Free Speech In China? Text Me Hundreds of millions of people in China have cell phones, and with no voice mail, many turn to text messaging to make sure their messages get conveyed. Texting remains one of the few outlets for free speech in a country notorious for its censorship practices.
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Free Speech In China? Text Me

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Free Speech In China? Text Me

Free Speech In China? Text Me

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

The most popular piece of technology in China is the cell phone. Six hundred million people there have one. That's twice the population of the U.S. and three times the number of Chinese with Internet access. They can be found among the nation's wealthiest and its poorest. But cell phones aren't talking to one another, they're text messaging. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on how this form of communication is woven into every aspect of daily life, from the political to the comic to the deeply personal.

LAURA SYDELL: If Romeo and Juliet lived in modern China, their dialogue would probably be in 70-character text messages. That's how Wong Lei's boyfriend courted her. He texted her about his childhood, his college life, and his parents.

MONTAGNE: Always sent text messages to me.

SYDELL: He told you all these things about his growing up in text messages?

MONTAGNE: Yes. Yes.

SYDELL: Unfortunately, this relationship ended as it began - with a text message.

MONTAGNE: He just sent a text message to me that he was not sure about a lot of things. So I understand what he means. So OK, that's that. Let's be strangers. We waved goodbye and then I came here.

SYDELL: Wong, a college student, is here in Beijing visiting a friend to get over the heartache.

It's very sad to breakup with somebody with a little text message.

MONTAGNE: I mean, that boy is a little bit shy. I think these text messages may be the best way for him to say something to me.

SYDELL: Text messaging really is the best way to say something to her, says Alvin Graylin, the CEO of mInfo, a mobile search company based in Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: Chinese are a little more indirect. They don't like to always say what they really mean. Or they don't say all of what they really mean. And 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.

SYDELL: Graylin says traditionally 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.

There are other reasons why text messaging is so popular in China. Text messages are cheaper than a phone call by about half. No one in China has voice mail, so it's the best way to make sure someone gets a message.

These days, everything from marriage proposals to business transactions are being done with text messages.

Here's how it works with Chinese characters. Most people install a software that uses English letters to represent the sound of particular characters. And if you can't find the right characters, you can probably find someone else to do it for you.

Pengfei Dai is probably China's most well-known text-message poet. For a small price, you can buy one of Pengfai's love poems like this one.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: 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 Pengfei - he also writes plays, satirical journalism and fiction. But he feels like when he writes text messages it reaches more people.

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

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: Yu says earlier in the year there were plans to build a polluting oil refinery in the southeast of China. Local people used text messages to organize a huge protest, and they stopped the refinery.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: The censors 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.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: Yu says he receives a lot of sarcastic jokes about corruption and government efficiency. He says a lot of the time these jokes - even though they are authored anonymously - are written better than anything done by China's most well-known authors.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

SYDELL: Yu 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.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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