China’s Parallel Online Universe

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China’s Parallel Online Universe

To the casual eye, China’s social media landscape might look diverse and lively. But the social media clones are careful to follow Communist Party censorship.

As the showdown escalated between Chinese security forces and residents of Wukan, where villagers revolted against the Chinese Communist Party, you didn’t find as much discussion of the incident in Chinese social media as you might expect. And it wasn’t only because the internet was shut off in the town.

It was also a result of China’s development of a set of “social media clones” that ably mimic the functions of the most popular, internationally recognized social media applications, such as Facebook and Twitter. The replicas, however, come with a major catch: they systematically comply with the Chinese Communist Party’s strict censorship requirements.

This innovative approach embraces, rather than resists, technological advances. It satisfies the growing demand of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens for social media tools, reducing incentives for them to circumvent the “Great Firewall,” while still enabling the Communist Party to control what they say to each other on matters of political consequence.

Here’s how this critical piece of China’s modern censorship mosaic works.

First, the big transnational social media players – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – are blocked in China. This clears the playing field for homegrown firms, such as Renren, which provides Facebook-type functions, Youku.com, a YouTube-like video sharing service, and Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service.

These services are then required to have automated or manual monitoring and censorship mechanisms in place to quickly identify and delete user-generated postings or disable accounts that run afoul of the Communist Party’s ever-changing censorship red lines. It’s a daily reality for Chinese bloggers, academics, activists, and even ordinary users to discover a posting deleted, their account locked, or their “friends” unable to view what they have just shared.

The case of Sina Weibo, which boasts some 250 million registered users, is instructive. Launched in 2009, it’s similar to Twitter in that it allows users to post 140-character “tweets” and gather followers. Since coming on the scene, the company has enjoyed explosive growth and the service’s millions of users have become an important audience for a diverse range of interests.

But in the same way this microblogging service can enable commerce, entertainment and personal communication, it’s also increasingly used to share information and commentary unwelcome to the ruling Communist Party. To keep pace, Sina Weibo reportedly employs some 700 people to perform around the clock monitoring of millions of tweets.

Despite Sina Weibo’s vast user base, it represents just a small corner of China’s parallel social media universe. Instead of MSN messenger, there’s QQ, which downloads automated keyword filtering upon installation. Instead of Wikipedia, there is Baidu’s Baike. Instead of Blogspot, every major web portal has its own blogging service.

While Hollywood stars, international firms like Coca Cola or Louis Vuitton, and some social justice causes use Sina Weibo to reach a growing audience, a range of initiatives and news organizations are kept out of Chinese cyberspace. You won’t find a Freedom House or Human Rights Watch Youku-channel, as you might on YouTube. Testing by researchers with Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin in July found that a search for the names of seven prominent Chinese lawyers, activists, and journalists on Sina Weibo returned no results, only an Orwellian notice that “According to related laws and policy, some of the results are not shown here.”

For Chinese users, the combination of blocked access and built-in censorship yields a highly-manipulated information landscape.  Many average users, isolated from international social media platforms, have limited knowledge of key events related to their own country, even when these make headlines around the world.

Within this alternate reality, in addition to the muzzled Wukan revolt, the democratic ambitions of the Arab Spring protestors are absent, Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize is hidden from view, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s efforts to discuss Hillary Clinton’s speech with Chinese microbloggers are deleted. Also taken down are Chinese citizens’ attempts to circulate videos documenting torture or initiatives to call out corrupt officials who, despite their modest official salaries, sport high-end luxury watches.

Chinese netizens have succeeded in outpacing censors to share information on certain incidents of public concern, such as a fatal bullet train crash in July. In response, senior Chinese officials have signaled their desire for even more stringent controls. Beijing authorities on December 16 formally announced new rules to be imposed on microblogs.  Among other impacts, the new measures will create greater incentives for individual users, in addition to companies, to self-censor.

As for Chinese companies, officials from the highest echelons of the Communist Party made the rounds this autumn. Charles Chao, Sina Weibo’s chief executive, and Pony Ma, chairman of Tencent Holdings Ltd. (another popular microblogging service), for their part have indicated that they’ve gotten the message, announcing their readiness to implement new mechanisms of control at their firms.

They don’t have the luxury of ignoring censorship signals from the authorities. Their business success depends on compliance. While they may operate in an online universe that looks a great deal like our own, businesses seeking to prosper in China and citizens seeking to stay informed must contend with a very different set of rules.

Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis and Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst at Freedom House. Walker tweets at @Walker_CT