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Rachel Lu

What Happens to Free Speech on Weibo After Real Name Registration?

Weibo = Freedom of Speech” is a powerful equation. It shows what microblog platforms mean for China today. So what happens after March 16, the day of Weibocalypse, when netizens are required to register with their real identities in order to tweet or comment on all microblog platforms in China? 

Tea Leaf Nation was interviewed over email by Sampsonia Way, an online magazine that focuses on the value of free speech and creative expression, on questions relating to the effect of real name registration. Part of the interview is reprinted at the end of this article.

In the time between when the interview was conducted around February 12 and published on February 23, Mr. Han Zhiguo, an outspoken economist we profiled in the Who’s Who on China’s Twitter series, was pressured to leave all microblogs on February 21. He tweeted these parting words on Sina Weibo:

Outspoken economist Han Zhiguo was pressured to leave Sina Weibo on Feb. 21

My time on microblogs has probably entered a countdown. It’s not because I want to shut down my microblogs, but because some people have to obey the edicts of some other people. It has been more than 30 years since reforms began in China, but there is even less room today for speech advocating reforms. This is sad for our nation and tragic for our country. If there is no freedom in criticism, then there is no meaning in praise. A country that does not allow normal criticism cannot become a powerful country. A powerful country does not live in fear! {{Chinese text}} [[Chinese text]] 我的微博可能已进入倒计时,这不是因为我要关闭微博,而是一些人奉承某些人旨意。中国改革30多年了,推进改革的言论却越来越没有空间和余地,这是民族的悲哀和国家的悲剧。批评不自由,则赞美无意义。连正常批评都不能容忍的国家不可能成为强国,强大的国家从来不可能肾虚![[Chinese text]]

Han’s tweet prompted a number of prominent microbloggers, including law professor He Weifang (see his Tea Leaf Nation profile here), to echo his sentiment and wonder aloud whether they too should leave Weibo in a show of solidarity. A netizen with the handle “Middle-aged Che Guevara” (@中年格瓦拉) pleaded with microbloggers not to leave Weibo, writing:

The facts have proven that Weibo is an important battlefront for public opinion. If ‘good money’ leaves, only ‘bad money’ will remain. [Ed: this is a reference to Gresham's law]. The space for speech is already tiny, so we cannot give up on this battleground. Of course the number of my followers is not as high as yours, and I have not been pressured. I will not bow out, and I hope all of you stay and work together.  {{Chinese quote}} [[Chinese quote]] 事实证明微博是重要的舆论阵地,良币走光,只会让劣币占据阵地。我们的言论空间已经很小了,不能再失去这个阵地。当然我粉丝数跟知名度没有各位高,也没受到压力。我不会退出,也希望各位能留下来一起努力。[[Chinese quote]]

 Professor He Weifang responded to Che: 

Professor He Weifang

Thanks for asking me to stay. In fact I have always [tweeted] on a real name basis, so it’s not that I am leaving Weibo out of fear of real name registration. However, I expect Weibo to lose too many netizens after real name registration. No one is sure how to get through the registration process, and those in remote areas or overseas will probably not do so since it’s too much trouble. If people cannot go on Weibo, do they go to the streets? In this country, real names are even required to buy a train ticket; it must be some kind of Guinness World Record. {{Chinese}} [[Chinese]] 谢谢格兄挽留。实际上我一直实名,谈不上因为对实名恐惧而离开。只是,我预料,实名后,微博会失去太多网友。不知手续如何办,那些偏远地区和海外的,嫌麻烦也就不办了也未可知。不上微博,上大街?这个国啊,连买普通火车票都实名,也算吉尼斯纪录了。[[Chinese]]

Selections From Sampsonia Way Interview of Tea Leaf Nation

SW: How will the required registration for Sina Weibo affect the ability of Chinese writers, bloggers, and journalists to share information domestically and globally?

TLN: First of all, many prominent writers, bloggers, journalists, and academics are already tweeting on microblogs on a real name basis. This is why microblogs took off so quickly. Before microblogs, ordinary people did not really have a way to find out what famous people thought in real time. Many of the outspoken ones are already monitored and/or heavily censored; Li Chengpeng being the best example. The new registration requirement probably would not affect what these people write, but it will likely decrease their readership and influence. Not only will ordinary people be limited to one account, if they’re registered with their legal name they will have to think twice about posting or reposting content that might be seen as objectionable.

SW: A report in the Diplomat explains that a lot of Chinese intellectuals and dissidents are no longer using Sina Weibo because they claim it is stifling freedom of expression. Do you think this boycott will help raise awareness of government censorship or undermine the voice of activists?

TLN: Even with rampant censorship on microblog sites, they are still by far the freest form of expression in China today. Yes, some intellectuals have been unhappy about Sina Weibo in particular and have abandoned it (see A Primer on Censorship in Chinese Social Media), but they have moved on to other microblog sites, hoping to create competition among the microblogs and foster debate.

Anyway I don’t think that “a lot of” of intellectuals and dissidents are not using the site. Many still use it and many would get on it if they could. For example, Ai Weiwei signed up with a Sina Weibo account on February 11 and asked his friends to spread the word. He got 2,300 followers in 30 minutes or so. The account is still there right now, though we’re not sure if his tweets are censored. [Ed: the account created by Ai Weiwei referred to in this interview, @艾大虎99, was deleted after three or four days, before the publication of this interview.]

Unfortunately, in China censorship is a just fact of life, like polluted air. People joke about it. People get angry about it sometimes. People deal with it every day. It’s hard to say whether any of the gestures have “raised awareness of censorship.” [Ed: The story of a young mother's entire life on microblog being erased by Sina, reported by Tea Leaf Nation on February 23, however, did raise netizens' awareness of censorship.]

SW: How do netizens work around the censorship? Have they developed any loopholes in the registration regulation?

TLN: Sohu Weibo (another microblogging site) is the only microblog platform that we are aware of that has implemented the registration system. Tea Leaf Nation uses a microblog aggregation service called Wbto to get around Sohu Weibo’s requirements. There is already talk that there will be a marketplace for ID numbers once the registration system is set up on all the microblog platforms. We believe there are always ways of getting around the regulation for the determined, but the government won’t make it easy.

There are certain widely-used tricks to get around censors. One is the use of coded slang, which is always evolving. Another is using English lettering, such as “WK” instead of the Chinese characters for posts about Wukan, the site of a recent uprising. One more is appending a .jpeg to a tweet, where the jpeg file is full of non-searchable text.

However, we believe the biggest “loophole” in the censorship system is the sheer volume of information on microblogs. Once the officials are on to you, they can censor you or block you, but with millions of accounts sending out tens of millions of tweets each day and an infinite number of ways to encode information, it’s hard for the censors to keep up. Let’s hope it stays that way.

[Ed: See also Tea Leaf Nation's article "A Primer on Censorship in China's Social Media," published on January 15, 2012

 

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    things often have the opposite effect of what is intended .. large numbers of real people expressing themselves could be more frightening for the government than anonymous nicknames doing the same.

    • Rachel_TeaLeafNation

      Thanks for your comment Gregory. The government is clearly counting on the power of fear to turn back to the tidal wave of criticism. Netizens with anonymous accounts 
      have shown real courage in speaking out, even though many know that the government can trace their identities now if it wanted to. The real test of their courage will come if the government publicly punish some “offenders” once the real name system goes live.  

      • BobbyDigital

        Han writes: “this is sad for our nation, and tragic for our country.” Is there a big difference between “nation” and “country” in Chinese?

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    things often have the opposite effect of what is intended .. large numbers of real people expressing themselves could be more frightening for the government than anonymous nicknames doing the same.

    • Rachel_TeaLeafNation

      Thanks for your comment Gregory. The government is clearly counting on the power of fear to turn back to the tidal wave of criticism. Netizens with anonymous accounts 
      have shown real courage in speaking out, even though many know that the government can trace their identities now if it wanted to. The real test of their courage will come if the government publicly punish some “offenders” once the real name system goes live.  

      • BobbyDigital

        Han writes: “this is sad for our nation, and tragic for our country.” Is there a big difference between “nation” and “country” in Chinese?

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