Wired Up

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Photograph by Michael Christopher Brown for TIME

China's computer generation An Internet café in Beijing

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Squeezing the Flow
One other feature that separates Weibo from Twitter is censorship. Though it is now blocked in China, Twitter still has a dedicated community of users who access it via proxies. Some Chinese Twitter users are political activists, while others have joined to follow Twitter users ranging from the Dalai Lama to the Japanese porn star Sola Aoi, who began tweeting in Chinese last year before opening a Weibo account of her own. What unites them is a desire to read and write what they want. That freedom doesn't exist on Sina Weibo. Messages that touch on sensitive subjects, like Kristof's question about Falun Gong, are taken out. And users who repeatedly stray into forbidden territory can have their accounts terminated. In his interview with TIME, CEO Chao was reluctant to address questions about the extent of censorship on Weibo: "I will tend to not answer this directly. You probably know what's going on."

Sina's ability to control content on Weibo is what allowed it to launch the service so soon after its main microblog competitors were blocked by the censors, says Berkeley's Xiao: "Sina came around to say, 'We can do it. We have all the experience, the resources, the technology and capacity to host this application but also keep the content under control.' So Sina got that permission ahead of everyone else." To track and block content, Sina Weibo employs up to 700 censors, Xiao estimates, on top of software that monitors for sensitive words.

Despite its self-censorship, Sina Weibo has proved hugely popular. In October 2010, 14 months after its launch, the company reported 50 million users. And it is adding about 10 million new users a month, Chao says, which would have given it 70 million by the start of 2011. (Twitter, which was launched in July 2006, reached 50 million users after three years of operation; it had 175 million users worldwide by October 2010.) Last year several Chinese Internet companies initiated competing services, most notably Tencent, which says its user numbers now rival Sina's. But Sina Weibo has remained China's leading microblog service thanks to its early start and the many celebrities, CEOs and sports stars who use it.

Sina Weibo's sheer size and growth have helped it become a somewhat freer platform because censors cannot easily keep track of the explosive growth in content. Chen Tong, Sina's chief editor, complained about the burden that growth places on the company's censors, telling an industry meeting in Hubei province last June that monitoring Weibo's content was "a real headache of a problem."

The Last Character
That Sina Weibo users can sometimes outrun the censors, if only for a short period, has made it a format where users go to publish edgier material and push personal causes. Chinese citizens who believe they can't win justice in local courts have traditionally traveled to regional capitals or even Beijing to petition higher authorities. But it is an often fruitless and occasionally perilous endeavor, as their pleas are usually ignored, and local police will track down petitioners to force them to return home.

In September, a family in Jiangxi that was protesting the forced demolition of its home used Sina Weibo to broadcast its story. Other members attempted to travel to Beijing, but were blocked by police. So they contacted a local reporter, who told their tale on Weibo. Then one family member, Zhong Rujiu, opened her own account, and her reporting on the case and on the death of an uncle who set himself on fire eventually led to the sacking of several local officials.

Then there was the Christmas Day death of Qian Yunhui, a villager in Zhejiang province who had clashed with local officials over compensation for land appropriated by an energy company. Qian was crushed by a truck in what police first said was an accident, but a witness claimed that thugs had pinned Qian to the road. A group of lawyers and citizen journalists conducted their own investigations, which they relayed on their Weibo accounts, reinforcing widespread suspicions about the official verdict.

The central government and some provincial leaders have praised the supervisory role of citizens on the Internet. The country's first white paper on corruption, which was released in late December, praised the "positive role played by the Internet in enhancing supervision." There are limits, of course. "Some things which are important to the central regime, like Falun Gong or the Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo, they will do everything to block," says Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and author of the book Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China. "On the other hand, the central government likes Netizens exercising pressure on local government corruption and land issues. It's good for the central government." Far from undermining the authority of the Communist Party, freedom in cyberspace, or at least some small measure of it, may actually be enhancing it. Part tug-of-war, part ebb and flow — so goes the world of China's Internet.

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