Foreign companies have taken a long time to figure out – then adapt to – one of the key features of Chinese consumers: they do not like to type. “Typing is a pain in Chinese,” explains Zhang Honglin, demonstrating how he has to enter a search word in Latin transcription, then pick the right character scrolling through sometimes dozens of different choices in a pop-up window. This is because Mandarin has many thousands of characters. So when 35-year-old Mr Zhang sneaks away from his family’s tobacco and liquor shop in Beijing to an upstairs internet café for hours on end, he navigates almost entirely using the mouse.
Most portals have reacted by filling their pages with hundreds of colourful links competing for attention – creating a cluttered and disorderly view to the western eye but making life easier for Chinese users.
Beyond aesthetics, Chinese web users are much more lively than their western peers – a characteristic that forms consumption preferences. “The amount of comments posted per user in China is double that of other geographies,” says Dan Harple of GyPSii, a mobile social networking application that allows users to post recommended places and events, and comment on them. One Chinese GyPSii user posted 300 places and 7,000 comments within a few months.
Just as in “offline” China, food is a particular focus. “Typically when a GyPSii user signs up in China, they’ll take a picture of what they’re eating at that point in time,” says Mr Harple.
The government has skilfully used the preference of its internet users for entertainment. Loose enforcement of intellectual property rights means that – despite pledges from Beijing that say otherwise – Chinese consumers can easily find the latest music and movies for free on a host of websites, a situation that helps keep the minds of many off topics that could prove inconvenient to their rulers.
When controversial debates arise anyway, the authorities use an army of “internet commentators”, paid to speak up in online forums to keep sensitive comment in check and support the government’s stance. The standard technique is to invoke nationalism as a conduit for dissatisfaction.
Overall, the censorship machine has had only patchy success. All but the most sensitive information on absolute political taboos – such as the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen student movement – falls within easy reach of internet users.