The Guardian is publishing a seven-day series titled, “Battle for the Internet.” According to their introduction: “From states stifling dissent, to the new cyberwar front line, we look at the challenges facing the dream of an open internet.” As part of the series, Tania Branigan writes about the myriad ways microbloggers are challenging China’s censorship regime:
International attention tends to focus on the Great Firewall, which stops Chinese citizens from reading sensitive content overseas, and constraints put on familiar western brands – the blocking of social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, or the Chinese government’s clash with Google, which saw the internet giant relocate search services to Hong Kong rather than continue to censor results.
But the world’s largest internet population is far more interested in what happens on domestic sites – and particularly the “weibo” or microblog services, which boast about 300 million registered users. Microblogs, particularly Sina’s Weibo, are where the clash of political controls, commercial interests and the urge of millions to share their thoughts on official scandals, or just last night’s TV, play out.
“Weibo plays a much more important role in China than Twitter in the west, because of the heavy censorship imposed by the regime on the other media,” said Beijing-based scholar Michel Bonnin. “Weibo is also censored and cannot be considered a free public sphere but it is still the place where exchange of information is the most developed in China, and even traditional and official media are forced to go through it to have a real impact on the public. It is also the only place where the receptors of information can react and influence the circulation of information.”
Official anxiety about the repercussions has become increasingly evident. Some think the authorities might have shut down microblogs entirely if they did not fear the backlash. Others suggest they see them as both threat and opportunity.
Even though we had reform and opening, “opening” didn’t mean “openness”; it meant opening the door to the west. It was more practical than ideological. At the very beginning, nobody – even in the west – could predict the internet would have so much to do with freedom of speech and that social media would develop in the way it has. They just understood it was a more efficient, fast and powerful means of communication.
But since we got the net and could write blogs – and now microblogs – people have started to share ideas, and a new sense of freedom has arisen. Of course, it varies from silly posts about what you’ve had for breakfast to serious discussions of the news but, either way, people are learning how to exercise their own rights. It is a unique, treasured moment. People have started to feel the breeze. The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings.
But the government cannot give up control. It blocks major internet platforms – such as Twitter and Facebook – because it is afraid of free discussion. And it deletes information. The government computer has one button: delete.