Engaging Chinese Netizens: Fanfou

UPDATE: Rick Martin at Pandapassport and CNET’s Little Red Blog found a Youtube tutorial on Fanfou.

I’ve argued, citing the words of the Dalai Lama himself, that if you

1) Believe in democratic principles and free speech
2) You believe the Internet is a tool for unfettered global communication
3) There’s something in China (or any other country) that bothers you

Then you ought to put some energy into communicating directly with Chinese netizens about the problem. For years now I’ve seen alot of Chinese netizens discussions be completely ignored or simply missed by English-speaking netizens, who too often think that Chinese netizens are all completely brainwashed. Well, guess what? Some of them think you are too. Instead of dismissing each other as fools, how about we try to talk? So I say, Tweet Back! Tweet in English, alot of Chinese people know some. If you know Chinese… what are you waiting for? I’ve been translating alot of Chinese tweets on Tibet this weekend, and alot of them break the stereotype of the frothing nationalist Chinese blogger. These are Chinese people who adopt alot of Web 2.0 applications alot of the time, they aren’t just blowhards in chat rooms. Some are journalists, professionals and students.

Of course, this isn’t going to be easy. First steps usually don’t work so well. But its time to start trying some things instead of just throwing our hands in the air and dismissing the other side as brainwashed, indoctrinated or oppressed. There’s life out there folks, try making contact. You might be surprised. You might just learn something if you keep an open mind and try to hold a respectful dialogue despite your differences. Move out of your comfort zone, show some patience, and try to listen.

So here’s a quick tutorial to sign up for Fanfou. If you go on twifan.com and search for “Tibet” in English or “西藏”, which is Tibet in Chinese, you’ll find plenty of people to talk to. And you can always Fanfou me. My name there now is 八仙過海 means (Eight Immortals Cross the Sea).

Go to your homepage and its pretty much like Twitter. I realize this isn’t a full tutorial, but I wanna get this started. Also, you can put this link on your Firefox toolbar Zh -> En and when you view a Chinese page, press it to get an instant sloppy Google translation. It ain’t a great solution, but again, its a start, and these are short messages, so you may be able to get the gist.

  • Brent

    I agree. Along those same lines, it seems to me that one of the biggest mistakes Westerners make (including myself sometimes) is not drawing a distinction between the Chinese government’s policies and actions, and the character of the ordinary citizens of China. Chinese people are very patriotic (that may be an understatement;) and when they hear something like “China is horrible for what it’s doing in Tibet”, I think it tends to come across as an attack on all Chinese people. Maybe Western countries and organizations should start appealing to the Chinese people themselves, making sure to support the best interests of the Chinese citizens, while firmly opposing the oppression the Chinese government is often guilty of.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it. Personally, when people criticize everything about America, it can be kind of offensive. But when they criticize specific policies or administrations, a good, healthy debate is like to occur.

  • Rick

    Nice post. And good idea.
    Just added you on fanfou.

    Another neat tool is drop.io, and I’ve set up a page where anyone can drop tibet links or video:


    Feel free to contribute, and share the link via fanfou. Not asking anyone to take one side of the issue or the other.

    Just learn, and discuss.

  • Rick

    p.s password for the drop.io site is “china”

  • chunzhu

    this is an excellent idea. and i agree completely with what brent said…

    …time to go to fanfou…

  • Pffefer


    “Maybe Western countries and organizations should start appealing to the Chinese people themselves, making sure to support the best interests of the Chinese citizens, while firmly opposing the oppression the Chinese government is often guilty of.”

    You might be an idealistic person, I am not. I do not believe for a second that western countries have the interest of China and the Chinese people at heart, it is simply not possible, doable or logical. Western countries have diverging and often conflicting interests, why should they care about China?

    Also, you are assuming that the Chinese can not take care of themselves, that they need the west to champion their cause, whatever it is. You might mean well, but this sounds quite condescending. Many Chinese that I have talked to simply told me: Why can’t you people just leave us alone? Why do you always have to butt in? Why do you always try to play God? God you are not.

    One of the biggest roadblocks keeping the communication between the Chinese and western audiences flow is the self-righteousness and assertiveness on the part of the westerners. Because they believe they have the moral high ground, because they think they know what’s going on, they tend to become very assertive and preachy. This type of “intelletual imperialism” can stop now. Be humble, be open-minded, don’t think you know everything, don’t think you(the west) are always right, don’t make hasty judgment. After all, this is their country.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Pffefer, for you comments. And thank you, Mutant Palm. I read all three of you articles that call for engaging ordinary Chinese on the question of Tibet and other “sensitive” issues in China.

    As a Chinese, I am deeply touched by what you’ve said. Thank you.

    Try understand our perspectives sometimes, engage us in a dialogue as equals, and give us some time. Don’t call us “brainwashed”. We think and feel and we do disagree with our government.

  • Anonymous

    I know machine translation sucks, but I created a Yahoo Pipe app that sucks in the public timelines on fanfou and jiwai.de, translates them, and looks for the keywords lhasa or tibet


    A fun use of technology at the least.

    Also, TeamTibet is now on fanfou! http://fanfou.com/teamtibet

  • Brent

    I see your point, but I would disagree in a few areas:
    1.”I do not believe for a second that western countries have the interest of China and the Chinese people at heart…”
    If by “Western countries” you mean “Western governments”, you may be right – to an extent. It is certainly not always in the interest of Western governments to criticize Chinese actions or policies, and yet they continue to do this. If by “Western countries” you mean “Western people”, then I think you are very wrong. Many Westerners care a great deal about the Chinese people. They may have some silly ideas or outdated stereotypes about some Chinese people, but many still care about them. If they didn’t, these stories would not be receiving the grassroots coverage and interest they are generating.

    2.”you are assuming that the Chinese can not take care of themselves”
    I don’t believe I said this, and I am sorry if that is what I implied. Of course the Chinese can take care of themselves – they have been for 5000 years. That doesn’t change the fact that some Chinese are oppressing other Chinese. Race, ethnicity, and nationality all come in far second to speaking up for what is right. This goes both ways: for example, when America had slaves, it was absolutely right for other countries to condemn that. The fact that slavery was occurring inside America was irrelevant. Similarly, you don’t hear anti-war activists getting angry because many Europeans support their cause. Does Hu Jia want the foreigners to ignore his situation?

    I agree that being preachy and arrogant is wrong. The West certainly does not have a monopoly on morality. It has made plenty of mistakes. However, the Chinese friends I have are extremely open and willing to talk about subjects I was told Chinese people would never talk about – as long as we were both respectful. I have never had my Chinese friends tell me to butt out – in fact, they seem to appreciate the honesty and straightforwardness of our discussions – it’s often they who start discussions with me (If they don’t want to talk about something, I never press the issue). Dialogue and debate – even if it is started by a bunch of uppity laowai in the West – is never a bad thing for China, or for any other country.

  • davidpeng

    I think that’s a good idea to communicate with Chinese netizen. However, Chinese internet community is so complex even an insider can’t tell ABC to XYZ about it, neither does an outsider.

    To understand more on Chinese/Tibetan, please think about following:

    1. Most of Chinese don’t know western version of Tibetan story. The Tibetan issue is intentionally hidden from them. You may say they are brain-washed.

    2. With the popularity of internet, more Chinese are exposed to another version. However, the first version are more favorite to their patriotic appetite; the first image of the issue always occupies the brain rigidly; or, for their own interest, they tend to accept the first one. In conclusion, with different reasons, they still stick to the Chinese government’s version.

    3. You are right. There is heavy censorship in Chinese network community. But we can still see real express in the net. For those who have different opinions, you can’t find it in popular internet community. The net-cop will remove it.

    4. Overall, Chinese people are satisfied with their current status. Past 20 or 30 years are definitly the golden age in modern Chinese history. Most are optimistic about the future of the country. If CCP declares free vote next morning, CCP and president Hu will win.

    5. I suggest you also to collect ideas from oversea Chinese’ community like wenxuecity.com, 6park.com. Those are setup outside mainland China thus absolutely no censorship. However, you still see many pro-Government posts in the Tibetan issue. Chinese government is not alone.

    Personally, I think both Chinese government and Tibetan in exile (and their supporter) are telling truths and lies. With the Chinese government’s political reality, there is no independent media/source on what really happen in Tibet/Lhasa at the moment. One can’t give an macro view of any Tibetan event. The fundamental question is, how ordinary Tibetan feels about the Communist government and the Tibetan government in exile? what’s their view of a good life? Sadly, there is no simple answer to the question. They are being represented!

    BTW, remove the Snow Lion Flag from the group page of Fanfou.com. Otherwise the group will be removed by somebody else. That’s kind of self-censorship happened here or there in Mainland China.

  • Pffefer

    Brent, I actually agree with most of what you have said in your latest post. Of course on an individual level, we care about one another and there are definitely westerners out there who care about China and the Chinese. Likewise, you will find many Chinese caring about people in other parts of the world. And on an individual level nobody is telling anybody to “butt out”, they were referring to the lectures and finger-pointing from the western government and media.

    I think there is a difference between how the Chinese feel about western lectures/interventions etc. and the Americans seeing foreigners voicing their opposition to the war in Iraq, for example. The Chinese constantly see their country being told by the west that they need to do this and that, or else.. Some of they feel their sovereignty and independence are being violated by the notion (the same notion that I brought up earlier responding to your first post) that China always needs to be told (by the west) what to do, that they don’t know better, that they need to be guided, that they can’t take care of themselves. They resent this notion. Imagine that you have the French, Chinese and Russian government ask the US to explain what happened during the beating of Rodney King or Hurricane Katrina. Imagine the Chinese government issuing a report on US human rights violations every year (actually they do, only in response to the annual report on the Chinese human rights violations, kind of tic for tat) and demanding the US to explain how it plans to use its military (as the US does to China). Wouldn’t the American public feel violated? I think deep down we are all the same, we want to run our own house without our neighbors poking and budging in at times.

    “Dialogue and debate – even if it is started by a bunch of uppity laowai in the West – is never a bad thing for China, or for any other country.”
    Well said, I wholeheartedly agree. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against communication/debate, I am saying for the purpose of having a better one, one needs to be “humble, be open-minded, don’t think you know everything, don’t think you(the west) are always right, don’t make hasty judgment” etc.

  • Anonymous

    To tell you the truth, I think the gulf on both sides is huge. And East and West may meet in rare places like this, but beyond this it’s another world.

    I do believe most Chinese people (in and outside China) either give partial backing to their government, or feel the Western media is biased.

    And on the Western side you only have to see most of the comments from readers in The Times, The Guardian, etc, to see that most will instantly dismiss any Chinese viewpoint as false.

    Every society has an intellectual elite, and the Chinese bloggers and Western broadsheet readers form these elites. It will take a gargantuan effort to find any common ground.

    Please note, howvever, I do support the attempt to connect. It’s just it can never work unless it is bilateral – and the very idea of engaging Chinese netizens is by default unilateral.

  • bobby fletcher

    Tell’ya what, Anon, you’ll never see this Tibet clip on CNN:


  • Pffefer

    I am all for the dialog but as “Anonymous” accutely pointed out(“most will instantly dismiss any Chinese viewpoint as false.”), it is rather hopeless. I think until the west and its people get rid of their self-righteousness and interventionist approach there will be no effective dialog.

  • Anonymous

    I’m the ‘anonymous’ from above. It’s sad but true that the gulf exists. I wouldn’t blame self-righteousness in the west per se, but there are differences in the world which didn’t exist one or two hundred years ago. These changes are exposed if we make comparisons to slavery, the colonisation of America and the colonisation of Australia.

    Slavery ended through internal pressure, from the religion of the cultures which practised slavery. If, say, the Hindus told the Europeans to end slavery their efforts would have been in vain. It has to come from within.

    And as for the Amer/Aus colonisation, the victims were barely aware that their nations stretched from ocean to ocean. The Tibetans are in a different position in that, through their unique relationship with international sympathisers, their sense of nationhood has grown, not diminished. This is a stark contrast, but one which will not go away.

    Anyway, it is good to see that this page has opened some form of discussion.

  • Beefeater

    Any recommendations for a good (and reliably safe-for-work*) Chinese bbs to pick up local views?

    *I’ve noticed over the years that Chinese colleagues have a more relaxed attitude to what is and isn’t appropriate to (i) view on their screens; (ii) send as an attachment to a mass email; and in rare cases (iii) print and display prominently than western employers do.

  • master_of_americans


    This began as a discussion about Tibet, right? In that case, to say, “Why can’t you people just leave us alone?” or “After all, this is their country” and leave it at that is hardly sufficient.

  • Anonymous

    davidpeng said…, most of Chinese don’t know western version of Tibetan story. The Tibetan issue is intentionally hidden from them. You may say they are brain-washed.

    What is/was/will be western version of Tibetan story?

    I would suggest using New York Times advanced search to find what was their version of Tibetan story 100 years ago.

    Type “tibet” in the search box, set the date to the year when Chairman Mao was wearing diapers or the CPC founding date (1921), then press the Submit button.

  • s

    ‘anonymous': thanks for the suggestion. It was an interesting exercise. Not all the articles are free but some of the earlier ones are. Here is what I found out after I did a couple of searches:

    1. An early American adventurer in Tibet seemed to think Tibetans are primitive and very superstitious.

    2. It was a hard time for American missionaries in Kham. An American missionary was killed by Tibetan bandits.

    3. When the 13th Dalai Lama sent a mission to Russia. It got the Americans wonder how the future influence of the Russians and the British would play out in Southwest China…

    Interesting….I wonder if scholars have used these materials from NY Times to enlighten us on the past, present, and future status of Tibet.

  • Pffefer

    Master of Americans, even though it was Tibet that kick-started this discussion, it is more than Tibet. The hoopla over the riot in Lhasa exemplifies it though, that self-righteousness and assertiveness are rampant.

    I suggest those who are interested in Tibet read “History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951″ by Melvyn C. Goldstein and “The Making of Modern Tibet” by A. Tom Grunfeld, if you are sick and tired of both CCP and western/TGIE propaganda.

  • master_of_americans

    I highly recommend Goldstein’s history, too; but Grunfeld is well-known for his biased presentation of Tibetan history, as well as his non-command of the Tibetan language.

  • Anonymous

    How can i contact the person behind mutant palm? I would like to talk to you about the possibility of an interview with an european public broadcaster. We realy appreciate what you are doing here. Please send mail to mdotarriatgmxdotde

  • bobby fletcher

    pffefer, I’ll give you an example – Congressman Abercrombie lamenting about Tibet.

    Congressman Abercrombie represents Hawaii – do you see the irony of this 8-)

  • Anonymous

    I think it is wrong to state that the “Tibet lobby” is ignoring Chinese public opinion, which is a constant theme on your blog. Voice of Tibet, for instance, broadcasts both in Tibetan and in Mandarin and their homepage has a Chinese version.


    The question is, however, to what the extent Chinese netizens you are debating with are interested in locating this information.

  • s

    for those of u who can read Chinese:


    I think Mutant Palm(Dave?) and Pffefer are right in callling for a change of tactics and attitudes of the Free Tibet camp. It looks these activists are pushing some of the open-minded Chinese to the other camp. “open-minded” here means being sympathetic to the Tibetan cause and critical to the Chinese government.

  • Anonymous

    western countries don’t really care about chinese (including tibetans) and vice versa. for chinese, they don’t even wanna be bothered to argue with westerners, partly because of the language barrier, partly because they know that there are only eternal interests in this world. what people are saying depends on which interest group they belong to. — Anonymous II

  • missisland

    I searched tibet news on google, and I got to your blog. As a Chinese, I think the best thing to stay overseas is that we can see what others think about our country and our government without any restriction.

    The problem is that we all have our own perception of the world and we just don’t want to rethink and share the pieces of truth we’ve learned.

    For most of the western people, they gert their knowledge of China from the mainstream media. It’s the same thing in China that people get the knowledge about the outside world from the media controlled by the government.

    I really appreciate your idea that the ordinary citizens in China and the western countries need to talk. Let’s just help each other to get the whole truth.:)

    BTW, it’s also my first time to hear about Fanfou although I’m a Chinese. You’re really cool “Laowai”.

  • Anonymous

    As an American citizen, I can honestly say that I’ve only known one native Chinese person well. She is a professor of mine at the university I attended.
    I do have many friends, however, who are American Indian. (That is the currently proper term chosen by these people to describe themselves.) I am of European ancestry and feel shame at times for the things my ancestors did to American Indians. It was wrong. The Senate of the United States, a part of our governing body, recently issued a formal apology to the American Indians. This does not alleviate the suffering these people have endured over the years, but it is a step in the right direction. We cannot change our past, but we can affect the future.
    I have provided a link for those of you who can read English to view information about the official apology from the Senate to American Indians. The link was provided by an American-Indian friend.


    I am a graduate of a university journalism program. I would love to talk to someone about what has happened in Tibet. I do not believe you are backwards, foolish, or brain-washed. But I am seeing comments that show a lack of tolerance for Americans. If Chinese people truly wish to speak to Americans as equals, then they must be willing to treat them as equals.
    I am not conceited. I do not believe that the United States has the answers to all the world’s problems. And I do not believe that all Chinese are our enemies.
    I do believe that I am ignorant of Chinese culture in many ways. I have never visited your country, although I do know one woman who has. (She is of European ancestry and has embraced the Buddhist religion.)
    I believe that what the editor of this Web page is trying to do is admirable. I wish you much luck in your endeavor.

  • Anonymous

    Most Chinese aren’t really ready to fight for North American Indians or Australian Aboriginals. But they do think there are double standards among westerners (not necessarily Americans).

    There are thousands of self-determination movements worldwide, from the Assamese, through the Basque, to the Northern Irish. And the governments these groups target have equally little tolerance for separatism as the Chinese. The western politicians know this, but they are happy to play the moral high ground game for the Free Tibet lobby. ‘Bad friend syndrome.’

    People were behind this riot. Sure, many rioters vented spontaneous frustration that they had capped for many years, but people were behind this riot. What were their aims? To make Tibet uninhabitable to anyone but Tibetans (and the westerners who were largely spared violence)? To force other ethnic groups like the Hui to panic and enact revenge attacks, thereby undermining multiculturalism? To force a wedge between the West and China (knowing that both sides would take ever more entrenched positions – I’m talking the public here, not the goverments)?

    Whatever the case, these riots were not constructive. To expect Chinese to start looking at/listening to Voice of Tibet (a US-backed – and, please, I’m not attacking Americans! – station) after this event is wishful. I’m happy at seeing Chinese-rest of the World meeting halfway, but VoT is about as dogmatic as CCTV.

    Consider this: In the UK in 2001 race riots broke out in Bradford. These riots were bad, but nowhere near as violent as Lhasa (no deaths AFAIK). The police and press were merciless in hunting down the perpetrators, circulating a list of 200 (almost all Asian) suspects. At the end of 2007 the last one of these suspects was caught and sentenced. 200 jail sentences totalling 604 years.

    There is little sympathy in China for the Lhasa rioters, and if you look carefully you’ll note there is little tolerance in the West for disturbances at home. If you want to find middle ground with Chinese netizens you have to cut out the double standards and emphasise that the rioters are a long way from the middle ground.

  • missisland

    I think it’s quite interesting that you guys just talk to each other and guess what Chinese people have in their mind.

    I visited http://www.tianya.cn for local news happened in China and you can view all the comments made by Chinese netizen if you can read Chinese. It’s a very famous and popular BBS in China.

    You can find a lot of diversified ideas regarding to the things happening inside or outside China.

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this website. Hope it helps.

    And i cannot agree more with “Anon” that if you western people can give up your “double standards” and be more tolerant and patient, we can find a way to communicate. Also, Chinese people is learning to support and help other people in the world. For all these years, we have little knowledge about the things happening outside China. Because we were busy with dealing with the problems of ourselves. It will take some time for Chinese people to get to learn the international affairs and this will finanlly help us have a better understanding of ourselves, all these things about Tibet or Taiwan and etc.

    So you know we are learning from you and please be patient and fair to us.

  • http://www.thenewdominion.net/ OpkeHessip

    I’ve long been bothered by the lack of reference made by “Western” scholars to Chinese and Uyghur sources in the academic study of Xinjiang. This seems to be changing with the new generation, but certain attitudes persist. We often simply don’t think to consult these sources, not necessarily because of a conscious belief that they are biased, but out of habit.

    It also takes a while working in and around China to get used to the idea of a “Chinese voice” in the world. It took me some years, personally, to get to the point where I could communicate well enough to really start to think, “Oh, these people are perfectly ordinary flawed human beings. Well, that really makes them no different from anyone else, let alone any ‘foreigner’.” Any individual, whether they’re Chinese or not, has a point of view that makes sense to them. Whether or not it’s out of harmony with someone else’s, it’s valid, and it should receive consideration.

    Thank you very kindly for pointing out this way of communicating that has doubtless been staring the “outside world” in the face for a long time.

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  • http://zhangxispace.spaces.live.com/ Xi

    my suggestion is go to http://www.tianya.cn and don’t go to political forum there. political forum is full of all kinds of crazy losers. they are shouting either US is Messiah or nuke US down to ground. they lost their minds. go to other forum like 天涯八卦 you will meet ordinary chinese.

    and just FYI, chinese are really supportive to government in this time Tibet issue from my point of view. at least from interent i can say so.

    but actually, majority of chinese do not surf interent or post their opinion on it. so that it is not really objective to judge chinese people by netizens.

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  • emily

    DavegoneChina, thank you so much for bridging China to the West through the net. The significance of bridging efforts made by those who are interested in and sympathetic to both the Western and Eastern cultures is immeasurable. History will tell. Again, thanks!!!! From a oversea Chinese

  • marnich

    Maybe you’ll be interesting to my proposal. Read please comment № 148 (marnich), if it skips a moderator.

    也許你會很有意思我的建議。請閱讀評論№ 148 ( marnich ) ,如果跳過主持人。

    Возможно Вам будет интересно моё предложение. Прочитайте пожалуйста комментарий №148 (marnich), если модератор его пропустит.

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