China fights to silence the social network
CHINA’S Communist Party has set out to curtail social networking following years of unfettered growth after its top committee issued an edict launching a new drive to control open messaging.
Websites such as Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, have been allowed to grow explosively, with some 400 million Chinese now posting opinions and sharing information.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party, a 300-strong body of party, state and army leaders, has signalled its alarm that there is no equivalent to the Great Firewall that marshals the internet. It promised yesterday to "strengthen the guidance and administration of social internet services and instant communications tools" to ensure "orderly dissemination of information".
Anyone spreading "false rumours" was threatened with stern punishment.
Chinese censors have struggled to keep pace with the websites. As quickly as they delete individual messages, they find that they have already been spread by hundreds, or thousands, of others. "It has been said that China maintains strict control over the internet, but it is actually quite difficult," admitted Liu Yunshan, the head of the propaganda department, in September. "China is faced with an internet management crisis."
Two events appear to have convinced China's leaders that the websites cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.
The government was deeply alarmed by the way the internet was used to galvanise protests across the Middle East, and detained hundreds of activists in the wake of the Arab Spring movement. It is also jittery about the "Occupy" movement that has been sweeping the West.
Already a number of people have been put under what China calls "administrative detention", usually 15 days under arrest. One was accused of writing a fake report about changes to the income tax system. A student was jailed for claiming that cancer had killed eight village officials in Yunnan. A third was detained for writing that a Chinese jet had crashed.
Sites such as Sina Weibo, which was launched in August, 2009, just after China banned Twitter, have quickly become part of the mainstream.
The Communist Party was also unnerved by the sudden amplification of public anger over the internet following a bullet train crash in Wenzhou in which 40 people died. More than 10 million people left comments on Sina Weibo, many of them openly criticising the government's handling of the disaster.
In response to government pressure, Sina has hired 1,000 staff to monitor the flow of messages through its servers.
It has also suspended the accounts of anyone posting controversial content.
Experts said the government was unsure how best to enforce its control. "It is unclear how to strengthen the censorship on Weibo," said Zhan Jiang, a former professor of international news and communications at Beijing's Foreign Languages university.
He said one proposal to force users to reveal their real names would lead to a "tremendous drop in users" and that the "majority of the government" believes there are "more benefits than drawbacks" to having websites like Weibo. "On the technical side, it is difficult to censor Weibo," said Yin Hong, a professor at Tsinghua's Journalism and Communications school. "It is easy to block a link to a website, but it is difficult to scan all the messages for a certain Chinese character and weed it out."
He added that the central government found Weibo a valuable way of gauging public opinion.
"Until now, Beijing has only heard what people think from the reports of local governments. Now they can tap into the opinion of the grass roots," he said. "It allows the leaders to know what people are thinking and talking about."