By Lara Berendt
Twitter might limit social media posts to 140 characters, but microbloggers in China face a different order of restriction.
Sina Weibo—China’s most popular microblogging platform—functions similarly to Twitter in terms of post-length limitations, but it’s also subject to the censorship rules of the Chinese government.
“If you input sensitive words like ‘government,’ ‘police,’ or ‘officials,’ your post can’t be published,” said Feng Jie, 27, while visiting a Shanghai shopping mall.
Both microblogging giants—Twitter in the West and Sina Weibo in China—have become bastions of global social-media culture. But compared to the relatively free atmosphere of online expression enjoyed by more than 300 million Tweeters, there are widespread reports among Sina Weibo’s 140 million users that site administrators sometimes delete entire strings of posts.
Twitter might soon face direct competition from its Chinese equivalent—in early June, Sina Corp. announced plans to launch an English-language site to draw overseas users. Although many avid microbloggers believe Sina Weibo has better photo, video and social networking integration than Twitter, skeptics say these features won’t be enough to convince overseas users to sign up for censorship.
“I think that if Sina launches an English-language site, it will never be able to compete with Twitter,” said Martin Guo, new media director at the Shanghai Daily newspaper. “It’s probably an effort for them to show Western investors what they’re doing in China. A good story to sell.”
Jia Dai, a Ph.D. in communication who is slated to join Tsinghua University’s journalism school this fall as an assistant professor, said China is seeing brewing social conflict but has few avenues where people can vent their resentment, making Weibo—the Chinese term for “microblog”— a prime vehicle for expression.
“Like other Internet platforms, Weibo is under the censorship and surveillance of the Chinese government,” Jia said. “Various control strategies are employed to ensure that it does not carry dissent and threaten the stability and safety of the Chinese Communist Party rule.”
While Feng said she uses Weibo to broadcast her shopping and dining activities and share photos with friends, she thinks microblogs can also be a powerful tool for publishing breaking news.
“When my friends see breaking news occur, they publish it on Weibo for everyone to view immediately,” she said. “Nowadays, we don’t even watch TV news. The freshest news is on Weibo.”
Despite these feelings of empowerment, Feng and other young Chinese expressed resignation at the state of media censorship in China.
“What a civilian can do is maybe just respect it and accept it,” she said. “I think, to some extent, in this area, capitalism is better than socialism.”
Cai Ying Ying, another Shanghai shopping mall patron, said she and her friends use Weibo to find information about tourism, food, makeup—in short, for fun. While she expressed resentment toward the government’s muzzling of Internet content, she had little hope of seeing change anytime soon.
“I can’t accept the government’s policy because everyone should be free to speak,” she said. “But in the future, I don’t think the policy will change. I think the government will continue to forbid people from posting things that are politically sensitive.”
Twitter’s role in this spring’s Middle Eastern uprisings has been an example to China’s leaders of the potential for social media tools to facilitate political organizing. Site traffic on Twitter grew to over a billion messages per week during this time and hasn’t dipped below that level since. The Chinese government has responded by cracking down on political activists and foreign journalists, and by further tightening Internet restrictions.
“Oftentimes the Chinese government can get away with implementing controls that people from the outside would regard as totally unreasonable,” said Pan Zhongdang, professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Social media tools such as Weibo and Renren, the Chinese Facebook counterpart, have changed the way people in China circulate and disseminate information, Pan said. The change has been confined to coastal and urban regions, among the more educated, affluent populations. Social media has been widely used to circulate political satire and jokes, but it’s also been used to incite harmful nationalistic sentiments, he said.
“The degree to which social media could somehow bring democratizing changes to Chinese people’s lives is not that encouraging,” Pan said. Most Chinese social media use is for entertainment purposes and as a way of advertising social status, he said.
Zhang Xia, 22, said she reads about fashion on Weibo, follows Lady Gaga and other celebrities, and keeps up with friends who live in cities throughout China. She said Weibo also provides a platform for raising awareness about disadvantaged members of society, such as the poor and disabled.
“I think that under the current conditions, we lack the freedom to speak,” she said. “I want change and want to have more rights to speak freely.”
Many Weibo users, go further than complaining about ongoing censorship, and choose to openly criticize or furtively protest against it, Jia said.
“A normal strategy of Weibo users to counteract the censorship is to use euphemisms,” she said. “That is, words or phrases that can’t be realized as sensitive by the cyber police’s search engine, but can be understood by their readers to have a political meaning.”
Reform-minded Chinese microbloggers might be left largely on their own to toil toward democracy one ambiguous post at a time. There are others who don’t share their activist sentiment.
Zhang Yun Tao, 28, said microblogging is merely a tool, that it’s not really that important, and that young people should be careful to avoid becoming addicted to it.
“In my opinion, censorship by the government is a must, because of our one-party system,” Zhang said. “I think under the Chinese system, civilians don’t have a right to judge a thing. What’s important is whether our lives continue to get better.”
Jia remains hopeful that social media tools such as Weibo will play a role in effecting reforms in China.
“Although the comments and critiques made by Weibo users usually take the form of a compromise of what they want to say with what the government would allow them to say, it presents voices and opinions that would otherwise go unheard,” she said.
“The more people begin to engage in publicly talking about these issues and bring up solutions collectively, the deeper the aspiration and sense of democracy in their mind. In this sense, I think Weibo has the potential to be a tool for political change in China.”