Has the music just stopped? Mere days ago, Tea Leaf Nation remarked upon the relatively unrestrained speech taking place on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platforms, even after the beginning of real-name registration. This speech included rumors of a high-level coup in Beijing.
China’s government has just responded, and the results aren’t pretty. As party mouthpiece The People’s Daily reported on Friday:
“In recent days, some law breakers have maliciously spread rumors of so-called ‘military vehicles in Beijing, something happening in Beijing,’ etcetera. A minority of websites have broken the relevant laws and regulations of China. A lack of management led to the spread of rumors, causing bad social effects. … The Department of Telecommunications has … shut down 16 rumor-spreading websites according to the law.” [A Chinese-language video of a stone-faced CCTV anchor announcing the matter is available below.]
But the crackdown didn’t stop there. The announcement continues that Weibo providers Sina and Tencent have been “seriously criticized and punished.” Were they contrite? The announcement adds, “The two websites stated that they would conscientiously carry out the relevant requests, and take corrective measures to further strengthen their management.”
[Update: As of 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 31st in China, both Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo do not permit directly posting a comment on another's tweet, a function both interfaces normally share that Twitter lacks. On the two sites, efforts to comment now meet with an announcement that the feature has been suspended until 8:00 a.m. on April 3rd. Sina's does not say why, but Tencent's announcement make clear the suspension is because of "rumors."]
Netizens responded with anger and typical irreverence. @下流社会上等人 fumed, “This isn’t fair. Time was SARS was called a rumor, and it turned out to be true.” @下流社会上等人 complained, “Everything in China is backwards. Rumors aren’t shut down, and what’s true is shut down.” But @帝都二货 defended the government, tweeting, “It’s okay to seek democracy, freedom, and criticize the government. But you can’t spread rumors!”
@高超_ offered a humorous take, writing that shutting down websites spreading falsehoods “means that we’ll discover tomorrow that Xinhua and CCTV.com aren’t reachable.”
How and why are Sina and Tencent still breathing after today’s maelstrom? Perhaps @绅士豪情 put it best, tweeting, “Other sites have been shut but Sina is still there, this shows how formidable they are.”
To borrow Wall Street parlance, Sina and Tencent’s Weibo platforms may be “too big to fail,” or at least to fail quickly. Their tremendously populous and influential platforms are always subject to Chinese government dictat, but it will not be a simple matter to shut the two down. Instead, as Tea Leaf Nation wrote earlier, censorship is an extended negotiation between the Chinese government and those providers, as it pushes them to censor as much as their user bases will tolerate.
That does not mean, however, that the Chinese government doesn’t know how to play hardball. This latest move may be just the first shot across Weibo’s proverbial bow. Parts of China’s blogosphere will likely enjoy only restive sleep tonight as they wait to see what the powers that be do next.