What Are You Allowed to Say on China’s Social Networks?

As part of a special series on “the battle for the future of the social web,” IEEE Spectrum magazine focuses on Chinese microblogs and tells the story of Yu Jianrong’s campaign to save kidnapped children:

Yu started his campaign shortly before the Chinese New Year holiday, a time for family reunions—and it struck a chord. Within days, thousands of images and other clues were posted, and an audience numbering in the tens of thousands developed. The Chinese news media even reported several success stories of rescued children.

In an interview with the influential Chinese magazine Southern Metropolis Weekly, Yu described his new sense of empowerment. “With a microblog, I finally have the same opportunities for expression as you,” he said to the reporter. “Current technology has changed the social environment. Every person has a microphone; every person is a news center. Now it’s easy to find friends; just publish a piece, and you’ll find your comrades right away.”

That’s true, of course. But microphones can also be turned off. The media hubbub surrounding Yu’s campaign soon led to official unease at the prospect of netizens (an old term that has been revived in China) tackling a social problem directly. In a leaked memo, China’s Central Propaganda Department ordered news organizations to “lower excitement” by ceasing to report on Yu’s project and giving microblogs in general a “reduced presence” on news sites. State media published editorials critical of the child-rescue effort, and Yu stopped giving interviews.

Yu’s story is a classic example of a netizen reveling in the personal expression that China’s new social networking sites offer—and quickly coming up against the limits of expression under an authoritarian regime. The country’s Internet users are genuinely confused about what’s permitted, because the Chinese government’s response to their online activities has been inconsistent. The state seems torn between allowing homegrown social networking sites to flourish as part of China’s transition to a high-tech information society and viewing them as a dangerous destabilizing force. Recent signals seem to suggest that China’s social media sites are here to stay—but that the government is learning how to shape them to its advantage.