Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

CHINA: Microbloggers Launch Long March to Freedom

Gordon Ross

BEIJING, Aug 4 2011 (IPS) - China’s rapidly growing legion of microbloggers is proving a worthy foe against ongoing government efforts to monitor, influence and censor information on the country’s vast Internet. Government efforts have failed to curb an outpouring of anger and grief in the wake of the recent Wenzhou train disaster.

Microblogs, called “weibos” in China, are increasingly popular sources of information here and a vital forum for public debate. Like Twitter and Facebook – both of which are blocked in China – the services limit the length of messages, and fellow users can re-send and comment on postings. Messages can range from the mundane to the humourous and, increasingly, to the political.

China has more than half a billion Internet users, and more than half of them have microblog accounts. Two companies dominate the field: Sina Holdings Ltd., with its Sina Weibo service, has 140 million users; and Tencent Inc., which counts more than 200 million members. Sina’s users tend to be a higher-income, better-educated group, while Tencent’s are generally younger.

Several government bodies and state-owned corporations have microblog accounts – even the Communist Party organ People’s Daily maintains a weibo. The vast majority of users, however, are ordinary Chinese looking for a forum to socialise and exchange information – even on what are often considered sensitive topics in China.

“An increasing number of people express their opinions about people’s well-being, justice and corruption (on microblogs),” Jiang Shenghong, a researcher at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences tells IPS. “Social networking services, especially weibos, have become a very important method for people to adopt and express their opinions. They can pass on information quickly, timely and relatively freely.”

Microblogs influence on the government is becoming increasingly clear, especially since the Wenzhou accident. Sensitive topics often discussed on China’s microblogs include land expropriation, housing demolition, and government corruption. But it was the Wenzhou disaster that has demonstrated just how powerful microblogs – and by extension the netizens who use them – have become.

On Jul. 23, two high-speed trains collided near Wenzhou city, in Zhejiang province, killing 40 people and injuring nearly 200. The accident, and the government’s handling of it, sparked an outpouring of grief and rage among many ordinary Chinese. Particularly galling to netizens were images of part of the wreck being buried before a full investigation could be carried out.

Within five days, 26 million messages about the tragedy had been posted on China’s major microblog services, many questioning the government’s response. Some posted messages wondering whether the government was sacrificing peoples’ lives for economic growth.

Initially, state-owned media focused on stories of rescued babies and only later reported on the public’s outage. This week the government ordered media outlets to drop all coverage of the train disaster that didn’t come from Xinhua News Agency, the government newswire. Some newspapers, influenced by weibo activity, have refused the directive.

The government still closely monitors discussions on weibos and has covertly deployed a small army of web commentators to trumpet the party line. These web commentators operate anonymously and promote politically correct arguments. Many of them do it for money, according to recent international media reports, infiltrating blogs, news sites and chat rooms.

According to media reports, these spin doctors are mostly students looking for extra cash or better chances for obtaining party membership. Others are civil servants, state employees or retirees doing what they see as their patriotic duty. They number in the tens of thousands, according to recent news stories. Last year, Global Times, a government-run newspaper, reported that Gansu province was trying to recruit 650 full-time web commentators to “guide public opinion on controversial issues.” The government sometimes overtly censors information, deleting sensitive comments or barring controversial commentators.

The battle over the flow of information has not deterred netizens, however. In the wake of the Wenzhou accident, the flood of messages overwhelmed censors, which allowed most of the messages to flow freely onto the Internet. The messages spread too fast for effective monitoring, and the government risked an even larger backlash by deleting messages en-masse. Many posts that were deleted have lived on thanks to screenshots.

Pressure from microbloggers forced Wenzhou officials to withdraw and apologise for a directive that local lawyers not accept cases from families and victims without government permission. And after weibo users accused the local government of covering up the accident, the buried train car was unearthed for analysis.

Hu Yong, an associate professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communications, say weibos can serve as an effective tool for ordinary people to communicate with the government.

“The increasing popularity of social media services, like weibos, is a very good thing in China, because there are few chances for common people to talk to officials directly,” Hu tells IPS. “Weibos give them the opportunity to criticise the government’s lack of action, and they can pass on information the moment something happens, all of which will force the government to handle the situation.”

But, Hu adds, “the central government controls China’s Internet. You should know that. The public cannot say whatever they want.”

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