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When Iranian's used Twitter to get out news about their recent election, people took note in China. Compared to Iran, Twitter played a much smaller role in the recent ethnic clashes in Western China. But many Chinese do believe Twitter and its Chinese imitators have considerable potential to change their media and their society, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN: Several Chinese NGOs recently held a training course here to teach citizen journalists how to use Twitter and other new media in their reporting.
The main speaker was one of China's better known Twitterati, Zhou Shuguang, whose pen name is Zola. Zola says that when he's reporting on politically sensitive stories, Twitter is not only a good reporting tool, it can also protect him in case he gets detained.
Mr. ZHOU SHUGUANG: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Citizen journalists will usually say at what time and what place they made their last move. If they run into trouble, netizens or journalists can track them based on the final clues they leave.
Also speaking at the event was Ma Xiaolin. A former foreign correspondent with the official Xinhua News Agency, he now runs Bolianshe, an alliance of Chinese bloggers.
He says social media can be very empowering, but their importance has been exaggerated by traditional media's failures.
Mr. MA XIAOLIN (Xinhua News Agency): (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: The reason this kind of citizen behavior has exploded, he says, is because our traditional media are out of place. They're not fulfilling their proper role and professional responsibilities. If they don't do it right, others will do it for them.
In the past couple of years, social media have played a significant role in breaking news on sensitive topics, including official corruption and civil unrest.
Traditional media are feeling the heat.
(Soundbite of Chinese television broadcast)
KUHN: China Central Television, for example, is planning the biggest revamp of its flagship evening news program in years.
But when bloody clashes between ethnic minority Uighurs and majority Han erupted in far west Xinjiang province on July 5th, Twitter's impact was limited.
Ismael An is a young twitterer in East China. He's also a member of China's Muslim Hui minority. He says Uighurs were either not online, or chose to remain silent.
Mr. ISMAEL AN: (Through translator) It was as if Xinjiang remained under a veil. After the Internet was cut, locals had an even harder time making their voices heard. Besides, those who understood the use of social media were not necessarily sympathetic to the Uighurs.
KUHN: The official Xinhua News Agency reported on the violence within hours. By the following morning, the government had cut all Internet service in Xinjiang Province, with the notable exception of a press center for foreign and domestic journalists. Police later questioned Ismael about his writings expressing sympathy with disaffected Uighurs.
Mr. AN: (Through translator) They said my blog postings were inciting racial hatred. I think this was a false accusation. They were making a taboo of the ethnic minority issue and forbidding me to discuss my ethnicity and my Muslim brothers and sisters.
KUHN: In recent months, China has blocked social media sites, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Similar sites inside China have been forced to shut themselves down temporarily or face penalties.
As of Wednesday, one Chinese micro-blogging site called Jiwai was still running. Its CEO, Li Zhuohuan, explains that his Web site is popular because it uses a Chinese-language interface, and users can post entries via cell phone text messages and instant messaging platforms.
Mr. LI ZHUOHUAN (CEO, Jiwai): (Through translator) Everyone knows that Chinese people's quantity and frequency of cell phone text messaging is very high. China also has a very large number of people using the QQ instant messaging software. Users like to share information with their friends in real time.
KUHN: Li notes that as on Twitter, posts to Jiwai are limited to 140 characters. But Li points out that 140 Chinese characters contain double or even triple the expressive power of the same thing in English. Li adds that for now, most of his users are content to entertain themselves. But he says he hopes his Web site will be of more social significance in future.
Mr. ZHUOHUAN: (Through translator) These are things that are harder to do. But of course I hope that in the future our government will give this kind of media the recognition, or even begin supporting and using it.
KUHN: China's leaders like to surf the Web, but they're not tweeting yet.
Yesterday, Jiwai posted a notice that it too was temporarily closed for maintenance.
Media watchers believe Jiwai and other Chinese sites may reopen after the sensitive 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1st.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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