“If the Internet has developed into something approximating a public space in China, Weibo is the white-hot centre of that,” says Kaiser Kuo, a blogger who is also the spokesman for Baidu, China’s largest search-engine company. “It dictates the national conversation much of the time.”
Weibo (the word means “microblog”) was actually born out of the ruling Communist Party’s desire to control social media. U.S.-based websites such as Facebook and Twitter were just making headway in China when they were blocked in 2009 by the so-called Great Firewall – the country’s sophisticated Internet-filtering system – ahead of the 20th anniversary of the bloody confrontations at Tiananmen Square. Shortly afterward, fanfou.com, an upstart Chinese service modelled on Twitter, was forced to shut after it was used to spread information during deadly riots in the restive province of Xinjiang.
Sina was already one of the giants of China’s increasingly unique Internet: It was a Yahoo-like portal that provided news, e-mail and a search engine to tens of millions of users. In August, 2009, barely a month after the violence in Xinjiang, Sina Weibo launched a service consciously modelled on Twitter, right down to the 140-character maximum (although you can say a lot more with 140 Chinese characters than with 140 Latin letters). There was a crucial difference: Sina was willing to co-operate with the government and to censor “sensitive” topics.
Internet experts say Sina and other Chinese Internet companies regularly get instructions from the State Council Information Office about which terms are currently considered taboo.
All Weibo posts are scanned automatically, and any containing the forbidden keywords are either deleted, or – if ambiguity is detected – marked for further scrutiny by a growing army of human censors. Among thousands of other topics, it is currently off-limits to write anything on Weibo that directly refers to the coming leadership transfer in China, which is expected to see current Vice-President Xi Jinping introduced as the head of a new Politburo this fall.
“Weibo was blessed by the government. It has never, therefore, been a threat to the regime, by definition,” says Jing Zhao, a Beijing-based blogger and political activist who goes by the screen name Michael Anti. “Weibo can’t unite people [against the central government] because of the keyword system.”
But because much of the censorship is automated, space remains for clever users to get around the government’s defences. For instance, the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown – June 4, 1989 – has long been blocked on Weibo, leading to prolonged discussions of the importance of “May 35th.” But the problem with writing in code is that only those who already understand the code can read it.
Mr. Anti and others say that rather than being threatened by Weibo, the central authorities have turned it into yet another tool of control. Local officials who ignore directives from Beijing – or who discredit it with corruption and mismanagement – can now be punished simply by allowing Weibo criticism to continue without the intervention of the censors (as in the bridge disaster).
When the police chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing fled into a U.S. consulate earlier this year and police vehicles surrounded the building, Weibo users were shocked that the photos and comments they posted about the standoff were not rapidly deleted. The reason soon became clear: Bo Xilai, the previously powerful and popular Communist Party boss of Chongqing, had fallen into disfavour in Beijing and was about to be purged.
So is Weibo a threat to Communist Party rule, or does it fact entrench it? The latter might be true in the short term. Replacing Facebook and Twitter with a medium they can control means that China’s rulers are unlikely to face the rapidly spreading unrest that has marked the Arab Spring.
In fact, a 2011 effort to organize a Tunisia-inspired “Jasmine Revolution” on the streets of Beijing quickly fizzled. Few in China were ever aware of the call to mobilize, since it came via websites blocked by the Great Firewall, and all discussion on Sina Weibo was quickly shut down.