Free Speech In China? Text Me

Graphic of Chinese text-messaging behavior. i i
Alice Kreit/NPR
Graphic of Chinese text-messaging behavior.
Alice Kreit/NPR

If Romeo and Juliet lived in modern China, their dialogue would probably be in 70-character text messages. That's how college student Wong Lei's boyfriend courted her.

"He told me his experiences from the time he was born through college, all in text messages," says Wong, a college student.

Text messaging is the most popular form of communication in China. Six hundred million Chinese have cell phones — that's twice the population of the United States and three times the number of Chinese with Internet access.

Text messages are cheaper than a phone call by about half. No one in China has voice mail, so it's the surest way to get a message to someone.

Although the Chinese language has thousands of individual characters, most phones have software that uses English letters to represent the sounds of particular characters.

Cultural Benefits

The Chinese prefer texting to talking for cultural reasons as well, says Alvin Graylin, the CEO of mInfo, a Shanghai-based company that supplies software for mobile devices to enable them to search the Internet. According to Graylin, part of the appeal is that texting allows traditionally reserved Chinese to say more than they would in person.

Graylin says the Chinese have a hard time expressing deeply personal emotions. A text message allows them to do it without bumping up against old cultural norms.

"Chinese are a little more indirect. They don't like to always say what they really mean," says Graylin. "It's easier to sometimes communicate through a short message, a small communication of what you're looking for, than to call somebody and have to explain everything."

So when Wong Lei's boyfriend broke up with her, he did it via text message.

In the message, Wong says he told her "he was not sure about a lot of things"; she understood that meant the end. While a text-message breakup might trouble most Americans, Wong is very accepting. "That boy's a little shy," she says. "This text message is maybe the best way for him to say something."

Text Message Poet

If her boyfriend had been looking for a little help, he could also turn to paid text messages. These days, everything from marriage proposals to New Year's greetings can be found prewritten — for a price.

Pengfai Dai is probably China's best-known text-message poet. He can recite one of his short text-message love poems on request.

if i send you the message, i love you
then save it or delete it.
i just hope that you
don't forward the message on
to anyone else.
especially not your mama and papa.

Writing poems and jokes for text messages isn't a full-time profession for Pengfai — he also writes plays, satirical journalism and fiction. But, he says, his text messages reach more people. He sometimes hears chatter in restaurants about a particular text message, and he enjoys walking up to people and telling them he was the author.

Free Speech Via Texting

So far, text messaging is beyond the reach of China's infamous government censors. Internet dissident Yu Jie says activists use text messages to organize protests.

Yu says that earlier in the year, there were plans to build a polluting oil refinery in Xiamen, in southeastern China. Local people used text messages to organize a huge protest, which helped stop the refinery from being built.

The censors routinely take down Yu's online writings because he is critical of the government. But he says he often receives uncensored text messages critical of the regime. The messages often have a lot of "sarcastic jokes about corruption and that government inefficiency," he says.

"A lot of the times, these jokes — even though they are authored anonymously — are written better than anything done by China's most well-known authors," Yu says.

He believes that scholars of Chinese history who really want to know about the best literature of this time will have to find a way to research its text messages.

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