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Weibos: China clamps down on popular microblogs

Weibos are the freest place in China to speak. Now Chinese authorities are moving to curb that freedom.

By Staff writer / February 26, 2012



Beijing

Just a few years ago, no ordinary Chinese citizen would ever have heard sensitive news – say, for example, if a top Chinese policeman had spent a day in a US consulate, apparently seeking asylum.

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But when that happened in February, it was all over China's hugely popular Twitter equivalents within hours.

Resourceful "citizen journalists" posted photos of police massing outside the US Consulate in Chengdu, screenshots of an airline passenger manifest, and other evidence suggesting that Wang Lijun had been at the consulate and then escorted to Beijing by a senior Chinese security official. More than 2 million posts flooded China's "weibos" – Twitter-like microblogs – in just a few days.

"Weibos are the freest place in China to speak," and anonymity is key to that says Zhang Ming, a politics professor at Beijing's Renmin University and a prolific microblogger.

But now the Chinese authorities are moving to curb that freedom, leading many to fear that the microblogs' freewheeling days are numbered.

Target: 'harmful information'

In the name of reducing the spread of pornography, defamation, and other "harmful information," the government is requiring weibo bloggers to register their police-issued personal identification number in order to post.

The move is designed to combat "irrational voices and negative public opinion," says the head of China's Internet regulator agency, Wang Chen. But many bloggers and Internet analysts fear that registration will cast a chill over the microblogs.

" 'Real name' registration will make people more aware of what they say," worries He Weifang, a microblogging law professor at Peking University. The fact that weibo operators will have to reveal user identities to police if asked will scare people off, he says.

"The government is telling microbloggers 'we are watching what you say,' " adds Bill Bishop, an Internet analyst here.

100s of millions use weibos

Microblogs have been the biggest craze in China for the past two years. Nearly half of China's 513 million Internet users have signed up for a weibo account, most of them on Sina and Tencent, the two most popular portals. (Twitter is blocked by government censors.) Chinese microbloggers send or re-post 150 million messages every day – compared with the 200 million daily tweets worldwide.

In a country where official media have little public credibility, 70 percent of micro­bloggers use weibo accounts as their primary source of news, according to a recent report by the China Academy of Social Sciences, and 60 percent regard them as reliable.

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