blocked, Chinese micro-blogging thrives
by Dan Martin – Fri Oct 8,
3:11 am ET
China’s 420-million web users have seized on micro-blogging
as a new avenue for mass expression in a tightly-controlled information
The real impact of “weibo” could lie in its
ability to knit together — through the rapid, mass sharing of links — the
countless Chinese blogs, forums and other websites that are the dominant outlet
for public expression.
BEIJING (AFP) – When
a huge mudslide swamped a Chinese town in August, killing at least 1,500
people, word first reached the world thanks to a digital camera-wielding,
19-year-old micro-blogger who idolises Lady Gaga.
Wang Kai’s reports on
a Chinese Twitter-like service from the northwestern town of Zhouqu made him an
online celebrity and underlined the potential impact of the fast-growing new
medium in the world’s largest online population.
Things looked grim
last year when China’s censors added Twitter to their list of blocked foreign
services amid government accusations that social media were used to fan deadly
ethnic unrest in northwestern China in July 2009.
But several Chinese
clones soon sprung up, offering users a platform for sending 140-character
messages via provider websites or mobile phones — while exercising heavy
self-censorship to keep authorities happy.
web users have seized on micro-blogging as a new avenue for mass expression in
a tightly-controlled information landscape.
From almost nothing
last year, there are an estimated tens of millions of micro-blogging, or
“weibo”, accounts in China. Active users will hit 65 million by
year's end, the Data Center for the Chinese Internet (DCCI) predicts.
“Weibo's role is
huge,” Wang Kai, now an English student at university, told AFP when asked
to explain its appeal.
“It provides you
with your own platform for sending out really meaningful microblogs and
opinions. I hope it can be used to help people solve problems.”
Users say China’s
half-dozen providers offer services that are superior to those of Twitter, such
as embedding of videos and photos.
They add that more
can be expressed in 140 of the Chinese language’s pictographic characters than
But the real impact
of “weibo” could lie in its ability to knit together — through the
rapid, mass sharing of links — the countless Chinese blogs, forums and other
websites that are the dominant outlet for public expression.
“The density of
information they have created, their frequency of dissemination and the degree
of connectivity they have enabled for web users far surpass any previous form
of Internet use,” Hu Yong, an author of several books on the Chinese
Internet, wrote in a recent opinion piece.
The DCCI predicts
active user accounts will exceed 400 million within three years as China’s
online population grows. Twitter said in early September it had 145 million
A recent poll found
that about 90 percent of under-40s use a “weibo” service, engaging in
lively discussions on entertainment, lifestyle, the job market or flogging a
But several cases
also have highlighted its potential for rattling the government, which
aggressively censors web content it views as a political threat.
In July, an
investigative reporter who exposed alleged graft by a listed company in eastern
China found himself on a most-wanted list for slander.
Qiu Ziming of the
respected Economic Observer financial weekly went on the run, drawing thousands
of “followers” with defiant blog posts declaring his innocence and
alleging a cover-up.
quashed his arrest order after public pressure in an episode that triggered a
debate about abuse of official power.
Rumours of a split
between President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were a hot recent topic
after Wen made comments seen as urging political reform, and chatter on
numerous graft cases and other scandals was widely credited with adding to
online pressure that resulted in government action.
services were briefly cut in July in what analysts said was a message from the
government to users to toe the line, but authorities are beginning to use
micro-blogging for their own ends as well.
A June government
white paper on the Internet singled out micro-blogging as a useful
communication tool and praised Internet users for “supervising” the
government agencies nationwide, such as Beijing’s police, have set up accounts
in a bid for openness — or at least to guide public sentiment.
government learns very quickly and is very much at the forefront or ahead of
the curve of what is on the Internet,” said Bill Bishop, co-founder of the
news site MarketWatch.com, who now blogs about the Internet in China.
working very hard to effectively channel and manage public opinion. Weibo offer
unprecedented challenges and opportunities for the government PR folks to deal
with issues in near-real time.”
Few experts however
see microblogs as posing any imminent threat to the Communist government.
Beijing keeps firm
control by restricting weibo services to top Chinese Internet firms well-versed
at self-censorship, said Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of the China media website
adds to the pressure but it's not enough of a revolution to rewrite the rules
of the game. The government can just hire more censors,” he said.