Inside China’s Great Firewall, the country has its own IMDB. And Goodreads. And Reddit. But it’s all in one site.

Douban is a community-centered site that is also China’s best-known ratings site for books and movies. But comparing it to any specific site from abroad betrays the uniqueness of Douban, which some say is one of the few online platforms in China that wasn’t based on an existing Western product.

Douban was named after a hutong in Beijing, but it literally means a bean cotyledon -- an embryonic leaf. It was founded in 2005 -- years before both WeChat and Weibo. After many changes over the years, Douban now primarily consists of three parts:

  • A content feed populated by posts from people you follow and popular posts on the platform;
  • A review section for movies, books and music;
  • A section for interest groups.
The movie and group tabs on the Douban app. (Picture: Douban)

Douban founder and CEO Yang Bo, a former IBM engineer, said in a 2012 on-stage interview that his intent for the site was to “connect people with things they like or may like.” The site differs from Facebook, according to Yang, because Douban is for users to socialize with people they don’t know. Users can add movies, books and music to their own profile pages, which can also help people discover each other through these interests. 

Although taking a “slow” approach to monetization, the website has become a hub for China’s artsy online population that some call “utopian hipsters.” Many also call Douban their “spiritual corner” -- a term the company first used in an ad.

By 2012, Douban had 300,000 interest groups, according to Yang, which are similar to Reddit communities known as “subreddits.” As on Reddit, anybody can create a community and set it to public or private. Those who have joined the groups add their own posts in which people discuss a specific topic. Also like Reddit, you can find groups for seemingly anything. Topics could be as general as music or photography, or they could be as trivial as a group for people who are afraid of physical contact or people who are passionate about sewing machines.

In 2010, one group that drew nationwide attention was one named “Anti-Parents,” or “Parents are disasters” in Chinese. The group grew from 7,000 members in 2010 to more than 120,000 in 2017, but it came under fire for some of its members’ overly aggressive comments.

In June 2017, the group was “frozen” -- a term Douban uses for censoring a group. Existing members of a “frozen” group can still use it, but non-members can’t see or join it.

A subreddit and a Douban interest group. (Picture: Reddit and Douban)

“Anti-Parents” is just one of many “frozen” Douban groups, which have been targeted in the past for political reasons or the discussion of sensitive topics.

On October 6, three of the biggest groups on the platform related to news and celebrity gossip were frozen. One of them, the “Douban Goose Group,” has more than 600,000 members. It was previously suspended for a month in the lead-up to this year’s 30th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre. Ironically, the subsequent freeze was reportedly because some members expressed patriotism in a way seen as disrespectful toward state leaders.

On the same day, Douban suspended its popular “broadcast” function, which is the site’s news feed-like feature. Users can still add posts to their personal pages, but their followers are not able to see them unless they browse to a specific user’s page.

Douban said in its help center that the “broadcast” function would be restored later in the month, but the sudden changes triggered an outcry among Douban users alarmed about increasing censorship on the platform. Some are even hopping the Great Firewall and taking to Twitter to express their frustration with the hashtag “Douban refugee,” saying Douban was one of the few online spaces in China that remained relatively free.

It’s not just groups that are censored. Even though the site is known for its ratings of 10 million books, movies and music, many politically sensitive entries have been removed.

After South Park mocked Chinese censorship in a recent episode titled “Band in China,” searching for the American animated TV show on Douban -- in either Chinese or English -- now yields just one message: “According to relevant laws and regulations, search results are not displayed.” 

The Korean movie A Taxi Driver, which tells the story of a taxi driver helping a journalist during student protests that ended with the military shooting civilians, is also nowhere to be found on the platform. Summer Palace, a 2006 Chinese film about the Tiananmen crackdown, doesn’t exist on Douban either.

Don’t try to discuss South Park on Douban. (Picture: Douban)

For movies that haven’t touched a nerve in China, Douban is still considered the best source of ratings and reviews in the country thanks to its large user base and trusted ratings system. In 2015, Yang wrote in a blog post that Douban’s algorithms update the average rating for a title every few minutes.

With about 300 million monthly active users, Douban appears to still be on a bumpy road to sustainability. Some of its most notable monetization efforts failed, including a “virtual city” project named AlphaTown aimed at making money from gaming and ecommerce. Advertising still remains the site’s primary source of revenue, although it also makes money from hosting paid audio classes and taking a cut of book and movie ticket sales through links to third parties. Douban has reportedly only raised three rounds of funding since it started, and a rumored IPO in 2017 still hasn’t happened.