It’s spring outside, but a chill wind is blowing through the Chinese blogosphere. After the government shocked observers with a Friday night crackdown that saw 16 sites shuttered for “spreading malicious rumors” with “negative social effects” and over 1,000 people detained for “Internet crimes,” frost is beginning to creep across China’s cyberspace.
News of the crackdown may be familiar to many readers by now. A much-ballyhooed real-name registration system began to take effect two weeks ago, but it did almost nothing to quell the candid speech and wild rumors which had become the hallmarks of China’s Twitter-like Weibo platforms. Meanwhile, chief Weibo providers Sina and Tencent honored the letter but not the spirit of the government’s dictat by shooting real-name registration so full of exceptions and inexplicable glitches that it resembled Swiss cheese.
Killing the Chickens (and the Ducks, and the Geese)
While it’s hard to know which straw China’s government considered the last, it clearly was not amused by this state of affairs. Many had speculated it might respond by “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys,” a Chinese expression for making an example of an expendable few to cow the many. Instead, the government stalked angrily around the farm, eviscerating all the chickens, ducks and geese unlucky enough to darken its path. It not only shut down sixteen (relatively minor) sites, but appears to have given the order for Sina and Tencent to temporarily suspend their beloved “comment” feature, which usually allows discussions to proliferate – not uncommonly comments can number in the thousands – around any eye-catching or controversial tweet. The message was clear: Overstep the line, wherever it may be at the time, and there will be consequences.
There’s no question users are unhappy. Well-known blogger Ma Xiaolin (@博联社马晓霖) excoriated the government for “abusing power” and “destroying its own image” by “punishing innocent bystanders for the actions of millions of netizens.” Famous investor Wang Ran (@王冉) asked rhetorically: “Why do the U.S., the U.K., Japan, even today’s Taiwan and Hong Kong … all not fear rumors?” As Tea Leaf Nation reported, one netizen was shocked by these events into writing a love letter to Weibo. The question is how netizens will respond in the long term.
A New Normal?
To a limited extent, netizens have adapted. With commenting disabled (at least) until Tuesday, April 3, netizens have instead turned to retweeting, then adding their own gloss. A characteristic example occurred this April 1st. The normally-liberal microblogger Wang Gongquan (@王功权) chose that particular day to tweet a series of stolid party-line statements exhorting the masses to “stride chin up and chest out along the great path toward Communism.” Others quickly caught the joke, retweeting en masse and adding a “Happy April Fool’s Day!”
But that doesn’t mean netizens are tweeting quite like they used to. Something feels different: Fewer tweets, thinner commentary, and a greater profusion of movies, movie stars, TV shows, and other light fare on the trending topics board. To wit, current trending topic #2 on Sina Weibo: The Public Safety Department press office and Sina Weibo jointly present safe travel tips for Qing Ming Festival. Riveting!
It’s impossible to say when this chill will end. Sina and Tencent both maintain the comment suspension will cease promptly at eight o’clock on Tuesday morning, but one can easily envision a “trial extension” under thin pretexts. Huang Jinghao (@黄京皓), a close Weibo watcher, offers these predictions for a Weibo sans comments: “1. Official accounts won’t be greatly affected, and retweeting won’t be affected at all; 2. Celebrity accounts won’t be greatly affected, as fans will retweet their tweets no matter what; 3. The grassroots will be the most affected. Originally many friends would chat with you via ‘comments,’ now that is not possible.” He ends by asking, “Would you still use a Weibo … this boring, with only celebrities and official accounts?”
Some will simply say, “No thanks.” In targeting comments, censors may have found Weibo’s Achilles Heel (read: its best, most democratizing feature). It allowed netizens to comment on any other tweet, or on another comment, without the implicit endorsement that a re-tweet often confers. Fewer re-tweets meant that popular comments were less likely to proliferate on a user’s feed and drown out competing but worthy voices. Stripped of this feature, Weibo becomes more Twitter-like, resembling a lecture more than a group conversation.
The chilling effect will likely continue, even if the comment suspension is lifted as promised. Some hard-core netizens are doubtless champing at the bit to re-avail themselves of the comment feature, which still dangles un-usable at the end of every Sina and Tencent-powered tweet, a vestigial reminder of just what users are missing. But slightly more timid netizens, perhaps once encouraged to vent their spleen by the loud voices commenting around them, may now begin to shrink.
The government (or is it the providers?) are also apparently going after certain opinion-makers, moving beyond a “real-name” policy to a “no-name” policy. The Sina, Tencent and Sohu Weibo accounts of Professor Zhang Ming, whom Tea Leaf Nation earlier profiled as “a vocal and often profane critic of the government and its treatment of history,” have all vanished. Opinion makers had fled one platform for another before, but it appears the inter-platform competition to lure big names by offering a less censorious hand has effectively ended. Other famous tweeters, leery of losing their soapbox altogether, will surely keep Zhang’s fate in mind.
If these trends continue, Weibo may yet defy hopeful predictions to instead become what netizens fear most: Cheery, synthetic, and to quote Mr. Huang, “boring.” That may actually be bad news for an oft-cloistered government for whom the blogosphere can act as a handy gauge of public sentiment, not to mention a useful pressure relief valve for steamed netizens. Hopefully, reformers in high places will convince hard-liners it is in their interest for Weibo to become only slightly more boring, rather than leached of all vitality.
We may begin to know sooner rather than later whether this chill is the result of a temporary frost or a new ice age. The government may play fast and loose with the pledged April 3 reactivation of comments; if it does, hard-liners are likely winning the back-channel conversation. If comments reappear, more remains in doubt. Some netizens may stay away regardless. Or they may creep carefully back onto the stage. Or they may rush back, as millions of flowers (not to mention nettles) shake off a false winter. No matter what, Tea Leaf Nation will be there, silently watching as always, parka zipped, suntan lotion in its back pocket.