Saturday, August 13, 2011

Last hurrah for China's microblogs?

BEIJING: News of last month's deadly high-speed train collision in Wenzhou first broke on China's Twitter-like microblogs. The first 'reports', in fact, came from the passengers themselves. The accounts, which became increasingly emotional and angry as they spread through the microblogging community, intensified public criticism of the government and emboldened the traditional media to write hard-hitting reports. The July 23 rail crash marked a high point for these social media tools which are used by 195 million Chinese - or two-fifths of China's 485 million netizens - and are becoming a force for setting the news agenda. HO AI LI There are about half a dozen microblog providers in China, with Sina being the most influential, followed by Tencent. But will this be the last hurrah for microblogs, or weibo as they are called in Chinese? Already, there are signs that control over these services may be tightened; the less optimistic fear that they may even be shut down. Ten days after the crash, Sina started deleting posts related to the accident, causing terms like 'Railway Ministry' or 'victims' to disappear overnight from its list of most commonly cited words, noted Shanghai-based consultancy RedTech Advisors in its latest report. Last week, state broadcaster CCTV ran a news item that looked at untruths and rumours on weibo. 'What is the moral bottom line of microblogs?' it asked. The broadcaster cited cases in which people went on weibo pretending to be accident victims to ask for donations and also highlighted the work of an online watchdog group called the 'anti-rumour league' or piyao lianmeng. The issue of rumours on weibo has been discussed prominently in the past few days in state newspapers like People's Daily and China Youth Daily. Observers say there are certainly legitimate concerns about the accuracy of information shared on microblogs. 'But the recent language in official media attacking microblogs as a source of rumour is largely politically driven, a reflection of the insecurity some Chinese leaders feel about the implications of social media,' said media expert David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. 'If the real concern was truth and accuracy, the answer would be to open up coverage of stories like the Wenzhou collision, allowing increasingly professionally minded Chinese media to report without restrictions,' he added. Commentators and investigative journalists reported receiving calls from Sina weibo asking them to censor their posts during this sensitive period, blogger Beifeng told German radio Deutsche Welle. He compared CCTV's attack against weibo to its diatribe against Google last year and saw it as a clear sign that Beijing was planning to clamp down on microblogs. If Sina weibo, the most popular and influential microblogging site in China, is closed down, it will not be the first. In 2009, a Chinese Facebook clone, fanfou, was shut down after it was found to have been used by activists to spread information about riots in Xinjiang in north-west China. The Chinese authorities have blocked the use of foreign social media like Facebook and Twitter in the country for fear that these might be used to organise protests. Still, most analysts do not think the chances of a shutdown are high, though a tightening of controls seems inevitable. 'The government won't be stupid enough to do so. Cancelling weibo is equal to cancelling the right of the people to monitor officials, which means corruption will worsen,' said Professor Hu Xingdou of Beijing Institute of Technology. Microblogs are a tool for monitoring officials' behaviour and stem corruption. It would bring Beijing only harm and no benefit to shut them down, Prof Hu added. Not that the officials themselves are necessarily agreed on what to do about weibo, according to analysts. 'The possibility (of a shutdown) is not big, with officials from different departments having differing views,' Professor Zhan Jiang of the Beijing Foreign Studies University told The Straits Times. Some departments are conservative, others are liberal. Even within departments, there are differences, Prof Zhan said. Indeed, CCTV launched its broadside against weibo just as a commentary in state newspaper People's Daily urged officials to embrace new media and learn to speak the lingo of netizens. The popularity of microblogging sites also means that there is likely to be a strong backlash if they are closed down. The backlash may go beyond borders, as the weibo community grows more globalised and plays host to foreign embassies and celebrities as well as the likes of the United Nations. Beijing is also unlikely to jettison the commercial success of its Internet sector by forcing the closure of weibo. For instance, Internet portal Sina has seen its stock and traffic rise on the strength of its weibo. In Sina's case, its strong political connections will ensure that the weibo continues to operate. 'Sina is one of the most trusted Internet companies in China, if not the most trusted by the Chinese government,' said Mr Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based Internet investor and analyst. So much so that its executive vice- president Chen Tong could boast in February that the chances of Sina weibo being closed down would be zero for the next 20 years. Analysts say that tightening control is a more likely scenario. For instance, the Chinese authorities could make it compulsory for microbloggers to register using their real names, noted Prof Hu. Chinese search giant Baidu initially required users of its microblog service to use their real names, but stopped doing so after failing to attract users. Others say the authorities may go after vocal opinion leaders and delay the transmission of their sensitive posts to curb their influence and reach. As the number of weibo users continues to balloon, it would be difficult for the authorities to beef up controls beyond getting state media to wage an anti-rumour war against weibo, said Prof Zhan. What the authorities definitely will not do is sit around and do nothing. 'Since so many people are scared, doing nothing is not possible,' said Prof Hu. With additional reporting by Carol Feng