Twitter plans to offer a Chinese-language user interface in the coming weeks. But the company doesn’t expect the bulk of the Chinese speaking population will be using it anytime soon.
China, which heavily censors the Internet, has blocked Twitter since 2009. This has denied the company a vast market of 485 million Internet users, many of whom have taken to China’s own locally-developed Twitter-like services.
Twitter’s Chinese interface is meant to reach native Chinese speakers living outside the country, said Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner. The size of this market amounts to 35 million people living in 30 countries, she said.
The new interface will be offered in both simplified and traditional Chinese Mandarin. Simplified Chinese Mandarin is the written language predominately used in mainland China, where Twitter is blocked. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong — where Traditional Chinese Mandarin is used — allow users to access Twitter.
Despite not having a native-language interface to date, Twitter had been gaining popularity in China, mainly among urban residents, as a new kind of social networking. But in July 2009, the site was blocked as part of an information clampdown following an outbreak of ethnic violence in China’s western Xinjiang region.
Since then, Chinese Internet users have flocked to domestically-operated Twitter-like sites that abide by the country’s strict censorship rules. The two largest sites, operated separately by Chinese Internet firms Sina and Tencent, each have a registered user base on par with Twitter of more than 200 million. In the case of Sina, the company’s social networking site has even attracted the likes of Bill Gates and actors Tom Cruise and Emma Watson, who have accounts.
While Twitter’s Chinese counterparts have been focused on the domestic market, that could change in the future. Sina is developing an English language version of its popular social networking service. The company has already launched an English language interface of its service through an iPhone App. Earlier this year, Sina’s CEO Charles Chao said the service had 8 million users outside of mainland China.
Along with the Chinese language, Twitter will also release interfaces in the Hindi, Filipino and Malay languages.