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China’s Social Media Challenge: Censorship

Microblogging has now become the most popular social networking tool on China’s media landscape. Its compelling power is particularly reflected in recent coverage of the Neo-Maoist Chongqing leader Bo Xilai’s sudden downfall. Bo Xilai’s “Chonqqing Model” for development had attracted much attention; but so has the alleged involvement of his wife in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011 and the scandal that emerged after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, sought overnight refuge at the U.S. Consulate in February 2012.

Due to the absence of real content on the state media (except for several news releases), social media such as Sina Microblog have taken advantage of the information vacuum to serve as public platforms for spreading innumerable, confirmed or unconfirmed, sensitive messages including entertaining, juicy gossip about the political saga in this major southwestern city.

Thanks to digital technologies, the Chinese media industry is being shaped by new media and the semi-independent metropolitan journalism which is affiliated with conventional state media outlets is being eclipsed in the rapidly evolving market.

Chinese government has strongly controlled journalism, as well as new media and social networking services, with a huge censorship apparatus and comprehensive laws and regulations. The Internet service suppliers are mainly responsible, themselves, for censoring and moderating published content in accordance with official requirements so as to avoid legal liability and economic punishment from the government.

However, over the past several years the Chinese government’s obsession with control of the media has had more difficulty in enforcing censorship given its market-based economy, diversified society and digital realities. Meanwhile, more and more citizens have become aware of the possibilities of free expression, and are pushing the limits of restrictions and challenging censorship. Nor should one fail to mention a net-savvy generation that is adept at climbing over the government’s firewalls and roaming about the overseas Chinese websites.

As of December 2011, China boasted 513 million Internet users including 356 million who were using mobile devices. There were nearly 2.3 million websites in the country, according to official data. Among the leading Chinese web portals providing Twitter-like 140 word microblog services, Sina Weibo has gained popularity as the most influential social networking service with a total of over 300 million registered accounts generating more than 100 million posts every day.

Sina Weibo users vary from popular opinion leaders such as professor, lawyers, journalists and writers of different political stripes to hundreds of thousands of anonymous users from all walks of life including overseas Chinese. Organizations such as some Fortune 500 companies, international media and foreign embassies also use Sina Microblog for communicating with the public.

Microblogging highlighted its powerful, compelling role as social media when it spread information regarding the recent Chongqing incident. The allegations about Bo Xilai and his wife shocked the country at a time when the tug of war within the Party was underway over the leadership transition that is slated to finalize at its convention scheduled for the autumn of 2012.

Out of fear that the new revelations of the Chongqing scandal may cause political and social instability, authorities launched a new campaign to speed up censorship mechanisms. This has left website moderators with the tough job of setting up new keyword filters and deleting countless messages deemed to be false information or malicious rumors. At the same time, security services have punished some of those who distribute what the authorities call fabricated rumors. Li Delin, a Beijing financial magazine editor, was detained in late March for his Sina Microblog post about army vehicles on Beijing streets, which suggested a military coup was likely.

To avoid a blockade of sensitive terms as well as punitive measures from security services, defiant microbloggers have been playing cat-and-mouse games with censors by using encoded words as substitutes like “governor” for the Party secretary Bo Xilai, “sergeant” for police chief Wang Lijun and “Guild Hall” for the U.S. Consulate. Once a sensitive word is censored, there are many more stocks of characters from which to choose. Interestingly, one anonymous blogger deliberately wrote about this political drama in elegant, succinct Classical Chinese, thus totally circumventing sensitive keyword filters.

Under pressure from the authorities, social media services have had to tighten control of defiant microblog writers with a variety of punishments from deactivating comment functions to suspending or closing down accounts. Meanwhile, for fear of losing users, the service providers including Sina have put off real-name registration required by the regulator, thus slowing down the government efforts to end microblog anonymity.

Yang Haipeng, a high profile former Shanghai-based journalist, was one user whose Sina accounts were disabled. The closure cost him more than 247,000 followers of his blog. Since early February 2012, Yang’s microblog had provided what he called confirmed information about the Chongqing incident, making his microblog one of the most active forums and drawing applause from his pro-democracy elite peers and thousands of eager followers, but also strong opposition from Chongqing Model defenders. Yang came to fame last year as he resorted to Sina Weibo to fight for his landscape designer wife Mei Xiaoyang’s innocence on her controversial bribery case.

Sina management tightened its grip but didn’t intend to stifle dissent on popular platforms. Using his back-up account in his daughter’s name, Yang continued posting sensitive contents. He soon attracted over fifty thousand followers. In May 2012, more surprisingly, Yang posted an essay written by his daughter for the local online contest and it was highly recommended on many Web sites. In the essay, the nine-year-old praised the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, for his cordial manner when Lock chatted with her at an American art show in Shanghai just days before her mother’s sentencing. Posting such an essay could be translated as a very bold, clear manifesto on the part of Yang’s family considering that Lock was then under a barrage of criticism from Beijing media in the wake of the legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s six-day asylum in the U.S. Embassy.

At the other end of the political spectrum of the Sina microblog space are a large group of Neo-Maoist admirers including several well-known professors, journalists and vehement advocates of Xilai’s Chongqing model. Sima Nan, a freelancer, is a staunch defender of the ousted Chongqing leader and blunt critic of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao for his pro-democracy stance, particularly following the recent suspension of several popular pro-Maoist websites for their attacks on the Party leadership.

Sima’s partisan views constantly trigger controversy that bring harsh, even offensive, comments from angry opponents. Over last several months Sima was under heavy fire for his flattering remarks about the new North Korea leader Kim Jong Un during his April visit to China and for his often indiscriminate attacks on Western values and American policy.

Ironically, it is widely rumored that Sima’s child and another family member are living in the US. This anti-American media figure has neither denied nor confirmed the story in his microblog — particularly after online posts and pictures showed that Sima’s head was accidentally injured while taking an escalator at Washington DC airport during a trip to the U.S. during the Chinese New Year. However extreme his partisan microblog is, Sima has still secured almost half a million followers.

Grappling with competition from traditional mainstream journalism, the new media have striven to appeal to a web-savvy generation with an innovative mix of hard news and soft features. The 163.com site stands out with its elaborate selection of news coverage relating to sensitive social and political issues ranging from rampant government corruption to a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

One popular function on the 163.com site allows online readers to comment under pseudonyms. Any news item can easily receive thousands of comments and eyes-catching news will draw yet more entries. Most posted comments are sharply or sarcastically critical of social realities and government policies; however, there are also thousands of noticeably pro-government posts from organized commenters and many offensive, nasty politicized attacks that elude moderators.

Many high-profile trials have felt the huge impacts of online journalism and public advocacy for justice. The controversial Wu Ying case underscores this trend. A public uproar was ignited when this 30 year-old Zhejiang businesswoman was convicted in January 2012 of charges that she ran a Ponzi-like financial fraud and was sentenced to death immediately. Readers’ commentary sections on 163.com were overwhelmed with sympathy for this young woman (who was treated far more harshly than a party member would be) and outrage was directed at the local government and the legal system. This intensified following the new revelation that Wu’s confiscated assets were sold at undervalued prices right after her arrest and that all buyers were local officials and their family members.

Along with thousands of pleas online, many prominent professors and legal experts spoke out against the flawed judicial system, calling for leniency and furthermore pushing for the abolition of capital punishment for white-collar crimes. Eventually public anger had hit the mark. In April the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, sending her case back to the Provincial Court for re-sentencing. One month later Wu got a two-year reprieve from the death penalty.

It’s a safe bet that with digital technologies fostering citizen journalism in China, the impacts of challenging censorship and pushing for more freedom of press will definitely be felt beyond the social media sphere.

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Weixin Lu
Weixin Lu is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a focus on China and East Asia issues.