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Chinese émigrés in the US flocking to ‘QQ’

Vast instant messaging system fills gap

Kaiyun Lai accessed the Chinese social media website QQ at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Kaiyun Lai accessed the Chinese social media website QQ at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.

Jenny Yu left behind almost everything in China two years ago when she came to America to marry the man she loved.

But she refused to relinquish QQ.

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At her computer in Boston, she clicks on an icon of a cartoon penguin and signs onto China’s wildly popular instant messaging program. She chats with her mother and father in the southern city of Taishan, regales former classmates with tales of the latest blizzard, and shares her wedding photographs taken in New York’s Central Park.

“Every day, I go on QQ,” said the 24-year-old supermarket cashier, during an English class in Boston’s Chinatown.

China’s giant social media companies are quietly gaining a foothold in Boston, Quincy, Providence, and other US cities as thousands of immigrants transport the new technology to America, aiding the companies’ bid for a bigger share of the worldwide online market. Free speech advocates warn that the communist-ruled China is likely monitoring and even censoring posts from abroad, but immigrants say the websites are their main link to loved ones back home, where Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

Chinese immigrants are one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States, with an estimated 1.8 million nationwide and more than 74,000 in Massachusetts, which has the fourth-largest Chinese population in the nation, according to the Migration Policy Institute and 2011 census figures. In the past, immigrating to the United States meant leaving family and friends behind. But the newest tech-savvy arrivals have well-stocked social networks on Chinese sites such as QQ, Qzone, a Facebook clone, and on Twitter-like sites called weibos.

In Massachusetts, immigrants say the Chinese sites are refuges from homesickness as they grapple with a new land, language, and culture.

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One recent morning at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, adult students in an English class said the Chinese sites were indispensable.

Hui Hui Jiang, a 45-year-old Mandarin teacher in Boston, said he and his wife share photos of their 8-year-old twins on QQ with family in China. Allen Wu, a 26-year-old waiter, said he frequently messages his uncles back home.

Yu said she uses QQ to video-chat with her parents in China. She scrutinizes their faces to make sure they are not downplaying any problems at home.

“I miss them,” she said. “I’d prefer to visit them, but it costs a lot of money.”

In an office next door, Baolian Kuang, 36, a warm, funny community organizer at the Chinese Progressive Association, has not seen her younger sister in China for seven years. But she knows even mundane details about her life, and scrolled through some examples on her phone: Her sister sent photos of her latest manicure, a pancake she ate for dinner, a new necklace.

“You still feel it,” she said of the distance, “but it’s better than before.”

The websites are so effective at reaching immigrants that some businesses and community groups in Massachusetts are using them to promote their work. Wenjun Zhai, a family service specialist at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, set up a site on QQ and Qzone to recruit adult students for nutrition classes, posting photos of a delicious pasta dish to entice them to sign up.

Carmen Chan, director of development, said the center was not worried about China interfering with their postings.

“We’re not doing anything subversive,” she said. “We’re just teaching cooking class.”

But others warned that the Chinese websites may seem fun and accessible — complete with a version of FarmVille, a game popular on Facebook — but they are also being watched. China has blocked access to many foreign websites in recent years, citing national security and other concerns. The consequences of objectionable exchanges — or even retweets — can be severe.

Frank Jannuzi, head of the Amnesty International USA office in Washington, said Chinese officials have jailed dozens of people in recent years for online activity. The most famous prisoner is Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, a 57-year-old human rights advocate serving an 11-year prison sentence after helping craft a pro-democracy charter in 2008.

“If you persist you can be thrown in jail, and you can be thrown in jail without trial for years,” Jannuzi said.

Allen Wu says he uses QQ to message family.

DAVID L. RYAN/Globe Staff

Allen Wu says he uses QQ to message family.

Free speech advocates say much of the censorship in China is automatic, carried out by computer software programmed to delete prodemocracy keywords such as “Taiwan independence.” Government officials also monitor the sites with the help of an army of private citizens, called the “50 cent party” for their paltry wage.

Eva Galperin, global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital civil liberties organization, said posts written in the United States are unprotected because the server is located in China.

“You don’t have a right to free speech on somebody else’s network,” she said. “Your communications will still be spied upon and filtered and censored because it’s going into the Chinese network.”

Many Chinese immigrants, especially recent ones, say they already know better than to discuss politics online. Many leave China to seek asylum in the United States.

“They’re monitoring. You cannot complain,” said a student in Rhode Island, who asked not to be named because he must return to China after his studies. “For me at least I won’t use any messenger like QQ and leave some proof like I said something.”

Harvard lecturer Nicco Mele, the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath,” said he intentionally posted inappropriate phrases on a Chinese Twitter-like site to test the censors. “They were deleted pretty quickly,” he said. “There’s no doubt that it is definitely a surveillance state.”

Some are optimistic that the Internet could be a force for greater openness in China — which had 564 million Internet users in December, according to a government nonprofit. By 2015, the Boston Consulting Group estimated last year, China will have more than 700 million users, almost double that of the United States and Japan combined.

For now, China’s large and sophisticated Internet firms are taking aim at the worldwide market, mounting direct challenges to Facebook and other sites. Recently, Tencent, which owns QQ and other sites, rolled out a version of the instant messenger application that can be used from Facebook. Both companies declined to comment. The Embassy of China in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Many immigrants say they use both websites: Facebook for new friends in America and sites such as Qzone for those in China. They say they doubt immigrants will give up their home social networks anytime soon — for good reason.

“I have a friend who met her husband on QQ,” Yu said.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.

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