China’s Tug of War Over Freedom of Speech

By He Qinglian
Microblogs quickly waxed and waned as a hoped-for vehicle for free expression in China. After Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks played a key role in the Sudan election in April 2010, the Chinese regime realized the danger microblogging posed to its rule.

At the 8th Chinese Internet Research Conference held in June 2010 at Beijing University, “Twitter Politics” and the “Synchronizing Nature of Microblogging” were discussed.
“Twitter Politics” refers to how most of China’s politically active individuals, including overseas dissidents and democracy activists, were all Twitter users. The words and discussions of these individuals influenced other Chinese online media and traditional media.

“Synchronizing nature” refers to how some people were able to connect the scene of protests with online discussions in real time.
Even though the regime saw how microblogs had the potential to spread information outside of its control and to mobilize people, the four largest Chinese domains were allowed to open up online microblogging services. Financial interests were pressing for microblogs, and Beijing was confident in its ability to tame the Internet, having years of experience in controlling it.
In less than two years, China entered its golden age of microblogging.
The domain administrators seem to have spent quite some efforts in convincing the regime that microblogs provided benefits for the state.
The “First National Annual Report on Government Microblog Usage,” published Jan. 10, reported that 2011 is the “First Year of Chinese Government Microblogs.” Weibo accounts by government agency or officials increased by 200 percent compared to 2010.
The SINA microblog (also known as Weibo) confirmed nearly 20,000 Weibo accounts by state agencies and officials. Based on these numbers, the regime seems to be trying to build Weibo into a platform for “improving relationships between officials and the general public,” as the annual report suggests it should.
Chinese netizens, government officials, common citizens, and even foreign observers, have all stressed the ability of Weibo to “discuss government management,” but each group has a different understanding of what this means.
Many government officials became laughing stocks after opening Weibo accounts. A Jiangsu Province official was found to be chatting with his mistress on his microblog. The 20-year-old Guo Meimei’s microblog post bragging about her wealth and her connection to the Red Cross brought shame to the entire Chinese Red Cross.
In its efforts to control public opinion on the microblogs, though, the regime has still encouraged officials to open microblogs, even holding training classes on microblogging, hoping to improve interactions between officials and the general public and improve the image of the state.
However, these officials’ microblogging accounts have had very little real effect. “In government microblogs, one-third never posted any messages, and over one-half made less than 10 posts,” reported China Economic Weekly last December.
Some mainland scholars who care about the country, including some active media professionals, have used the microblogs to spread advocacy for freedom and democratic ideals. Some of these scholars and media professionals have tens of thousands of fans. Their influence on the microblogs far exceeds that of celebrities and sports stars. Some of these accounts are closely watched by the regime and frequently shut down.
After comparing social media in mainland China and the United States, some observers found that the political inclination of the Chinese microblogs might be due to differences in the social systems of the two countries.
Nielsen, the media research firm, published a Sino-U.S. comparative study of microblogs, pointing out that traditional media outlets in China are blocked, which makes the microblogs’ unique ability to distribute information very attractive to ordinary users.
This unique ability has been tamed. Under the strict control of the Chinese regime, micro-blogs’ political abilities in China have been mostly demolished.
Weibo had its most successful political influence in the aftermath of the high-speed train crash in Wenzhou City in July, 2011. Netizens posted all sorts of information and images immediately after the incident, showing the general public what had happened.
Afterward, the Chinese regime enhanced control over Weibo.
During the incident in Wukan village, Guangdong Province, in the autumn of 2011, when the villagers kicked out Party officials, the regime censored all words related to the incident and restricted some influential Weibo accounts from posting any comments.
For instance, my Weibo accounts did not let me upload articles, and I could only read messages—I couldn’t post.
With these measures, the regime stopped the “synchronizing nature” of microblogs from becoming activated again.
To reduce the risk of microblogs to the minimum, the regime started in December 2011 to require personal identification for each microblog account. The major domains closed many microblog accounts that were seen as politically sensitive. The four Weibo accounts I had in China were all closed. After these measures, many Weibo accounts not registered in the users’ actual identities were closed.
In a normal country, the fundamental government entities must communicate with the general public. In the war for controlling press and information freedom, Beijing has won a number of battles. But I believe it can’t avoid losing in the end.
NOTE-- First published in Chinese on the website Chinese Human Rights Bi-Weekly ( with abridgement.
He Qinglian is a prominent Chinese author and economist. Currently based in the United States, she has authored “China’s Pitfalls,” which concerns corruption in China’s economic reform of the 1990s, and “The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China,” which addresses the manipulation and restriction of the press.

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