Censorship has just cost Sina Weibo, China’s premier microblogging platform, two of its major liberal voices. Just days apart, Messrs. Zhang Min and Yu Jianrong, two liberal professors that Tea Leaf Nation has profiled in its series “Who’s Who on China’s Twitter,” have defected to Sohu Weibo, an up-and-coming microblogging platform.
On January 6, after suffering sarcastic remarks from Mr. Chen Tong, Sina’s main man in charge of Weibo, Professor Zhang charged that “Sina is not a friend” because his tweets had been censored and his followers had been “disappeared” on a regular basis. Zhang’s defection appears to have lit a fuse. On January 13, Professor Yu Jianrong announced that he would also stop using Sina Weibo because it “treats netizens horribly.” Other prominent Weibo users have wondered aloud whether to follow suit. Many commentators claimed to support Messrs. Zhang and Yu’s defection by taking the first steps to activate accounts on Sohu and Tencent’s competing microblogging platforms. [Update: On January 16, Professor He Weifang announced that he would stop using Weibo for now.]
It is no secret that Sina, a Nasdaq-listed company which owns millions of dollars worth of media assets, uses a multi-pronged approach to silencing those Weibo voices “not in tune with the main chorus.” Rumor has it that half of all Sina Weibo employees are engaged in monitoring posts for inappropriate or sensitive content, primarily to keep the central government off its back. The standard tricks in Sina’s repertoire include making tweets disappear, deleting comments, deleting followers, hiding tweets from viewers, and blocking accounts and IP addresses.
At least Big Brother has a sense of humor. In lieu of an outright tweeting ban on certain accounts, Sina Weibo will sometimes ask users simple math or trivia questions, ostensibly to verify they are not a spam-bot. But no answer is ever correct. (Q: Which one eats bamboo: a panda or a crocodile? What’s 2 + 4 ? A: no answer will allow you to send out the tweet. Take that, Kafka.)
The news that users may abandon Sina Weibo is a boon to Tencent and Sohu. The two have lagged behind Sina in the race to become China’s premier microblogging platform. Charles Zhang, Sohu’s CEO, has announced that Sohu Weibo will differentiate itself by emphasizing its role as a media outlet, instead of as a social network and gaming platform.
However, it is not clear how Sohu or Tencent will better manage relationships with outspoken users when these providers are under the same pressure as Sina to “harmonize” speech. Microbloggers have voiced doubt that either one will be a better steward of free speech, invoking the Chinese proverb, “All crows in the world have the same dark feathers.” This article (in simplified Chinese) and this article (in traditional Chinese) offer closer looks at how censorship works at the major Chinese microblogging platforms.)
It is unfair, of course, to focus on Sina’s meager bag of tricks when the Chinese government has more fearsome ways of silencing the un-harmonious. The following exchange on Sina Weibo may elicit a few frustrated chuckles from those familiar with censorship in China but may give chills to those who are not. It happened on January 11 between Mr. Pan Shiyi and Mr. Ren Zhiqiang, both outspoken real estate tycoons and avid Weibo users (see Tea Leaf Nation profiles here):
Pan: Today I cheerfully registered to attend the Beijing People’s Congress session, saw tons of reporters there. They said, “the authorities won’t allow us to report on anything relating to the real estate market, can you talk about air pollution and PM2.5?” The reporters then called their editors to get approval, and the editors said “OK, write a long piece.” After a whole morning of interviews, I just got a short message [from the reporters]: “All articles about PM2.5 were shot down.” Now I’m going to cheerfully attend the session.
Ren: I love my country. I love my native land. I love the home where I was born and raised.
Pan: I heard that Ren was “cheerfully” asked to “have a chat.” When he came out, the way he tweets has changed completely.
Ren: Yes, I have become “cheerful.”
On social media and off, the authorities’ efforts to present China as one cheerful family will likely redouble before the decennial change-up of the Chinese leadership in the second half of 2012. Please stay tuned for further coverage on censorship in China as Tea Leaf Nation gets ready to party with the Party.