5 years of Sina Weibo: censorship & Hope for a Free Online Environment
What’s on Weibo gives a peek into a selection of trending topics on China’s biggest social media website: Sina Weibo. What’s on Weibo explains what is trending and why this is, giving the background story on foreground news.
Censorship and the Hope for a Free Online Environment
Sina Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform, will celebrate its fifth anniversary this year. Despite its continuing growth in registered users, the social media site received extra media attention this month due to news of declining online activity.
Different media sources report that Sina Weibo is losing its appeal because of tightening government control. This reignites the political debate that has been going on ever since the emergence of social media within China: does Weibo contribute to (electronic) democratization of the Chinese people, or is it a tool for the government to heighten control over them? What’s on Weibo brings you a short history of 5 year-old Weibo, and an evaluation of its status quo.
Weibo: a short introduction
Weibo (微博, pronounced as way-bo) literally translates as ‘micro-blog’, the most common form of social media in China today. At present Weibo is often used to refer to Sina Weibo, the company that launched its micro-blog in 2009 and registered the weibo.com domain in 2011. Sina Weibo has its own specific layout, but works in a similar way as Twitter.
There is a 140-character limit to every post and there are unidirectional relations between users; one can ‘follow’ another user and read their ‘weibos’ (posts) without being followed back (Koetse 2013). According to recent numbers, the site has 61.4 million daily active users, and is worth an approximate 5.1 billion dollars (Chen&Gill 2014).
The success of Sina Weibo can be partly explained through its cooperation with the Chinese government. Before 2009, a variety of social media networks could be freely accessed throughout China, rapidly gaining popularity. The summer of 2009 marked a turning point when the government blamed micro-blogs for the social unrest and riots in Xinjiang that killed nearly 200 people (Koetse 2013; Sullivan 2014, 28).
Domestic social networks were blocked, along with foreign ones such as Facebook and Twitter. Sina was the first company to collaborate with the government in keeping information flows under control by tracking and blocking ‘sensitive’ content (Koetse 2013; Sullivan 2014, 28). Sina Weibo is a so-called “government-regulated commercial space”: a privately-owned platform that adheres to government rules and meets the elaborate requirements in terms of content censorship and supervision (Sullivan 2014, 27).
Since everything that is allowed to come online and forced to go offline is viewed through a political perspective, Sina Weibo inescapably is a political space.
In practice, this means that Weibo has monitoring software and thousands of employees that actively monitor and censor politically ‘sensitive’ words (Sullivan 2014, 28). The government also employs an estimated number of at least 250.000 people who manipulate online content (Sullivan 2014, 32).
From Cyber Realism to Cyber Utopia
The case of Sina Weibo has received a lot of attention from the media and academic world. Views on social media in China sway from cyber realist perspectives to cyber utopian ideas (2014, 25). ‘Cyber utopian’ is a term coined by Evgeny Morozov in his book The Net Delusion (2011). Cyber utopians believe that “the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor” (Morozov 2011, xiii). The realists, on the other hand, believe that authoritarian governments use the Internet as a tool to maintain control and power.
In the context of China and Sina Weibo, it seems that cyber realists make a strong case. The Great Firewall of China has enormous control over what makes it online and which sites are blocked. In 2013, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on “harmful information” disseminated through popular social media sites such as Sina Weibo, detaining several high-profile micro-bloggers (Freedom House 2013). People can, and are, arrested for what they say on Weibo.
The government has the control to (temporarily) deny or limit access to the Internet and, in times of unrest, have done so (Sullivan 2014, 31). One could argue that the emergence of Sina Weibo has given the government more control than it had in the pre-weibo era, since micro-bloggers can easily be pointed out, tracked and traced. As Morozov argues:
“The web can actually strengthen rather than undermine authoritarian regimes” (Sullivan 2014, 30).
It seems as if China’s politically active netizens are locked in a catch-22: by engaging with Weibo, they might strengthen the regime they oppose and risk their freedom by speaking out. But without engagement or discussion, further liberalization of China’s Internet halts.
Many users have abandoned Weibo in favour of Weixin (微信), a Whatsapp-like instant messaging app that supposedly offers “greater privacy” (Skuse 2014); messages are not posted publicly, but are directed at individual friends or a selected group of contacts. Despite Weixin’s seemingly high privacy level, it is also censored by authorities (Chao 2013; Kennedy 2012).
Online commentators predict that the more influential Weixin will become, the more the government will harness it – another vicious circle.
So should politically active netizens close their accounts? Do the realists win the China social media debate? Not necessarily so – at least not from the cyber utopian view. Despite strong censorship, Weibo is still a powerful source of information and a strong platform for journalists and opinion makers.
Digital in the Round author La Paglia (2013) already stated how many of China’s netizens are politically informed about government regulations and, striving for more freedom of speech, are resourceful in how they use their language when discussing politically sensitive issues in order to avoid censorship.
Chinese journalist Jiao Bei has written an account on Weibo and Chinese journalism, stating that Weibo, with the assistance of journalists, plays a big role in the dissemination of information and the mobilization of collective social action; and, in doing so, contributes to more liberalization.
Over the past few years Weibo has seen many examples that prove her argument, such as Weibo stories on forced demolitions or corrupt officials. Even when content is blocked, speedy netizens spread news via email, blogs or instant messaging (Shirk 2008, 91-92).
Online writer Su Xiaohe warns netizens that abandoning Weibo in fear of government control will only hamper a further liberalization of the Chinese web. Switching to the more private Weixin does not help. As he says:
“From the perspective of freedom of expression, imagine Weibo as a public space, such as a square. Weixin is like being at a private banquet. Weakening Weibo has caused public expression to fall again. People who curse on Weixin are more timid, and only bear the suffering in their hearts. Those who continue to speak out on Weibo are perhaps the real watchmen of freedom of speech” (NTDTV 2014).
The emergence and spectacular rise of Sina Weibo might not have led to a Twitter-like liberal and free online environment. However, Weibo did contribute to a more open online debate of many societal issues, and has brought forth a better-informed online audience. In the first decade of China’s social media era, it might not be the cyber utopia many had hoped for, but at least it is a start.
Bei, Jiao. 2013. “How Chinese Journalists use Weibo Microblogging Investigative Reporting.” Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. University of Oxford (View PDF).
Chao, Eveline. 2013. “All Eyes Are on WeChat, Including the Chinese Government’s.” Motherboard (March 14). Accessed March 3, 2014.
Chen, Lulu Yilun and Sarah Gill. 2014. “Sina Weibo Value Estimated at $5.1 Billion After Posting Profit.” Bloomberg News (March 3). Accessed March 3, 2014.
Freedom House. 2013. “China’s New Leadership Declares War on Social Media.” Freedom House (September 2013). Accessed March 3, 2014.
Kennedy, John. 2012. “Hu Jia explains why mobile apps make activism spooky.” South China Morning Post (November 15). Accessed March 3, 2014.
Koetse, Manya. 2013. “A Short Introduction to Sina Weibo.” What’s on Weibo. Accessed March 3, 2014. .
La Paglia, Giulia. 2013. “How do Sina Weibo users avoid censorship?” Digital in the Round (Jan 23). Accessed March 3, 2014.
Morozov, Evgeny. 2011. The Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Allen Lane: London.
NTDTV (中国电视新闻网). 2014. “Weibo Posts Drop By 70%: Will Weixin Replace It?” NTDTV/Youtube. Accessed March 3, 2014.
Shirk, Susan. 2008. China: A Fragile Superpower. New York: Oxford University Press.
Skuse, Adam. 2014. “WeChat: The Chinese chat app stealing Weibo’s thunder.” CNN (Feb 27). Accessed March 3, 2014.
Sullivan, Jonathan. 2014. “China’s Weibo: Is Faster Different?” New Media Society (16)1: 24-37.
Zhang, Zhan, and Gianluigi Negro. 2013. “‘Weibo in China: Understanding its Development Through Communication Analysis and Cultural Studies.” Communication, Politics & Culture 46: 199–216.