We often refer to Sina Weibo as “China’s Twitter” here on Tea Leaf Nation, but the analogy is not a perfect one. Weibo has many innovative features that Twitter lacks, and offers even more premium services for paying users. What most distinguishes the online culture of Twitter’s Chinese counterpart, however, is the scope, scale, and nature of censorship present in the system. Sina employees may delete posts, block keyword searches, disable key features, suspend users’ posting privileges, or, as in the famous case of Weibo celebrity Zuoye Ben, delete accounts.
Account deletion is one of the harshest forms of censorship on Sina Weibo, as it not only silences expression but severs genuine connections between users who have dedicated a large portion of their free time to sharing and storing the details of their lives online. This threat, in turn, brings about a degree of self-censorship that is impossible to quantify, but also inspires unique and creative ways to comment on controversial issues.
In the event of Weibo account deletion, however, netizens still have a solution: re-registration. The process is known in Chinese as “reincarnating,” or joining the “Reincarnation Party.” A quick keyword search for “Reincarnation Party” (转世党) on Sina Weibo returned this recent comment, posted by @西门不暗: “‘Dissidents can’t be dissidents forever; we are dissidents because we don’t want to be dissidents,’ – Aung San Suu Kyi. This one is for Sina Weibo’s Reincarnation Party.” Wrote another self-professed Reincarnation Party member, “[We] post…100,000 times a day against authoritarianism; each post is retweeted 30 times, for a total of three million posts.” Despite the pervasiveness of censorship, netizens continue to post, repost, register and reregister, speaking out against government-backed censorship.
So persistent and pervasive is the Reincarnation Party that it has its own entry in Baidu Baike, Baidu’s answer to Wikipedia, which defines the group as “those users who register new IDs after having their accounts deleted or posting privileges revoked for long periods of time. They add a number to indicate how many times they have reincarnated, such as ‘Life2‘[二世] or ‘Life3’[三世], after their original names to protest [the censorship].” Reincarnated users are thus easier to find, since a search for their original names will yield their new account, while other users have registered hub accounts solely to assist reincarnated users reconnect with their followers.
Baidu Baike’s entry on the Reincarnation Party also notes that “This group has become a headache for Sina, since the company cannot deal with the problem effectively. On December 16, 2011, the Beijing municipal government issued new regulations requiring all groups or individuals creating Weibo accounts to use their real names, but only time will tell how effective the real-name registration policy is at controlling the Reincarnation Party.”
Indeed, despite much hand-wringing in China-watching circles, Sina’s real-name policy has been implemented only sporadically. Even Sina has admitted that it simply has not been able to comply fully with the government’s demands. The company made efforts to codify the process of singling out individual users for censorship in May, but implementation remains uneven.
The real-name registration policy traces its roots back to the early 2000s, when China’s Internet censors first began to cut their teeth on the popular online communities known as BBS forums; the restrictions led to a sharp drop in the sites’ popularity. When Tsinghua University’s popular BBS fell victim to these new restrictions, some users held an online memorial service, saying the rules had killed the site’s culture. Perhaps Sina fears that complete enforcement of the unpopular policy will be the beginning of the end, with users who left BBS forums for Weibo fleeing Weibo for the next big social network.
For now, the cat-and-mouse battle between the censors and the censored continues on Weibo. Netizens’ willingness to keep posting and reincarnating shows their confidence in their ability to circumvent censorship, and their conviction that doing so serves an important purpose. As Wu Wei (pen name Ye Du), vice president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (and six-time reincarnater according to his Weibo handle) remarked, “Every single reincarnation spreads freedom, dignity, and knowledge of right and wrong a little further; each one shows just a bit more the truth behind the ‘moral superiority’ of officials. That is how freedom comes into being: bit by bit.”
There are no widely available studies on how effective the Reincarnation Party is at disseminating information. A recent Harvard study by Gary King and others showed that China’s censorship is far from straightforward. There is no single set of rules, no single method for removing unwanted content, and in turn there is no single solution to the problem. The phenomenon of the Reincarnation Party may not defeat online censorship all by itself, but it provides one window into the way ordinary netizens are pushing back creatively against the silencing of expression.