On Wednesday morning, Qiao Mu, who is one of more than 80 million Chinese who log on to China’s popular Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo, posted a message quoting from United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech last week on the importance of Internet freedom.
Within hours, his message disappeared - but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese netizens had seen it.
Mr. Qiao, who is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and the director of its Centre for International Communications, received a stern warning from Weibo’s administrators, that same afternoon, for venturing into taboo territory. He was warned that posting “harmful information” would lead to the termination of his account.
Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging website, has, in recent months, become the focus of attention of China’s vast censorship apparatus.
Weibo and other microblogs have quickly spread their presence in a country where Twitter – as well as other social networking websites like Facebook – is blocked. Their rapid growth, analysts say, is posing a new challenge to the authorities’ hold on information – microblogs are providing millions of Internet users in China a platform to rapidly disseminate information on a never-before-seen scale.
“After what happened in Egypt and Tunisia,” Mr. Qiao told The Hindu in an interview on Saturday referring to the protests that were coordinated through social media, “the government seems to be taking no chances.”
In a speech on Saturday, Chinese President Hu Jintao hinted at the new challenges posed by this new information landscape. He called for strengthening the “management of the Internet”, as well as establishing mechanisms “to guide public opinion.”
A year and a half after Weibo’s launch, the Chinese government, so far, has appeared nimble enough to respond to the new challenges posed by these information platforms, according to Mr. Qiao and other analysts.
“Weibo has a very sophisticated and complicated censorship mechanism,” Mr. Qiao said, referring to how his message – one of millions posted on February 16 – was swiftly identified and culled. Often, users are even unaware their posts are hidden from the view of other users, he said.
Among Weibo’s many levels of monitoring, searches for sensitive terms are often blocked. A case in point was after the protests in Egypt, when searches for the Chinese characters for “Egypt” and “Cairo” were restricted.
On Sunday, another phrase found its way to Weibo’s blocked list – usages of the phrase “Jasmine Revolution” were blocked, after some United States-based Chinese websites posted a message urging people in 13 cities to protest for political reform, referring to the term used to describe the protests inTunisia.
The call for protest, which was circulated through Chinese microblogs on Saturday night, received little response in Beijing. No protesters appeared to turn up at the listed protest site, in a busy shopping area. However, dozens of policemen and plainclothes security officers surrounded the site on Sunday afternoon. They were taking no chances.
The quick response from the police also reflected how microblogs also provide the authorities with a means to track public opinion and potential sources of unrest. In Beijing, the police too have taken to microblogging, both monitoring public voices and opening an account which had, at last count, 330,300 followers.
In its first White Paper on the Internet, issued last year, the Chinese government defined the limits of its Internet policy. While it would encourage “newly-emerging online services” such as microblogs, it warned that any information that contained “contents subverting state power” – a phrase often used to describe any direct criticism of the Communist Party – would be prohibited.
The White Paper showed, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, who is the cofounder of Global Voices Online and an expert on Internet freedom that the Chinese government was “not running scared from the Internet.” “It is embracing the Internet head-on, intends to be a leader in its global evolution, and intends to assert its influence on how the global Internet is governed and regulated,” she wrote.
The tug of war between an online push for more information and a government wary of challenges to stability is far from over, according to Fang Binxing, who is the president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and regarded as the founder of the “Great Firewall” (GFW) of China, as the restrictions on the Internet are popularly known here “So far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement,” he told the official Global Times in a recent interview. As more Chinese netizens find new ways to scale the wall, Mr. Fang had a message for them. He said, “Drivers just obey the rules, and so citizens should just play with what they have.”