Analysis: China seeks to tether the microblog tiger

Sep 15, 2011, 9:59 p.m.
Members of the SWAT police force ride motorbikes past a policeman standing guard on the road surrounding Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 6, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - Mao Zedong famously said a single spark could start a revolutionary prairie fire. That fear is now driving his Communist Party successors to grapple with how to tame China's expanding legions of microbloggers.

A stream of warnings in state media has exposed how nervous Beijing is about the booming microblogs and their potential to tear at the seams of party censorship and controls.

Chinese microblogs, especially Sina Corp's dominant service, carry plenty of celebrity gossip and harmless fare. But they also offer raucous forums for lambasting officials and reporting unrest or official abuses. It is their potential to stoke popular discontent, even protest, that worries Beijing.

"The government feels it's on the back foot about this," said Li Yonggang, a professor at Nanjing University who studies Internet policy, adding researchers and think-tanks had been mobilized to study how to strengthen microblog management.

"There's a feeling that additional regulation, formal or informal, is on the way."

The number of Chinese users registered on domestic microblog sites reached 195 million by the end of June, an increase of 209 percent on the number at the end of 2010, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

Most use Sina's "Weibo" service, launched in August 2009, or rival Tencent Holding's "QQ" service.

Officials, however, have not been singing the same tune about how far the government should go to rein in microblogs. Dozens of rival agencies claim a stake in regulating China's Internet and "there are certainly different stances," said Li.

Some officials have decried "Weibo" (pronounced "way-baw") as a tool for reckless rumors and subversion; others have defended it as a challenging, but much-needed, window into the public soul.

Despite the jitters, Beijing is extremely unlikely to close microblogs, a step that experts said could unleash its own prairie fire of public anger and distrust that would give even China's thick-skinned leaders pause.

"There's this Chinese proverb, 'qi hu, nan xia' (once riding a tiger, it's hard to dismount), and that's the problem the government has -- that it got onto this thing, allowed it to start, and now to shut it down, that would be a nuclear option," said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based investor and adviser on China's Internet sector who runs the DigiCha.com blog.

"It would be surprising if they kill it or completely neuter it, but I think a likely outcome is a set of incremental tweaks and controls," Bishop said of Beijing's approach.

"You've got to remember that this is basically a real-time stream of what Chinese people are thinking, and that's not just incredibly valuable to people who care about public opinion, but also for those monitoring security problems," he said.

Stricter controls could include time delays so comments are more finely filtered before spreading online, and demanding at least some classes of users register with their real names, which many do not do now, said several industry analysts.

Beijing also could impose new license conditions on microblog operators, slimming down the number of players to a more manageable and compliant number, some analysts also said.

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