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By Bruce Einhorn China may have some of the world's most active Internet police, who make sure its citizens don't get out of line while they're online. But Hu Zhiguang is out to prove that the blogosphere is nonetheless alive and thriving in China.
Hu, a wiry 27-year-old with a soul patch of a beard who likes people to call him by his English name, Kos, is founder and chairman of one of the leading providers of blog services in China. Blogcn, based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, makes it easy for Internet users to set up their own blogs -- sort of like a Chinese answer to Blogspot.
Hu recently spoke to Bruce Einhorn, BusinessWeek's Hong Kong-based Asia economics editor, about the special challenges of trying to become a blogger baron in China. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What do you think is the biggest difference between the blogosphere in the U.S. and in China?
A: The difference between China and the U.S. is quite large. The U.S. has many famous bloggers, and they have a big influence. In China, because of the political environment problem, it's not possible to have that sort of thing.
So [Chinese blogs are] more lifestyle- and entertainment-oriented. But Chinese bloggers are more willing to express themselves than American bloggers. Because elsewhere in America there's more freedom, so the methods of expression are more [varied].
Q: But, as you say, the political environment in China means there's a lot that people can't express in their blogs.
A: Sometimes there are people who write about Taiwanese independence and the Falun Gong.
Q: And what happens when they try to do that?
A: We set up keywords for our programs, like "Falun Gong," and when you type in those keywords, you cannot post them. It just shows up as stars. Everybody has that.
Q: People can avoid using those words, though.
A: The problem exists, but it's not a big one. We can immediately fix it, and it's not a problem. Maybe there are some words that aren't in the keywords, but if they're published, they don't fit the content. Then the Internet police will call us, and we will delete it within 24 hours. If it lasts on the site too long, then maybe it will make some trouble. Maybe I will have to go to the police station.
Q: How often have you had to do that?
A: That has never happened. The phone calls seldom happen - only four or five times in two years. We have a specialist who takes care of this. These people [who post the forbidden things] are not real bloggers. They know it will be deleted.
Q: There has been a lot of talk in the past few months about the Chinese government requiring bloggers who don't use sites like yours to register their real names and contacts if they want to keep on blogging. How difficult is it for Blogcn users to set up their blogs?
A: To set up a blog you have to give your password, e-mail address, blogger name, and choose a template. It's very easy. We don't need their phone number, their address, their ID number. [The environment] is much better than before. Step by step, it's getting more open.
Q: If it doesn't cost bloggers anything to set up a blog, how do you make money?
A: Our revenue is mostly from advertisements - 70% to 80%. The rest is from wireless services like SMS, MMS, and WAP. By the end of next year, half of our revenue will be from ads, 35% will be from wireless, and 15% will be from other value-added applications.
Q: Such as?
A: We can charge members for larger space, capacity. Now the ordinary blog is 10 megabytes. But when video blogging starts, 10 megabytes will not be large enough. One video blog can be 300 megabytes, even larger. So for 2 yuan (25 cents) per month, you can have 1 gigabyte.
Q: What new services are you most excited about?
A: We have a mobile client called Mrabo that we launched on June 10. You can publish and read your blog, read other blogs, and read blogs selected by the Blogcn editors. You can insert photos taken on your camera phone and upload them to our servers.
It costs 3 fen (4 cents) per kilobyte, and there's free download of software. One picture is between 60 to 70 kilobytes. So far 60,000 people have downloaded the software. With mobile, you can blog anywhere, anytime.
Q: What's your user base like?
A: Sixty percent of our users are female.
Q: Isn't that surprising, since China's Internet has long been so male-dominated?
A: Boys and men don't have time to write very much. Girls are more emotional, more articulate about their feelings. Besides, a lot of boys are busy playing online games.
Einhorn is BusinessWeek's Hong Kong-based Asia economics editor