Eight Questions on the State of the Internet in China

China Real Time editor Josh Chin talks about the current state of the Internet in China with Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN Beijing bureau chief, Global Voices founder and author of ‘Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom‘. Their discussion touches on the heavy burden of expectation placed on microblogging, the Party’s adaptation to the Internet age, the China policies of Western companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, and the unintended consequences of US anti-piracy measures.

There’s been a lot talk about microblogging services as a game-changer in China because of how quickly information spreads on them. Do you agree?

People said that about the Internet more generally when it showed up in China in 1995, when I was based in Beijing with CNN. The widespread assumption among the foreign press corps at the time was that the CCP was unlikely to survive the Internet. But so far it has done a much better job at riding the changes the Internet has wrought – and adapting to them and even taking advantage of some of them – than we ever imagined.

Yes, information spreads faster with Weibo than on earlier forms of social networks and that will certainly lead to various kinds of change. But specifically how will the “game” (whatever that is exactly) be changed? And precisely in what direction? And can we assume that direction will actually be democratic? As the daughter of a professor of Chinese history, I think we should be careful about making assumptions about where things are going, particularly when those assumptions are based in no small part on what we hope will happen.

Tea Leaf Nation highlights a recent illustration of microblogs’ unsteadiness as platforms for change: the (now reversed) deletion of two Sina Weibo users’ accounts after they posted a politically sensitive image. This prompted widespread indignation among other users, including Beijing advertising executive Zhuang Wuxie, who asked:

  1. What is Sina Weibo’s standard for deleting tweets? Under reasonable and legal circumstances, will freedom of speech receive its deserved support and protection here?

  2. What is Sina Weibo’s standard for deleting user accounts? No matter what the reason, if we don’t violate the law shouldn’t our voices and tweets on this platform be preserved and our data be retrievable?

  3. Can Sina Weibo adopt the posture of a normal media outlet and not be subjective and certainly not use its power to oppress users who are just passing along information? If you can’t do this shouldn’t you apologize to your users?”