Twitter A Haven Amid New Rules

Chinese netizens posted record-breaking numbers on microblogging site Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent, in the first minute of the Year of the Dragon. But with the Chinese government implementing new Internet regulations as part of a broader strategy of information control, The New York Times notes that some more tech-savvy dissidents have found a safe haven in Twitter itself:

A number of Chinese dissidents have already left homegrown social media sites, choosing to create a community on Twitter that is beyond the reach of government censorship. The artist Ai Weiwei posts prolifically on Twitter.

On her Seeing Red in China blog, the writer Yaxue Cao on Monday described spending a month following posts by members of that vocal dissident Chinese-language community on Twitter. She writes that some dissidents also post to weibos, where the audiences are much larger, though less intimate.

Because Twitter is blocked in China, its small number of mainland users tend to be those with enough technological know-how to get around the Great Firewall, she observes, creating a debate-filled conversation that she likens to a vibrant tea house. Some of the accounts followed by Ms. Yaxue belong to former student organizers who took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and others who were forced to leave the country for political reasons:

When one of them (@wurenhua) tweeted about his recent conversation with his 80-year-old mother over the phone and why the mother and son had avoided video chatting (so that they can hide sadness from each other), you get a glimpse of what this exile entails.

While the 140-character limit constrains writing to one or two thoughts in alphabetic languages, Ms. Yaxue says, whole paragraphs are possible in China’s character-based language. The same could also be said of Sina Weibo and other China-based social networks. But on Twitter there is not the same risk that posts will be censored — or “harmonized,” according to the official term of art — and a dissident user’s account terminated.

One of the bloggers in question, Yaxue Cao, writes that the Chinese Twitter universe offers certain freedoms but nothing goes unnoticed:

But that nobody deletes your message doesn’t mean nobody is watching over what you say. Somewhere over a dim table, state security police are scanning every word. In November 2010, Wang Yi (@wangyi09), a well-known rights activist, was sentenced to one-year “reeducation through labor” for jokingly challenging angry “patriots” demonstrating against Japan to storm the Japanese Hall of the Shanghai Expo. She was the first person punished for a tweet, a tweet that consisted of 5 characters.

Even I, a newcomer and an outsider to this community, am beginning to have inklings. For example, who is that ID that signed on to follow me the day before yesterday that has a dozen or so tweets in a language I can’t identify but follows a hundred or so Chinese dissidents and intellectuals? How come those a couple of IDs, very vocal and widely known, always have “inside news” that happens to help deescalate pressure for the government? Who are they really?

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