Laos: Cautionary Tales

Hey! So it’s been a while since I’ve added anything to this blog, but I thought I would take another crack at it since I’m already writing another blog.

I miss being a part of the conversation of China, and other socialist-minded countries. I would like to continue looking at how they deal with social media. I wanna take a look at Laos this time.

For those who may not know, Laos or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a Southeast Asian country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. It is another Asian nation with a communist government. They have elections for a president and vice president every five years, but no limit on how many terms a president or vice president can serve.

Like China, social media in Laos is often restricted and those critical of the government’s decisions can face harsh repercussions. Facebook is allowed like in Vietnam, but Laotian Facebook users must be careful about what they say in regards to their own government.

A June, 2016 article by Al Jazeera reports individuals being publicly shamed for their comments on Facebook, and forced to apologize for their actions on live TV: “From now on I will behave well, change my attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation.”

This was the statement from one of the men forced to apologize. This must be really hard on an individual in a country where honor and shame are important factors to the culture. Not only has he been publicly shamed, but it will probably make his family look bad too.

According to the Laotian Times, the growing popularity of social media in the country is giving the Laotian government more leverage in how it interacts with its citizens. As is common with other Marxist-Leninist governments, there were accusations of media control to bend the truth in their favor.

This article states that the government is using social media, and Facebook specifically to prove those allegations wrong, and that they are working on transparency:

“…newspapers, television, radio, magazines, and other media outlets scurried to get the news out about the new leadership’s sincere attempt to solve some of the longstanding social ills that had plagued the country.”

Despite this attempt, public use of Facebook still comes with a catch. A 2013 piece by Radio Free Asia states that the government instituting a policy that punishes users for publishing “inaccurate or inappropriate content.” This mirrors the country’s already strict mainstream media control, reported by the BBC as strictly controlled:

“Slandering the state, distorting party policies and spreading false rumors are all criminal offenses.”

This could explain the negative reactions to the country’s attempt to the government’s attempt at online transparency in the Times article. Many people see the action as late, and halfhearted:

“This skepticism was testament to the fact that despite copious positive news coverage of the government’s activities, there has always been some disconnect between the people of Laos and its leaders.”

According to Freedom House, a website sharing statistics of press freedom around the world, Laotian press is very restricted. Because the penalties of writing negatively about the government are so high, journalists within the country often practice self-censorship to save themselves from future headaches.

The forced apology is apparently a rare incident, according to Freedom House. At least when it comes to mainstream media, censorship by both the state and writers themselves is so prevalent that “physical attacks and extralegal intimidation aimed at journalists are rare.” It was because the men were so openly critical on Facebook that they received such a public reaction.

According to a 2012 report by We Are Social, a website sharing all of the ways social media affects people on an international level, Facebook is still used more than any other  medium in Laos, with “581 signing up to the network everyday.” Those numbers have probably changed since then, but it’s a good indicator of Facebook’s impact and the government’s concern about it.

Twitter is also available in Laos for “those with web access,” but there isn’t nearly as much information about Twitter users as Facebook users. Those who tweet content that the government would disapprove of would face similar reprimanding by the government that Radio Free Asia mentioned about Facebook users.

Laos is a secretive country. We still have a lot to learn about it, and how it’s people want to reach out to the world. They are trying, but the government place a lot of roadblocks in the way.

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“Red Star”

This week’s post is a little tricky. I figured that since I’ve written about other socialist states, it is only fair that I mention the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. The difficulty in this is that there is so little internet saturation in North Korea, so it is almost easier to discuss what all they do not do on the internet. It’s worth a try, though, right? Here goes:

Many describe North Korea as a “closed-off” country. This, for the most part, is true, and has been for quite some time. There is growth, however, of internet users and internet activity, but this growth is still significantly behind other East Asian countries. For instance, the majority of web usage, with the use of the intranet “Red Star,” can only be found in the capital, Pyongyang.

According to the Tortonto Star, students at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University, the most successful and prestigious college in the country, frequently use computers, but their ability to search is limited to strictly academic websites and sources. Reporter Eric Talmadge explains: “North Korea knows it must enter the information age to survive in the global economy. Hence, the creation of a self-contained, tightly controlled Intranet called Kwangmyong, or ‘Bright.’ It is North Korea’s authoritarian answer to the freewheeling web.” It is interesting to me that this intranet is known as both “Bright,” and “Red Star,” implying that these students in Pyongyang are beginning to see the light, but that light has quite the communist “red” tint. 

This the first of three segments by Vice, discussing life in North Korea, and all the bizarre and frightening happenings of the country. Vice is a multi-faceted media system, providing viewers with current events, news, extreme sports, tech advice, and travel tips, all in photo and documentary form. Most of their films can be found on Youtube, in addition to their website. They have several other videos and discussions about North Korea, since the country tends to be a popular subject in Western media. This may be simply because it is considered the antithesis of Western society.

Although this particular video gives a general overview of how confusing North Korea is, the important factor to remember is that information does not travel easily there. That is why the rest of the world wants to know how North Koreans access information, and how freely they do so. According to the blogger of “Wait But Why,” an occasional contributor to the Huffington Post, the freedom of information is few and far between. Although, at times, a tasteless post, “20 Things I Learned while I was in North Korea” still gives reader a good idea that the establishment does not want foreign visitors to know what really goes on within the country, nor do they want citizens to know what goes on in the outside world.

North Korea is always a complicated, and rarely positive subject: poverty, famine, authoritarianism, “brainwashing” and conspiracy flood the Western/American perception of this considerably small Asian nation. It is difficult to find the good of such a nation, when its closest neighbor, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) stands out as the most democratic nation in East Asia, which the most potential for growth. Although Japan has been on the U.S.’s radar for a longer period, many Americans still get a negative connotation from the island nation that they don’t get from South Korea. Even this negativity pales in comparison to the most “red” of red nations of that region. Despite all the gloom and doom, I see a glimmer of light at the end of this propaganda infested tunnel.

If anyone is interested in learning more about North Korea, and what the tour guides mentioned above won’t tell you, I recommend reading Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. Demick, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, has been living in Seoul, South Korea for 12 years, where she interviewed North Korean defectors, to find out what really goes on. Tragic, intriguing, humorous, and at times brutal, the accounts from these people will capture your attention, if not break your heart.

Return to China: Baidu, Searching For a New Asia

大家好!I felt like going back to China with this one, in a vicarious attempt to feel like I’m actually back in China…*sighs*

This time I’ll talk about Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine. According to Forbes, Baidu “provides Chinese-language Internet search services to enable users to find relevant information online, including Web pages, news, images, documents and multimedia files.” During my last stay in China, I frequently used this search engine, because although completely in Chinese, it was still easier to navigate through than Google,  which was slower and more heavily regulated. 

Let me just say, first of all, that Kaiser Kuo (last name pronounced Gwo, not Cue Oh), the “tour guide” of the video, is one of my heroes. I can actually write an entire post (and probably will) about the rock star, marketing analyst, and freelance journalist that is Mr. Kuo, but I’ll save it for another day. For the purposes of this particular post, just know that he works for Baidu, and he is very smart.

I cannot help but be a little frustrated by how ignorant Sarah Lacy sounded on this particular Youtube episode of Tech Crunch by repeatedly labeling Baidu as “evil.” I know that she was quoting other critics, and much of the video is strictly meant for humor, but calling the site evil right in the face of one of the top guys seems uncalled for. She clearly doesn’t know about the Chinese quality of “saving face,” or keeping her opinions to herself, out of a sign of respect, but I digress…

According to CrunchBase, Baidu got started in Beijing, and quickly expanded to include video, maps, and toolbar options to the website. It is also featured on Nasdaq, and was the first Chinese company to make such a feature. Ever since its first trading day, it has experienced extraordinary growth.

This is my opinion of having a search engine specifically for China: why not? I view it as nothing more than a cultural difference. Baidu is a great example of China’s fast-growing economic power, ever since it opened up its economy in the 90’s. In terms of governmental control, Baidu doesn’t seem to allow content that would be interpreted as controversial to the Chinese public. This may be a good or bad thing. I’m not really sure. I do think having a search engine unique to China is a good thing to show off. It shows that China still has a lot of potential. Maybe I’m just biased.

¡Viva El Internet! A Change Of Pace

I decided I wanted to drift away from Asia for a bit. Let’s go to Cuba! I had a clip of Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban expat who blames the Cuban government, and its use of the media, for portraying her as a villain, or enemy of the state. Unfortunately, the clip has been removed from Youtube.

Like other Marxist-Leninist republics, Cuba is often heavily criticized for its heavy regulation of the internet. Sanchez, as well as other “dissidents” have been making their voices known about the various injustices brought upon the average Cuban man and woman, as mentioned in the above PBS article. Reporter Curt Devine explains that these dissidents, usually leaving the country for safety reasons, challenge the Cuban government, who “condemns all anti-communist speech as ‘enemy propaganda.'”

So overall, Cuban media is to be taken with a grain of salt, but social media specifically appears to be giving the Cuban government quite a headache. “Social Times” reporter Bilal Hameed writes of the frustration Cuba has with its citizens’ use of various forms of social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter. Hameed states that Cuban officials “believe that United States is encouraging and organizing the voices of dissent through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.” This comes after a crucial video went viral, showing the Cuban government’s efforts to regulate usage. There is a link to this Vimeo video, entitled “La Ciber Policia En Cuba,” on the “Social Times” page, but I will also leave a link to it at the bottom.

So what does this mean for Cuba. Surely, we cynical American “young people” cannot simply think of Cuba as being full of nothing but baseball, cigars, and classic Cadillacs. We may not consider Cuba to be “evil commies,” but we also need to know that they still have, at times, an authoritarian frame of mind. The beauty of the internet is that it more easily connects people from all over the world. Ironically, in the case with Cuba, it connects us to those who struggle to have their voices heard in a place where it is not so easy to connect on a global scale. At times, Cuban dissidents need to not feel like they’re fighting a power as big as this guy.

 

Sources: http://vimeo.com/19402730 ; http://socialtimes.com/social-media-has-become-cubas-worst-nightmare_b37608 ; http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2013/07/cuban-dissidents-harness-the-internet/ ; http://www.biography.com/people/mijain-lopez-20839721

Vietnam: A Difference of Opinion?

I discovered something very interesting while my girlfriend went on a business trip to Vietnam over spring break: it was REALLY easy to keep in touch with her, and we were actually able to message each other several times throughout the week via Facebook.

Wait…Facebook?

This has been a slight stab of humility to me. I realized that I was comparing Vietnam to China, which would irk me to no end if I saw or heard someone else doing it. I was surprised that she could use Facebook so easily because it was near impossible for me to use it when I spent time in China. I had assumed all East and Southeast Asian Socialist nations blocked all forms of Western social media.

Again, an unfair assessment.

Facebook is not blocked in Vietnam. Or at least, not completely. In fact, according to TechinAsia, it’s amount of users is one of the fastest growing in the world. They also explain, at least to me, why one should not compare Vietnam to China simply because they are both socialist republics: on a global scale, Vietnam is SO much smaller than China. Everyone knows that China has the highest population in the world, but what people might not know is that because it is such a large nation, its presence in the global business world makes it feel a lot more pressure to, in a sense, “match up” with other big markets. In other words, China feels like they have something to prove.

Vietnam on the other hand, is well aware that it is small, and would prefer to reap the benefits of all the tech giants out there, at least for now. Most Vietnamese feel as if they have a few more years to go until they can feel caught up with other internet users. That’s why TechinAsia also mentions their slow start to using microblog sites like Twitter or Weibo.

Renren: Making Friends in China.

你們好!Hope everyone has had a marvelous weekend. My next social media site is also found in the People’s Republic of China. Renren, or in Chinese, 人人, is considered by many to be “China’s Facebook.” Literally meaning People People, the term is often used for everybody, in an all-inclusive sense, which I find amusing, because it was started after Facebook was blocked in China:

(May I just say, thank God he pronounces the titles correctly)

According to Renren’s English Website, this social network “enables users to connect and communicate with each other, share information, create user generated content, play online games, watch videos and enjoy a wide range of other features and services.” The site was founded by Joseph Chen, now the Chief Executive Officer, a Stanford grad who began his career by starting ChinaRen.com, a student society with a similar search engine to Renren. To me, this is amusing because it’s similar to the storyline for Social Network, with Mark Zuckerberg making his presence known by first starting a website specifically for Harvard students and alumni.  

This CNN interview with Chen is an attempt to grasp just why the website has grown so quickly, as well as its plan for the future. It is pretty clear that although it is open to the public worldwide, Renren has little desire to expand outside of the People’s Republic for its market base, but it has grown in demand in the U.S. This could be due to the amount of Chinese Americans or Chinese immigrants who want to stay connected to Mainland Chinese current events, but it could also be due in part to the amount of Americans who plan on living and working in China. The demand for American workers, teachers, businessman, etc., has grown rapidly since the country opened up its market to the capitalist world.

Finally, despite recent stock growth, some believe that Renren’s popularity as a whole is on the decline. TeachinAsia is a popular expat multimedia website and blog site that discusses all current social events in the major leading nations of the continent of Asia. In this piece, writer Ken Chester conveys his frustrations with Renren’s constant badgering marketing scheme. Chester makes it sound like this form of advertisement makes Renren look desperate. Perhaps Renren really is losing its popularity, and its immediate success really was just riding the Facebook wave, but maybe the Sinofied version of social networking will expand its thinking, and come up with new, creative methods of putting itself out there. Who knows?

我不知道

Thanks for reading! (谢谢!)

Weibo: For the Social Butterflies of China

I’m already a little behind, but never late than never! Let’s start with perhaps the most popular source of Eastern social media today: Weibo.

First, a brief Chinese pronunciation lesson: China’s ever-growing microblog website, Weibo, is pronounced “way boo oh,” not “wee beau.” Chinese Pinyin transliteration has its many strengths (leagues ahead of its predecessor, Wade-Giles), but at times it can still be confusing to pronounce things correctly. It’s full English title is “Sina Weibo,” cleverly using the prefix “Sina” to refer not only to its mother site, a giant news medium in China, but also  to literally mean “China’s Microblog.” The easiest way to describe Weibo is the Chinese Twitter, a mini-blog with the same character limit, only instead of the iconic bird mascot of Twitter, they have an adorable wide-eyed butterfly flying across the top screen. The beauty of living in an era of instant gratification with the internet, it only takes a few years for a website like Weibo to gain worldwide success.

I found a great piece from Vanity Fair, “Inside the Eastern Rise of Weibo, China’s Twitter,” to help explain this. Writer Rachel DeWoskin explains that despite being viewed initially as the Eastern Twitter, the Chinese alternative is actually growing in popularity in the Western world, with new users including Tom Cruise, Emma Watson, and OKC superstar Kevin Durant. From personal experience, learning recently how popular basketball is in China, especially following the NBA, I can only imagine how excited Chinese fans must have been when they found out that Durant signed on with this opening post: “I love China. I cannot wait to go there again.”

According to DeWoskin, Weibo launched in 2009, oddly enough the same year that the Chinese government decided to block media giants such as Facebook and Twitter. The growing website is a part of Sina, a Chinese run web news source, with a feel similar to that of MSN or Yahoo!. Fairly liberal compared to much of mainstream Chinese media, which is heavily regulated by the government, Sina does its best to appeal to large audience, including a large English portion, posted in the link above. I was shocked to find the Weibo English page included a link to the Associated Press, teaching me that Chinese media is still not completely closed off from Western influence.

Overall, I find Weibo to hold exciting opportunities in the future. Should I take my obsession with China to the next level, and make steps to work there, starting my own Weibo account would not be such a bad idea. Perhaps they would have fewer hacking problems than Twitter too!

Cited Source: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/02/weibo-china-twitter-chinese-microblogging-tom-cruise-201202