into the issues more carefully before coming to a conclusion," she says. "The Internet gives me much more than a digital identity, it transforms me into a person with independent thinking and an open mind."

Zhang is by no means unique on the Tianya By-talk, which receives more than 100 million visits each month.

Administrator Xiaodang attributes the forum's success to its openness and tolerance of different ideas.

"Everyone can express their own ideas and carry out discussions. Sometimes quarrels are inevitable," he says.

Xiaodang's parents, however, are not accustomed to the "active atmosphere" on Tianya, although they also read news on portal Websites such as and check e-mails from their Yahoo in-boxes.

"When they know I make comments on some sensitive topics, they will ask me to be prudent and restrained," he says. "Self-expression seems less important to them."

The 25-year-old dismisses his parents' wishes. On the contrary, he feels it is his right and responsibility to voice his own thoughts.

"A responsible Netizen should be honest, objective and rational," he says.

Xiaodang is proud of Tianya users' involvement in social issues. A recent example is a Hong Kong-based user who called for compassion and donations for the typhoon victims in Taiwan.

"It has raised a stronger sense of social responsibilities among Netizens," he says.

The Internet has given rise to Chinese people's awareness of citizenship, which is helpful in building a civil society in China, says researcher Chen Jiangong.

"In the past, it was some elites that took the lead to push reforms in China, but nowadays the Internet has become a driving force, especially in topics of great public concern," says Chen.

"Expression of individuality needs to be encouraged in a country which values creativity," says Hu Qiheng of the Internet Society of China. "The Internet is speeding up the maturing of Chinese people's individuality."


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