David Wertime

Why China's Twitter Hasn't Lost Its Mojo (Yet)

Keep dancin', the music hasn't stopped

Let the music play on. It’s been just under two weeks since real-name registration began to go into effect for China’s microblogs, or Weibos. To be sure, two weeks is not a long time. Many cities have yet to implement real-name registration; this author is still able to tweet and re-tweet from his anonymous and unauthorized Weibo account. 

Yet the past dozen days have been tremendously active ones in Chinese social media, providing a wealth of preliminary evidence about Weibo’s continuing viability as a platform for speech and channel for grievances.

In that time, there have been breathless rumors of a coup overthrowing Chinese leadership at the highest levels, candid discussion of whether, and when, China’s regime might collapse, and live blogging of an alleged showdown with riot police in Shanghai on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog platform.

Why has real-name registration not done more to chill speech? 

1. The perceived “price” for free speech online is low.

As some legal scholars say, “a fine is a price.” Let’s say the government fines you $50 every time you park in front of a fire hydrant. Eventually, you may come to view that $50 as the price for parking in front of a hydrant, and if you’re willing to pay that price, then you feel entitled to park there.

Something similar seems to be happening on Weibo. Many microbloggers openly wonder whether their most “subversive” tweets will be “harmonized,” i.e. deleted, and they seem to worry about little else. As a result, they may feel entitled to post what they want; after all, the censors can always delete it.

Are they right? Not exactly. There are cases of netizens being punished or detained for what they tweet (see Chinese-language reports here and here). But such cases have been rarely been documented or reported, and the vast majority of netizens have likely never heard of these cases or don’t think it could happen to them. In the future, the government may choose to punish some high-profile users (or as the Chinese say, “killing chickens to scare monkeys”) in order to make clear there are real penalties for online speech.

Making a clean getaway

2. The penalty for “unharmonious” speech has not changed, yet

Classic criminal law theory holds that would-be criminals (or in this case, would-be free speakers) consider two things: The severity of the penalty, and the likelihood of actually being caught and having the penalty enforced. Here, real-name registration does nothing to increase the severity of any penalty for speech.

Some microbloggers may reason that real name registration doesn’t make detection more likely since they know that their IP addresses could be traced by the government if it really wanted to find them before real name registration took effect.

3. As a tool of dissuasion, real-name registration targets the wrong population.

The most high-profile users with controversial views–those most likely to incur the government’s wrath–either know how to avoid detection, or don’t care enough to try. 

Many high-profile opinion leaders on Weibos have always used their real names. They dance very close to the edge of permissible speech, and real-name registration does not itself move those boundaries. They value their status as opinion leaders and want to be known by their real names. They also want to keep tweeting comments that are provocative enough that their fans keep reading and retweeting. 

A small minority of netizens are determined to evade detection can still do so. They not only use anonymous Weibo handles and anonymized IP addresses, but tie their Weibo accounts to cell phones that are not traceable to them and ID numbers that don’t belong to them. (And other legerdemain we don’t know about.)  

4. The government faces a collective action problem.

You're outnumbered, sir

China’s government can’t arrest, or even question, everybody at once. Let’s say China’s Internet police number 100,000, which probably overstates their numbers. Let’s say that users of Tencent, Sina and Sohu Weibo collectively number 200 million real, unique users, which is almost certainly too low. That’s one censor for every 2,000 unique users.

If Weibo were filled with nothing but fifty-centers and red book-waving Maoists, that would be enough. Netizens would face a collective action problem; the rare few who wished to venture “unharmonious” opinions would quickly be spotted. Each microblogger caught and punished for their speech would further reinforce a frigid status quo. Dissidents would be shouting their lonely j’accuses into an echo chamber.

Instead, a different, more raucous set of norms has already taken hold. Netizens use Weibo as a space to air complaints, and as a platform for political discussion that might be deemed subversive were it found in China’s increasingly-ignored traditional media. Surrounded by so much bile, wit, and revelry, netizens feel comfortable raising their own voices. 

As a result, China’s government faces its own collective action problem. Censors are overwhelmed by an endless stream of millions upon millions of “unharmonious” tweets, many wrapped in highly-evolved slang that makes automatic detection impossible. Ironically, the more an individual tweets and the closer to the proverbial line those tweets lie, the more the Weibo community as a whole is protected.

5. Sina, Sohu and Tencent follow the money, and users are money.

Much of the media chatter surrounding real-name registration will tell you that the government is forcing users to use their real names, but that’s not precisely true. Instead, China’s government is requiring the operators of microblogs, such as Sina, Sohu and Tencent, to implement a real-name registration system.

More users = more money = more mojo

That’s a crucial difference. Sina, Sohu and Tencent, all publicly-listed companies, certainly don’t want the government to put them out of business, but they are still for-profit companies. The number of actively engaged users is directly related to the cash value those companies can ultimately extract from their Weibo platforms. In some cases, the platforms themselves compete for the most, and the most high-profile, users, who tend to consider a platform’s relative level of freedom when making their choice

The result: Censorship isn’t a government order, but a set of ongoing negotiations. The government negotiates with large, influential companies to bring their users to heel. Those companies then carry out an ongoing, unspoken negotiation with their own users, censoring just enough to keep the government off its back, but treading lightly enough that netizens won’t rebel. 

Netizens <3 Weibo

6. Netizens Love Weibo, with a capital “L.”

Speaking your mind on Weibo still takes guts. The potential “price” for speech is real, and netizens have shown real backbone in standing up for their principles–even if it’s to help one person they have never met.

But a funny thing happened in the last couple of years: Weibo became a community. Netizens use Weibo to search for a missing girlfriend, or to mourn a loss. It’s a place where people go when they feel introspective, or angry, or lonely. It’s a second home. And people don’t give up their home without a fight.

At the same time, home is also where people feel most vulnerable. Just weeks ago, Sina deleted the account of a young mother with the handle Mozhiguo as punishment for one errant tweet. Her account had included years’ worth of pictures and heartfelt entries detailing the growing pains of her baby girl. 

Mo Zhiguo’s account was ultimately restored after netizen tempers flared. But censors are surely aware of the leverage it gains over users who store volumes of personal memories online, and it is a question of when, and not whether, they will seek to use it.

For now, however, the music plays on, and netizens are tweeting like it’s still 2009. It’s a privilege (dare we say right?) they will not give up easily.  

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.