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.
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Under the new rules, currently in effect in Beijing and a handful of other cities but slated to go nationwide this year, users will still be able to follow others without registering their real identities; they just won't be allowed to post their own comments.Skip to next paragraph
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But the appeal of weibos depends on prominent "thought leaders," says Mark Natkin, who runs an Internet consultancy here.
The December requirement that new users identify themselves seems to have already had an impact.
Sina Weibo, which boasted 20 million new users every month last year, signed up only 3 million new users in January, according to Chinese press reports.
"That's a pretty precipitous falloff," says Mr. Bishop. Although the drop could reflect the fact that many accounts on Sina are "zombie" accounts created to boost the number of followers for various bloggers, it also suggests that citizens are reluctant to reveal themselves to weibo operators.
Microblogs have posed a problem to the government, says Bishop, because "control of propaganda is a key pillar in the government's control of the country, and weibos cut out the propaganda apparatus." Weibos enable people to communicate directly with each other. "Information is getting out all over the place," he says.
The speed at which messages can be re-posted "is almost instantaneous," adds Mr. Natkin. "It's like Pandora's box. Once something's out, it's out."
Local government officials especially "feel very unhappy and very threatened" by weibos, says Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, because local scandals can attract central government attention very quickly.
Sina Weibo and other operators have created "rumor control" departments that employ people and automated keyword filters to censor sensitive posts; they can block users from posting messages that touch on awkward issues and close accounts belonging to repeat offenders such as prominent dissident artist Ai Weiwei. But these controls are not always 100 percent effective.
The new rules, issued by Beijing, ban weibo users from a range of vaguely defined activities, such as "undermining national unity," "spreading rumors, disturbing social order, or undermining social stability," and "illegal activities on behalf of civil society organizations."
If people are less willing to post on sensitive topics, the Chinese blogosphere will become less lively and less appealing, observers say. "There's a risk that microblogs will become irrelevant," warns Professor He. "If fewer and fewer people use them, their influence will wane."
Real name registration would not be a problem if free speech were not a crime, adds Professor Zhang. "But in China, it is still a crime."