China Power

Muzzling China’s Microblogs?

A visit to the offices of Sina’s microblog by a top Communist Party official raises questions over freedom of speech.

Beijing’s Communist Party chief Liu Qi recently visited the weibo, or microblogging operations, at Sina – China’s largest internet portal.

Microblogging is the Chinese equivalent of Facebook and Twitter, both of which have been blocked by the authorities in China. Despite the restrictions, Chinese have been quick to embrace social media, and Sina’s decision to open its first weibo site was quickly followed by other internet portals, including Sohu and Netease.

Initially, microblogging didn’t catch on. However, following a host of sensitive domestic issues that the mainstream media won’t cover – such as petitions against the government and property demolitions – microblogs have seen their popularity soar.  

This summer, the Communication University of China, the country’s most famous media institution, published a report that showed that weibo had overtaken Internet forums as the second most influential source of online information, after news portals.

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The fatal train collision near Wenzhou on July 23 underscored the power of weibos. Wang Yongping, Railways Ministry spokesman, was fired after his statement that ‘whether you believe it or not, I still believe it’ went viral on microblogs. Wang has been transferred to a Warsaw-based international railway cooperative organization.

But admirable as it is for officials to be held to account, there are downsides to microblogs, not least the obvious risk of false information quickly circulating around the internet. For example, microblogs were quick to report on alleged corruption in the Chinese Red Cross, specifically claims that Guo Meimei, a 21-year-old employee, was spending Red Cross money on sports cars and designer clothes. However, after a rumour started to spread that Guo was the mistress of the vice president of the organization, donations to the Red Cross plunged by 90 percent.

It was against this backdrop that Liu made his unexpected visit to Sina. The mainstream media didn’t cover the visit, but while there, Liu expressed his dissatisfaction after staff told him that it can take about an hour to follow up and remove false news from microblogs. Liu asked that troubling posts be deleted much faster.

A member of staff at Sina told me that from what he understood, Liu wanted to press microblogs to strengthen their news filtration methods and find new ways of snuffing out rumours. But despite the leadership’s worries about an internet free for all, there are days when even innocuous searches bring up no results. For example, when I did a search for Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao – what you would have thought were non-sensitive searches – it came back with no results.

Liu is a senior member of the Communist Party, and his views are seen as representative of party views. Many media watchers are therefore concerned that it’s going to be increasingly difficult for users to express their opinions openly on microblogs, especially if Liu gets his wish for more stringent checks for sensitive information. Indeed, with the Communist Party holding its 18th National Congress and leadership succession next year, we can only expect things to get tougher.

After the inspection, Liu urged microblog users to exercise caution when posting on microblogs, and to not spread rumours. Some netizens were quick to point out that China’s constitution includes protections for freedom of speech, while others lamented that China has no freedom of speech at all. Right now, one of those sentiments feels much more like a rumour than the other.