The mainland's internet universe is a closed book to nearly all Westerners - few know even the most rudimentary basics of spoken Putonghua, let alone have a grasp of the written language. Yet an explosion of interest in mainland microblogging sites, known as weibos (" weibo" loosely translates as "micro-blog"), has lured even resolutely monolingual foreigners to take the plunge. (It helps that they can post in English and rely on the services of facilitators, assistants or translators to make themselves heard in China.)
Some of these foreign weibo users are celebrities, hoping to increase their fan base in the world's biggest market. Some are academics, with a nose for the largely unplumbed riches of hundreds of millions of Chinese voices. Some are politicians and some are entrepreneurs who no doubt believe a hotline to China will do them no harm.
The Putonghua-speaking former prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd has accounts on two weibo sites. His popularity on the biggest one, Sina Weibo, doesn't compare with the interest generated by actor Tom Cruise (who can't speak Putonghua, but who has garnered more than 4.7 million followers) or the philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates (more than 3.2 million). Even so, a staggering 700,000 account-holders on the two sites - the other is Tencent Weibo - have decided to tag along with Rudd, who speaks, reads and writes Chinese courtesy of his studies and a stint working as a diplomat in Beijing. It's a skill that differentiates him from nearly all of his Western counterparts.
In Australia, Rudd has more than a million followers on Twitter and is well aware of the power of social media. And, as a politician who regularly visits the mainland, he is accustomed to the rigours of censorship and the power of the internet blockade known as the Great Firewall of China, which prevents ordinary citizens from accessing swaths of the web.
On Sina Weibo, Rudd has more than 339,000 followers, but he himself follows just six account-holders.
"I find that with my weibo postings, there's usually a large number of reactions, some positive and some negative, and it's plenty for me to read," he tells Post Magazine. "There's a limit to how much time you can dedicate to this. I spend about three-quarters of an hour a day tapping out a message and then reading the responses."
He declines to discuss the stringent censorship of the mainland's internet - "that's a matter for the Chinese" - but, he says, his weibo accounts provide him with a window on the shifts underway in Chinese society. Although they are routinely and heavily censored, weibo services provide perhaps the first semi-open, semi-free and semi-democratic forums on the mainland; voices are heard, ideas are exchanged and complaints are amplified - sometimes prompting official action. Rudd says he is "learning something new every day" courtesy of his weibo accounts.
"I think people are enjoying the opportunity to speak out and be very direct about things," he adds. "The responses [to my messages] are often pretty unvarnished."
Rejecting the suggestion that he has shied away from engaging with thorny political subjects, Rudd points out that the two weibo firms interviewed him online for about an hour each, covering a range of topics, including potentially controversial issues such as real estate bubbles.
"I cover the full spectrum", he says, on his return to Australia from China in late September. "It depends on the day, the issue, whether I've been making a speech or not."
Rudd wasn't invited to join Sina Weibo, as a number of celebrities - both Chinese and Western - have been.
"I think one of the great gaps in any Western analysis about what's going on in China is what's happening in Chinese society. So with the information revolution suddenly you have a door into that, so I decided to walk through. Six months later - and 700,000 people who follow me one way or another - it's quite interesting."
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, was very chatty on Sina Weibo until the Olympic Games, when he fell unaccountably silent. His last post was a call to arms: "Come on Team GB". Other political heavyweights with weibo accounts include Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time president of the European Council. Both were instant sensations, attracting large online followings.
Savvy celebrities see the value of Chinese microblogging. Paris Hilton, for instance, a self-described "model, actress, singer, brand, businesswoman, fashion designer, author, philanthropist and empire" has been having fun with her site and its photo-sharing functions. The hotel heiress keeps it personal. "It looks like some pretty cold weather is hitting China! How are you keeping warm?" she asked in mid-October, with a link to the weather forecast page on the China Daily newspaper website. The responses, in Chinese and English, ranged from "staying in bed" to "wearing more clothes".
Later in the month, Hilton passed the million mark on her weibo fanbase, prompting a gushing post studded with exclamation marks: "China! Oh my God! I'm so excited! My Weibo just reached 1 million followers! Thank you! xoxo."
Often Hilton's weibo posts mirror her tweets, one such being a recent nostalgic meme featuring an old photograph of her as a two-year-old in a red dress, "showing [former United States first lady] Nancy Reagan my runway walk".
Famously short on any specific talent, Hilton has been clever enough to make use of a facilitator, Shanghai-based FansTang, to communi-cate with the vast mainland market. According to its own publicity, "FansTang provides international celebrities and athletes a space to grow and develop their China fan base with a moderated, secure and professional platform." FansTang's weibo page claims more than 80 celebrities, musicians and professional basketball players have signed up for its help in maintaining their micro-blog accounts.
One of FansTang's newest clients, American rapper Snoop Dogg, recently dedicated a video clip to pop singer Jane Zhang (Zhang Liangying), inviting her to visit Los Angeles. The post elicited affectionate responses from Zhang's fans.
Interaction between Western and Chinese celebrities on a person-al level is on the rise as more foreign artists try their luck in Asia's largest market.
Another hip-hop artist, Sean Kingston, reposted a Chinese remix for the attention of Taiwanese pop star Wilber Pan: "Check out this dope beat!!! Not sure what they sayin' but I feel it!!" He appears at ease with his fellow weibo users and his efforts have paid off; he now has 172,824 followers - 100,000 more than Snoop Dogg.
Other overseas celebrities, it seems, rely on Chinese-speaking assistants. Bill Gates' Sina Weibo account, for instance, credits the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with translation and notes the content is from his Twitter account. Cruise's Sina Weibo account appears to be maintained by his "dream-team", and posts use the terms "we" and "us".
Celebrities will often reduce their workload by posting duplicate messages (albeit in different languages) on Twitter and their weibo.
A number of National Basketball Association players post regularly, especially those contracted to Chinese brands. Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat guard who signed up with Chinese sportswear maker Li Ning last month and released his personally branded trainers under the brand, claims he is simply "loving my fans in China".
Actress Emma Watson and fashion designer Victoria Beckham also opened weibo accounts when they visited the mainland. Last month, Beckham posted a photograph of her coloured socks, captioned: "There's no place like home, there's no place like home! X Victoria".
Tennis stars, too, are now regular bloggers on mainland sites. The recent China Open drew attention to top-ranked players - in particular the more beautiful among them. Maria Sharapova is a regular poster and was seen in Beijing last month posing for a picture for her weibo account. Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki all have weibo accounts, and their pages have been overwhelmed with compliments: "I love you Serena" and "Baby, why are you not coming to Beijing? I am so sad".
Celebrities rarely post anything contentious on their weibo sites, but there was some expectation that the iconic British rock band Radiohead might test the boundaries with pro-Tibet posts. The band have been critical of the mainland's human rights record and have performed at Free Tibet concerts. Last year, a note was posted on their website inviting fans to campaign for the release of dissident (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Liu Xiaobo. But, so far at least, Radiohead's weibo account has disclosed little more than a message stating, "Testing the weibo", and occasional captionless sketches, frustrating some fans, who have responded with, "Where the **** are you guys?"
Weibo also attracts celebrities whose stars are on the wane elsewhere. Shakira, Ricky Martin, Alicia Keys, Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, Slash, Nickelback and several heavy metal bands, including Megadeth, have found followings, large or small, on the internet in the mainland.
American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert recently appeared on national television, in a programme called The Voice of China. He was an instant hit with millions of viewers glued to their sets. Lambert is an active weibo user, chatting back and forth with the show's contestants and his fans. Television starlets such as Chace Crawford, of Gossip Girl fame, and Shawn Pyfrom, from Desperate Housewives, are also enjoying some renewed acclaim, in the domain of Chinese microbloggers, many of whom are seeing the shows for the first time.
Japanese former porn star Sola Aoi has a weibo following of more than 13 million. When an international spat over a few rocky islets in the South China Sea prompted an explosion of anti-Japanese wrath in China in August and September, Aoi attempted a little gentle social-media diplomacy. Xenophobic fury had seen Chinese citizens demonstrate in their thousands, attacking Japanese shops and even cars.
Aoi's post comprised some hand-drawn Chinese characters spelling out a plaintive hope that Japanese and Chinese could be friends. But her olive branch was hacksawed by several account holders: "May I please ask whether the money you make in Japan exceeds the amount of money you make in China?"; "Are you still as sought after in Japan as you are in China?"; "Did you genuinely mean it from the bottom of your heart when you said the Diaoyu Islands belong to China?"; "Do you appreciate Chinese culture or the money in Chinese people's pockets more?".
Others were less hostile, noting that although the disputed islands were indubitably Chinese, Aoi belonged to the world.
A NUMBER OF OUTSIDERS have leapt onto weibos for insight into Chinese popular culture, government censorship and shifts in official positions. Rather like an amalgam of Facebook and Twitter, weibos, along with other mainland blogging sites, have become a de facto sounding board in a nation where there is little press freedom.
According to independent watchdog Freedom House, the mainland has the most censored internet users in the world, crushed by "political blocking", content manipulation and even physical attacks and arrests. Yet little seems to stop the bloggers, who have outed corrupt officials, weighed into exposés and scandals, and rained criticism on official policies. Sina Weibo alone hosts more than 300 million accounts; and the "users" - as they're known - manage to get their point across despite the necessity of having to dodge censors by using wordplay, pictograms, photos and allusions.
Academics from two American universities have crunched the weibo numbers to determine the extent of censorship, with both institutions recently publishing technical papers on the subject.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pennsylvania, analysed 56 million Sina Weibo messages collected between June and September last year and, for contrast, 11 million Chinese-language Twitter posts. Their research determined that posts which included any of a defined set of terms, such as politically sensitive references, were more likely to be deleted. The researchers found that weibo posts from provinces in the far north and west, for instance Tibet and Qinghai, had much higher deletion rates (53 per cent) than those from eastern provinces and cities (12 per cent).
In a paper published this year, a Harvard University team analysed millions of posts from nearly 1,400 social media services from across the mainland and found that censorship was mostly oriented towards trying to curtail collective action by "silencing comments that represent, reinforce or spur social mobilisation, regardless of content".
Closer to home, the WeiboScope, published by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, tracks the most widely reposted and deleted Sina Weibo posts of about 350,000 users each with 1,000 or more followers. Professor Fu King-wa, who founded WeiboScope, says the majority of posts have a fairly mundane subject matter - most likely entertainment - with only a few users posting on current affairs or politics.
Nevertheless, "there's a lot of room for circumvention," Fu says. "I think [the authorities] want to find the best way to control it, but they can't."
Fu cites one weibo post that went viral despite all attempts to delete it. The message was sent in April, when blind dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from custody and fled to the American embassy in Beijing.
"A user posted a very general comment; general but a bit critical," Fu says. "There was no sensitive keyword. We followed that post. Within two hours it had been reposted 20,000 times, then, after that, close to a million times." The post's author, a well-known scholar, caught the public mood when he wrote: "How can you not be ashamed that a dignified citizen has to flee inside his own country? You must live up to the sun that shines every day across this land. Sixty years and what this country needs is to settle its soul."
The censors soon deleted the original post, but it was already out of the bag - and a screen capture of his message turned into a jpeg image was also posted onwards. That, too, was censored.
"The number of followers is not the most important thing [in grabbing the censors' attention]," Fu says. "It's when people start to repost a message, then it comes onto their radar. Western political [censorship] is very mild, but to stimulate the censors in China you don't need to mention June 4 [the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown] or the Dalai Lama. Anything, at the right time, the right moment, will get censored."
Nevertheless, mainland micro-bloggers still manage to condemn corrupt officials, criticise government policy and speculate on leaders' movements - although they must do so in language so oblique that it is sometimes difficult to understand even by those foreigners who can read and write simplified characters.
Consequently, English-language websites have sprung up to refract digital China, using weibos as a key source. All provide a view of the mainland that cannot be seen in its official media: ChinaSMACK www.chinasmack.com; China Digital Times chinadigitaltimes.net and, more recently, Tea Leaf Nation www.tealeafnation.com which has aligned itself with The Atlantic magazine in America.
Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation and is now based in Hong Kong.
"Most people don't talk about politics; they don't talk about sensitive subjects," she says, working hard to be heard in a busy Starbucks outlet. She adds that weibos are mostly forums for gossip and chat, with intense interest in the lives of celebrities.
"Celebrities are using their real names and putting out what they really think," she says. Like Fu, she believes the censors' interest in any given account is relative to the amount of influence, real or perceived, the account-holder has.
"If you have no followers, it's a drop in the ocean," Lu says. "If you're known to be able to reach people, if you have more than 1,000 followers, then you're scrutinised and censored. And sometimes your account simply disappears."
Her cousin suggested she join Sina Weibo a few years ago, and Lu, a mainlander, soon recognised the site's strengths, clout and versatility, censorship notwithstanding.
"Once I had signed up, I realised it's a different animal. It's a Facebook, it's a news outlet, it's a chat room. It's more than Twitter. It's everything rolled into one."
Paris Hilton attempts to show her weibo audience why she is famous.