I lived in China for six years, but it wasn’t until my last six months there that I stumbled upon one of the best-kept secrets on the Chinese internet, a question-and-answer web app called Zhihu. On the surface, it’s a fundamentally simple concept, and not an original one either (it’s basically a Chinese language Quora, the popular English language Q&A app aimed at the intellectual crowd). Yet Zhihu is charting new ground, carving out what might be the most “civilized” niche in an otherwise unruly Chinese internet, a place where knowledge is prized, critical thinking and debate are welcomed, and free speech makes a solid stand. As a window in on the hopes, dreams, and concerns of contemporary intellectual Chinese youth, Zhihu is indispensable.
When I started using Zhihu last September I thought I’d be asking more questions than answering them. Living in remote, rural Yunnan province, my encounters were largely with farmers and ethnic minorities, and while I gained much from these conversations, there were also questions that went unanswered, conversations I wanted to have that never happened. That’s where Zhihu came in. Aware that China’s internet is a breeding ground for nationalistic youth who perform “human flesh searches” on netizens they disagree with, I registered in a fake name. I never expected that within the world of Zhihu my alter ego David Rand would become a household name.
My answer to the question “How do foreigners in China ride the bus if they can’t read Chinese?” was my first to go viral. In Zhihu users’ eyes, my written Chinese, earnest and full of typos, was entertaining and hopelessly “cute,” and before I knew it my followers began increasing by the hundreds daily. I was also a beneficiary of first mover advantage. Foreigners fluent in spoken Chinese are a dime a dozen, but those who can read and write Chinese are a rarer breed. The Canadian Mark Roswell, a household name in China thanks to his annual appearances on the 700 million-viewer Chinese New Year gala, was on Zhihu before me, yet within this ecosystem I have far more clout. Zhihu isn’t like Weibo or Twitter where real life celebrities attract instant followings. The key to success on Zhihu is quality content, which leads to upvotes, shares, and followers. You put more in, you get more out.
As I got my Zhihu sea legs, I started proofreading my answers for typos and answering more serious questions, not wanting to gain a reputation as a “performing monkey”. My answers, which my fans have praised as “objective”, “rational”, and “even-handed”, hit a nerve. With a user base dominated by millenials and college students, demand on Zhihu for information about the world outside China is high. I’m not the only person supplying the answers to these questions (8% of Zhihu users are based in the United States, the vast majority of them Chinese studying abroad), but since I’m an “authentic foreigner” my answers naturally increased in value.
I was also a beneficary of the “rising tides lift all boats” effect. Zhihu has been around since 2011, but during the first few years it pursued a lowkey growth strategy, limiting the user base to a select invitation-only group of professionals and thought leaders, slowly building its reputation through word of mouth, and focusing on quality over quantity. By the time it opened its doors to the general public in 2013, the groundwork had already been laid for Zhihu to go viral. I just happened to join at the right moment in time, and I’ve since coasted a wave of exponential viral growth.
In a mere nine months, Zhihu’ global web traffic ranking has shot up from about 2000th place to 236th, putting it right behind Fox News, and ahead of the Washington Post, USPS, Groupon, Pandora, Hulu, FedEx, Bloomberg, and Time. Ranked 36th within China, Zhihu’s estimated 20-30 million users aren’t in the same league as China’s major internet players (Baidu, Taobao, and WeChat claim hundreds of millions each), but they disproportionately represent one of the most desirable demographics in any market: highly educated, young, and increasingly individualistic consumers.
Chinese netizens are particularly fond of interactive content, spending as much time in discussion and comments forums as on actual content. The problem is that a streak of nastiness pervades the Chinese internet, and sexism, racism, and profanity are all too common. One of Zhihu’s biggest accomplishments is its creation of a safe haven, attracing refugees from other corners of the web, attracted by “China’s most civilized online community”. Even as more and more people read my content, which often delves into poiltics and sometimes criticism of China, I’ve never been the victim of personal attacks or “human flesh searches”. I’ve had Zhihu users disagree with me and debate me, but always in a constructive manner. In fact, I felt so comfortable in this friendly environment that I abandoned my alias and stated using my real name.
They come for the content, and stay for the user experience. Zhihu’s neat, ad-free, streamlined interface stands in stark contrast with typically cluttered, malware-infested Chinese websites (there’s a special place in hell reserved for Chinese pop-up ads). This is reflected in their brand loyalty. Zhihu fosters deep engagement, not casual use; many users report spending more than an hour every day on the site.
In my experience traveling throughout the Chinese countryside and teaching in a third-tier city, I often got the impression that the only thing Chinese youth used the internet for was computer games. Just a couple years ago, observors were pronouncing that Bill Clinton had it all wrong when he prediced in 2000 that the internet would help to democratize China. Thanks to ever more sophisticated censorship and control over the media, so the argument went, the potential of the internet to nurture a plurality of voices had been squandered.
Not so fast. More and more Chinese are cynical of officially sanctioned knowledge from schools, universities, and the government-controlled media. Zhihu has in a way filled this void, with its decentralized, democratic, knowledge-centered social media platform where anyone can write answers and gain upvotes and followers based on the merit of their content. Teaching social studies in a Chinese high school I often banged my head against the wall trying to teach my students to activate the critical thinking portion of their brains. Zhihu’s proven to me beyond all doubt that free speech and critical thinking do exist in China. Knowing that amongst its millions of users are future leaders gives me a renewed sense of optimism in China’s future.
I credit Zhihu with improving my Chinese writing skills, and also for introducing me to the world of Chinese internet slang and the use of puns and codewords to get around the censors. Even after moving back to the United States, I’m confident that with my continued role in this community, my Chinese won’t have a chance to regress. My experience as Zhihu’s reigning foreigner has been fun, but it’s time I share the limelight with others. For the internet-savvy China-watcher, Zhihu is no longer a force to be ignored.