Despite Restrictions, Microblogs Catch on in China

The New York Times describes the growing popularity of microblogging in China, and the possibility that such platforms may prove ultimately more useful to the government than to its opponents.

What is striking is that microblog services are booming here despite a recent Chinese government crackdown on social networking sites in the wake of democracy demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East. The restrictions, which typically involve deleting or censoring politically charged content, seem to be aimed at preventing microblogs and other sites from being used to foster dissent or organize antigovernment protests.

Still, young Internet users in China seem unfazed by the restrictions, in part because microblog services are a compelling alternative to this country’s more heavily censored state-run media and, perhaps more important, because microblogs are a powerful tool for self-expression ….

Some experts say the government may try to turn microblogs to its benefit, monitoring comments and traffic to take the pulse of the nation, and perhaps even anticipate and respond to signs of social discontent.

“It’s a real-time polling system to find out what’s going on in China,” said Bill Bishop, an independent Internet analyst in Beijing. “And it’s also a steam valve, since China’s a pressure cooker.” He says that if people get upset, “they can just say things on Weibo.”

The Internet’s potential for surveillance and dissipation of political dissent is discussed at length in Evgeny Morozov’s ‘The Net Delusion’. See also: Gady Epstein’s Forbes profile of Sina Weibo and it’s founder, Charles Chao, which describes the service’s role as a “government-trusted sandbox”.

May 16, 2011 11:29 AM
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