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China’s Parallel Online Universe (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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

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