Sina Weibo “User Contracts” Go Live

The New York Times reports that Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo has rolled out “user contracts” with a points-based system to better facilitate the monitoring and punishment of inappropriate comments by its 300 million netizens:

Points can be deducted for online comments that are judged to be offensive. When a blogger reaches zero, the service stated, a user’s account will be canceled. Users who suffer lesser penalties can restore their 80 points by avoiding violations for two months.

Deductions will cover a wide range of sins, including spreading rumors, calling for protests, promoting cults or superstitions and impugning China’s honor, the service stated.

Most notably, the contracts also will punish time-honored tactics that bloggers have used to avoid censorship, like disguising comments on censored topics by using homonyms (where two different Chinese characters have nearly identical sounds), puns and other dodges.

Jon Russell, Asia Editor of The Next Web, wrote this morning that he saw “no obvious sign of the points system being introduced as yet,” and called out one of a number of clauses in the contract that he believes are “open to fairly broad interpretation.” The “user contracts” went live following a trial period that began three weeks ago, and represent the latest attempt by state regulators to control the flow of information and limit the spread of sensitive rumors online after Sina failed to effectively implement the state-mandated “real name registration” policy.

Reflecting on a just-completed visit to Sina Weibo in Beijing, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg writes that the old model of control is evolving as figures such as Ai Wei Wei, Koonchung Chan and Han Han continue to influence China’s “evolving free-speech landscape”:

Sina’s biggest fear seems to be not that users will complain about the limits placed upon their activity, but that that its failure to police the site itself will provoke the authorities to close it. Party officials have paid admonitory visits, and suspended commenting for three days last month in response to proliferating rumors about the Bo Xilai scandal. But shutting down Weibo (which refers to the Chinese version of microblogging, as opposed to Sina, which is the biggest company that provides a platform for it) would now count as an outsized act of repression, difficult for the government to get away with. China’s biggest blogging and micro-blogging platform has 324 million registered users, and there are millions more on competing services. Constrained though it is, Weibo has become a boisterous national conversation. Stopping it at this point would both infuriate its users and deny the security services their best tool for gauging public opinion.

The Chinese government’s can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it relationship to Weibo epitomizes the paradoxical condition of free expression in China apparent during our trip. State censorship is no longer just a question of dissidents testing the boundaries of what is permissible and regularly running afoul of the authorities—the old, familiar model. It has become a matter of authoritarian innovation as well, with the one-party state experimenting in with ways to constrain and control its explosive new media environment.

Finally, China Media Project’s David Bandurski reminds China watchers that official bureau’s and agencies have seized on microblogs as a valuable tool as well.