China Crackdown Boosts Mobile Messaging

Service Gains Ground on Weibo Microblogging Service

September 19, 2013, 2:13
p.m. ET

Even before Beijing's campaign against
online rumors accelerated, Sina Corp.'s popular
Weibo microblogging service was losing ground to Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat
mobile messaging service.

The WeChat app began
as a way for users to chat with each other free on smartphones, but quickly
ballooned into a full-scale social network. While Weibo users usually must have
a large number of followers to get responses to posts—which are broadcast
publicly—on WeChat, users can directly chat with groups of friends, or comment
on photographs.

Despite investor
hopes, which have pushed Sina's share price up 40% since April, others question
how many people will continue to use Weibo if the crackdown on rumors
continues. Though analysts say those on Weibo use the service with widely
varying interests and motives, one of Weibo's strongest appeals has been the
openness with which it enabled its users to discuss sensitive issues.

The Chinese
government puts the burden on Sina to choose how it censors content on the
platform and Sina has in turn played a delicate balancing act, shutting down
discussions that touch a political nerve or could lead to protests, while at
the same time leaving enough of interest to keep users coming back.

“Users will
lower their activity on [Weibo], but they will choose other alternatives,”
said Isaac Mao, principal researcher at research group Sharism Lab and one
of China's first bloggers. “People on Internet forums are all discussing
switching to other services including WeChat, private social networks, [and]
overseas services that aren't blocked, like Instagram.”

WeChat's more
intimate and private social-networking functions have led to competition with
Weibo for users' time, said Sina's chief executive, Charles Chao, during an earnings call last

Last year, Mr. Chao
said time spent on Weibo had diminished because of apps like WeChat, which at
the end of June had 236 million monthly active users, according to Tencent.
Weibo had 54 million daily active users at the end of June, according to Sina.
Although last quarter Sina said time spent on its service increased, many users
say the new crackdown has increased their use of WeChat.

Qiao Mu, director of
the Center for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies
University, said that, for those looking to influence public debate in China,
WeChat could still be useful despite its more fragmented environment.

“Its influence
is not as big as Weibo, but it can be very effective because you're talking to
people who you know and who will pay attention to what you say. It's not as
easy to control or monitor because there are so many small networks, and you
can constantly change your account,” he said.

That doesn't mean
WeChat is immune from government interference, however.

“Some people
might think WeChat is safer because it's not public, but if the government
really wants to control the discourse, they have lots of means at their
disposal,” said Hu Yong, an Internet scholar at Beijing University.

In an essay published
Tuesday in the Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily, Lu Wei, one
of China's top officials in charge of Internet monitoring and censorship,
indicated that the government doesn't intend to let up soon.

“If we do not
effectively occupy newly emerged public opinion battlefields, other people will
occupy them, creating challenges to our power of initiative and discourse as we
carry out public-opinion work,” he wrote.

Paul Mozur at [email protected] and Josh Chin
at josh[email protected]

A version
of this article appeared September 19, 2013, on page A6 in the U.S. edition of
The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Mobile-Messaging Provider Gains a
Voice Amid Beijing's Censorship Efforts.




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