Wired Up

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Photograph by Michael Christopher Brown for TIME

China's computer generation An Internet café in Beijing

Shortly after Christmas, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opened an account on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog service that, like Twitter, allows users to share short messages of up to 140 characters. Kristof began testing what topics would be censored. He found out quickly. One of his first messages was "Can we talk about Falun Gong?" — a reference to the spiritual movement banned by Beijing. Within an hour of his first post, Kristof's account was canceled.

At first glance it would seem that China's new Internet is a lot like its old Internet. Overseas sites that are deemed sensitive — including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, among thousands of others — are blocked, part of a network of control sometimes called the Great Firewall of China. Inside the wall, Chinese search engines won't, for example, link to content to do with the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or Tibetan independence; also, domestic Internet companies are required to delete any material that the authorities find objectionable. Even as China's Netizens have rushed to embrace Web 2.0, an Internet in which users are more closely and quickly linked by social-networking services, microblogs and free video hosting, those rules have still applied.

Yet consider the case of another Weibo user who recently went silent. Just a couple of weeks before Kristof typed his initial Weibo tweets, Chinese computer scientist Fang Binxing took a stab at microblogging. In a message to the state-television host Jing Yidan, he wrote, "Hello, I'm also on Weibo now, but I won't speak as daringly as you, ha-ha." Scores of other Weibo users showered Fang with abuse. "Let us throw bricks at Fang Binxing as quickly as possible," wrote one commenter. Why the scorn? Fang, the president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, is also known as the father of the Great Firewall for his work developing China's censorship apparatus. In the increasingly freewheeling world of Sina Weibo, where the limits of what users can say are tested daily, Fang was unwelcome. He has since stopped posting messages.

Such is the nature of Chinese cyberspace today: the state pushes, and the people push back. For years, the Communist Party has tried to strike a balance between allowing just enough Internet access to harness the Web's commercial and educational properties, and curbing content that the party reckons challenges its rule or gives citizens "wrong" ideas about greater liberty. As Tunisia and Egypt show, social media can fuel democratic uprisings — one of Beijing's greatest fears. Indeed, in recent days the authorities have deleted public comments to even official stories about the Arab protests and blocked some results for searches of the word Egypt. Control is maintained by the threat of demotion, dismissal or imprisonment. Despite former U.S. President Bill Clinton's assertion that policing the Internet is like "nailing Jell-O to a wall," China's censors have proved pretty adept at doing so.

Now, however, China has more Internet users than any other country: 457 million and counting. Also, the Internet has changed. The way that users communicate on microblogs and social-networking services means that messages, including controversial news stories and calls to action, travel with incredible speed, spread rapidly to a large number of people — and place potentially more pressure than ever before on authoritarian regimes like China's. "It's not a revolution," says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. "But this takes the ability of the Internet to generate public opinion and the scope of information a big step further. It's facing censorship, just as before. But political participation, among other things, has taken a big step forward because of microblogging."

Less Is More
Microblogging in china had its breakthrough moment in February 2009 when an illegal fireworks display touched off an inferno in a building next to the new headquarters for CCTV, the state broadcaster. Official news outlets were slow and didn't know how to handle such an explosive story. At the same time, there were thousands of witnesses on the streets of Beijing who wanted to share their thoughts. Twitter was the ideal format, as its messages are necessarily short and fast. And since Twitter doesn't delete posts, it developed a growing following among Chinese bloggers tired of seeing their content censored, says Zhao Jing, a Chinese media commentator who goes by the pen name Michael Anti. "In China we live in a society without freedom of speech, without a free press," says Zhao. "There isn't any media outlet that can share 100% free press. With Twitter, for the first time you could freely explore your feelings without fear of your words being deleted by others."

This newfound freedom led to a steady growth in the popularity of Twitter and similar Chinese services among users. The authorities cast a wary eye over the new format, but at first refrained from blocking it. Then, in the summer of 2009, two events led to a sudden halt of microblogging in China. June 4 marked the sensitive 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. And one month later members of the Uighur ethnic minority launched a race riot in the far western city of Urumqi that killed nearly 200 people. Chinese authorities said the riots were the work of overseas Uighur separatists and cut off almost all Internet access in the Xinjiang region. Twitter and Facebook were blocked across China, and the domestic microblog service Fanfou was shut down.

The vacuum inspired the Chinese Internet portal Sina to launch Weibo in August 2009. The company had become an early Internet success as an aggregator of Chinese-language news. In 2005, Sina had launched a blog service, which is now one of the world's most popular, hosting some 20 million blogs. But as Baidu began to dominate Chinese Web searches, and Tencent led in instant messaging with its QQ service, Sina needed a new source of growth. When Sina launched Weibo, it quickly exceeded what its U.S. counterpart Twitter offered. Weibo hosted photos and now video, unlike Twitter, which relies on outside parties for those features. Weibo users could not only retweet or relay other users' messages but they could also comment on them and add more information or content. On top of that, the conciseness of the Chinese language allows one to say far more in 140 characters than one can typing in English. "We did a lot of enhancements and innovations," Sina CEO Charles Chao tells TIME. "When it was launched it was a much more advanced product than Twitter. People tend to think this is Twitter. It has a lot of Twitter features, but I think it's more like a combination of Twitter and some features from Facebook."

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