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China’s microblogs braced for tighter regulation

September 27, 2011

Kathrin Hille in Beijing

China’s leading microblog is developing systems to simplify the control of content and make the wildly popular social media tool less of a risk to social stability, its chief executive has said.
“Over the past two to three months, we have been looking into how to establish a trust system,” said Charles Chao, chief executive of Sina Corp which runs Sina Weibo, the country’s most active microblog. He cited the way vendors on e-commerce websites get rated by their customers as a potential model.
Mr Chao’s unusually forthright remarks confirm that tighter regulation is on the cards for China’s microblogs following a series of incidents where the outlets became forums for fierce criticism of the government.
After a high-speed rail crash which killed 40 people in July, live witness reports and comments from the crash site via Weibo repeatedly forced the authorities to adjust their handling of the accident, including the rescue effort and compensation of victims’ families.
Last month, Weibo was used to organise a large-scale demonstration in the northeastern city of Dalian against a toxic petrochemical plant, which subsequently forced the authorities to promise a relocation of the factory.

Earlier this month, the 15-year-old son of an army general attacked a couple after a traffic dispute, and threatened bystanders not to call the police. Spread nationwide via Weibo, news of the incident triggered outrage over the arrogance of the country’s wealthy and powerful, and the young man was swiftly arrested, tried and sentenced last week to a year in a juvenile correctional facility.
Such incidents have fuelled debate within the authorities over how to regulate the microblogs, with one camp demonising them as a forum for evil rumours and another stressing their beneficial functions in promoting transparency.
Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said efforts by Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, to push transparency and information disclosure within the government had produced a certain momentum that could not easily be undone by more conservative forces, such as the Communist party propaganda apparatus.
Still, Mr Chao said the microblogs posed a “very serious challenge” for the government’s efforts to filter information and control society, and that many rumours spread through the services created “huge damage” to individuals and to the government.
“We will hand out different degrees of punishment to those who spread malicious rumours,” Mr Chao said, adding that the more prominent and widely respected microbloggers could act as a moderating force within the blogosphere, if complemented by a more reliable regulatory regime.
Analysts see Sina’s moves as the clearest sign yet that pressure on the operators is rising. But most play down fears of a shutdown of the microblogs, and two years after the start of Sina’s microblog, the regulatory regime for this segment is maturing.
“I think it’s impossible that [the authorities will] shut down the microblogs,” said Mr Zhan.
Most industry experts agree that there is a broad consensus within the authorities that the net effect of allowing the internet to grow is positive to the regime and to the country.
“We have found a Chinese way of having news portals and blogs, and we will find a Chinese way of having microblogs,” said a Communist party propaganda official.
Part of this solution with Chinese characteristics is that Twitter is blocked in China and those microblogs that are allowed are operated by companies that have long proved their willingness to help the authorities filter content and tame users.
Since central, provincial and local authorities share responsibility for internet monitoring with the private companies that host content, microblog censorship has been as inconsistent as that of other parts of the internet.
But overall, controls are tightening, says Cheng Yizhong, founder and former editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily and one of China’s most respected journalists. In a famous microblog post earlier this year he ridiculed social inequality and curbs on freedom of speech.
Apart from regularly having his posts erased, he recently found that his posts were delayed, remained hidden from other Weibo users unless searched explicitly, and that some other Weibo users were stopped from following him.
“The trend is for ever stricter checks and ever more new technical means of control,” he says

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