Internet & Tech, Talking Point

The Chinternet strikes back

Chinese equivalent of Twitter is too powerful for government’s liking

The Chinternet strikes back

Computer clampdown: Sina’s Weibo service could be next...

Weibo, the word for China’s enormously popular Twitter-like microblogs, means “tiny” (wei, 微) and “abundant” (bo, 博). It is an apt description: like Twitter, a weibo message is restricted to 140 characters. But here there’s a plus in the China context: Chinese characters can be a whole word, making them far more expressive than a single English letter.

WiC first wrote extensively about the weibo phenomenon in issue 95, but mentioned it first in issue 50. Over 200 million Chinese citizens have signed up for weibo accounts, operated by internet companies like Sina, Tencent and Sohu, and analysts estimate about 20 million new users are joining every month.

They post with gusto, about 50 million times a month. Much of that is tattle and gossip: guess what my cat ate for dinner, and did you see the plunging neckline on that actress etc.

But, increasingly, weightier topics have come in for discussion, like corruption and abuse of power.

And here’s the rub: Chinese regulators are more than aware of weibo’s commercial potential. There is even a little pride that China has stumbled on a product that trumps Twitter in much of its functionality. Yet there is also alarm at its capacity to spread news and opinion so rapidly, especially in light of China’s censored, online standards.

Last month, two years after weibo first began to appear, the government started out on a campaign to curb some of their less desirable elements of the weibo universe.

Why worry about weibo?

Mostly it’s about losing control of China’s online debate. Images of Twitter-fuelled, Egypt-style uprisings probably prey on official minds too.

That will have crystallised after the July 23 bullet train crash near Wenzhou. Sent by a survivor at the scene, the news first broke on weibo, much to official chagrin. By the time that the first surge of online interest had abated, about 3 million tweets (web speak for Twitter-like messages) had been sent.

How did the smash happen, they asked? Why did government rescue workers try to bury train carriages shortly afterwards? Why did they try to call off the search for survivors, nearly abandoning a 2-year-old girl? What about corruption at the railway ministry? Was that what was wrong with the country’s biggest infrastructure project?

Public fury was palpable (see WiC117, Talking Point).

So why not just shut down the weibos?

That would really irritate at least 200 million people, a lot of whom have become devoted weibo adherents.

Internet companies would also be hit financially, as would some of the relationships that allow the Great Firewall to be implemented.

And regulators would also come in for media criticism overseas. They would probably make out that they aren’t bothered by this sort of rebuke. But that’s not quite true: they don’t like being cast as internet villains, muzzling millions of citizens with the thickness of the censor’s cloak.

When did the latest muzzling begin, and where can we see it?

The campaign went public in mid-August, when Liu Qi, Politburo member and Beijing’s city Communist Party Secretary, visited Sina headquarters and told managers to “resolutely put an end to fake and misleading information”.

Companies should use new technology to “better manage” users, Liu warned.

Zhou Yongkang, another Politburo bigwig and police minister, visited Tencent’s offices with a similar message.

On August 26, for the first time, users on some blogging platforms began to receive notices that two people had been banned from posting weibo messages for a month for spreading “false rumours”.

A new “refute rumours” link was also added to Sina’s Weibo homepage, though there have been just half-a-dozen entries so far this week. One example: that the alleged murderer of a 19 year-old woman in Wuhan – the son of a military official – had been taken out of custody by his powerful dad. Police denied this and hit the ‘refute’ button. In another case it was denied that a skyscraper in Shanghai was on fire (it wasn’t).

This week, prominent social activist “Bei Feng” also said his Sina account had been hacked and anti-government posts attributed to him were added online, in an attempted smear. He asked Sina to delete the account but it then popped up again mysteriously. Bei Feng, whose real name is Wen Yunchao, warned that unidentified “security officials” could be working behind the scenes.

Then on Tuesday, Xinhua put out a general plea to police, internet companies and regulators to eradicate “toxic rumours” online.

“To nurture a healthy internet, we must thoroughly eradicate the soil in which rumours grow,” Xinhua said.

How will the new oversight be enforced?

Intense pressure is being brought to bear on weibo providers to step up internal “management” – that’s code for beefing up censorship efforts.

“The government has lots of proposals that it has shared with the companies at a high level,” says an employee of a major internet company who saw the documents, speaking to WiC on condition of anonymity. “As well as stepping up keyword censorship they’re leaning towards banning retweets [the forwarding of messages] because they’ve decided that weibo’s power comes from retweeting,” she reckons. Keyword monitoring works by looking out for sensitive words, which are then blocked. It has its limitations. Creative users can get around it by writing similar-sounding characters, which works particularly well in Chinese, a language rich in homonyms.

If it goes ahead, the banning of retweets won’t be a blanket restriction. Instead, it would apply to “troublesome” users – like the two suspended by Sina.

A crisis situation such as the rail crash could also trigger a wider shutdown, giving the government time to control public discourse, or put out a countervailing narrative.

“They will judge each situation individually, each ‘weibo’er’ individually, judge the scale of the incident and reaction, and handle it accordingly,” the unnamed employee acknowledged.

In other words: a movable feast of censorship, applied intelligently, by an unknown number of censors, including hundreds working for the internet companies themselves on the orders of the government.

That would seem to make it hard to identify exactly what is going on. Perhaps things won’t work quite as well as they used to, taking some of the lustre out of the weibo world.

Isn’t censorship already part of the system?

Calling it “microblog management”, Chen Tong, Sina’s editor-in-chief, told the Southern Metropolis Daily that teams of “monitors” already work long hours deleting posts considered offensive or politically unacceptable.

The process is not fail-safe. “Monitoring team members are relatively young with different levels of business experience. They sometimes have heavy workloads and they need to decide quickly how a microblog message should be treated” (meaning whether it is deleted, presumably). “This will inevitably result in error,” Chen admitted.

Users whose blogs are deleted then react angrily. The upshot – “tremendous pressure” on the monitoring team, Chen said.

Does it work?

Not always, as we’ve suggested.

Employees monitoring messages also have subtle ways of resisting official directives, but ultimately have to follow orders or lose their jobs.

Says one, who did a stint in censorship: “If we got an order to delete something and we thought it was unfair, we’d delay the deletion by five minutes. During that time it could spread a lot. Of course we had to delete it eventually. But people have choice in how they behave.”

The same employee also pointed to how quickly weibo users can gather at content that has piqued their interest (or stoked a sense of anger or frustration).

The example was the fate of a weibo account set up by Fang Binxing, creator of the Great Firewall structure of internet censorship said to employ more than 50,000 people. Fang was forced to close his account after it was flooded with derogatory posts by angry netizens (see WiC108). Although the original content disappeared swiftly from record, extracts from it circulated across other blogs and websites for a much longer period.

However, if the more reactionary elements of the government do manage to clip the wings of the weibo phenomenon, it will be a major setback for the one area of public life where free speech (and the venting of frustration) seems to have flourished.

Many Chinese will view this as a step backwards…

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