When people predicted that microblogging was moments away (slight strawman) from destroying the government, this is why I was skeptical:
Chinese internet users’ love affair with microblogs has started to cool with stricter censorship slowing the spread of sensitive information and stifling debate.
Many heavy users of Sina Weibo, the country’s leading Twitter substitute, told the Financial Times that they felt that the microblog had become less vibrant as new controls were introduced over the last few months.
“Sina is cracking down hard,” says Xie Wen, a prominent internet entrepreneur and prolific microblogger. He notes that posts which would have attracted large numbers of re-tweets and comments before the new restrictions are now barely making any impact, a complaint echoed by many other prominent microbloggers.
Sina Weibo user activity peaked after two high-speed trains collided in eastern China in July, killing 40 people. The news itself, as well as the much-criticised search and rescue efforts, were tweeted from the disaster site, driving many to hit out at the government’s handling of the accident and question China’s development model and governance.
Since then, the government and party officials have appealed to Sina to monitor more closely what is said and make sure sensitive content is not spread too far, too fast.
Sina has complied, making changes to the site which some think have made it a less attractive news source and may have reduced the amount of time users spend on the microblog.
But Weibo users also suspect that Sina is interfering manually with content posted by the most-followed bloggers who have a record of criticising the government or discussing censorship.
Sina refused to comment for this story.
Last month, Luo Changping, deputy managing editor of Caijing Magazine, said increasing numbers of accounts were being cancelled, new search restrictions were appearing and the list of words defined as ‘sensitive’, was growing.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a human rights lawyer said the messages he posts on Sina Weibo are often visible to himself but hidden from everyone else, a complaint shared by other bloggers.
Mr Xie warns that Sina Weibo is facing a watershed moment. “Weibo is being sustained by the five per cent most active users. What will happen if you castrate those?” he says. “If you lose the trust and sympathy of many active users, won’t they eventually leave?”
Beijing is treading a fine line. Allowing social media is a key part of the government’s internet policy because it believes they provide a pressure valve but it wants more control.
To be sure, the internet is changing the relationship between Beijing and the people. But there are plenty of ways to muzzle this newfound power, or even coopt it for the purposes of the state. Beijing may not have been able to simply close Weibo when it was at the height of its relevancy after the Wenzhou crash- but after strangling it for a while, would there still be as much of an outcry?