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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

"Microblog regulation will be a game of cat and mouse," said Wang Junxiu, a Beijing-based Internet investor and commentator who follows debates on China's microblogs.

"There's clearly a trend toward stricter controls, but the costs of outright shutting them down would be too high."

A MEGAPHONE FOR EVERY CITIZEN

Ever since the Internet arrived in China, the Communist Party has been figuring out ways to monitor and restrict online information and images, and its controls are among the most sophisticated and pervasive in the world. China also blocks popular foreign sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

But the explosion of microblog use has pushed China's contest over information into unfamiliar terrain, where censors have lagged like pot-bellied and puffing hunters left flatfooted behind hordes of fleeing rabbits.

Microblogs allow users to issue bursts of opinion -- a maximum of 140 Chinese characters -- that can cascade through chains of followers who instantly receive those messages, challenging censors who have a hard time monitoring the tens of millions of messages sent every day. Inventive users adopt alternative words to get around censorship filters.

"We have no other venue for speaking out, because the public's voice can't appear on television or news or newspapers, and so microblogs have become the most effective way for instantly expressing the heartfelt feelings of the public," said Liu Zicheng, a 20-year-old student trawling through his microblog on a web-connected cell phone in a Beijing cafe.

"If my microblog was shut down, it would be like I'd lost a habitual part of life, like putting on socks every day before you step out the door," said Liu.

Beijing's worries go beyond the embarrassing exposes of officials' misdeeds and mistresses now common on microblogs. It worries that the torrents of messages could overwhelm censorship and trigger unrest -- a fear reinforced by the role of social media in Arab anti-government uprisings and riots in London.

"Weibo can be like a megaphone in the hands of every user," said Li, the Nanjing University professor.

"If you shout fast enough and loud enough you can attract widespread attention and there can be a snowball effect so everyone joins in and feels bolder about speaking out."

China felt that force in July when microblogs became a forum for lashing the government over a deadly high-speed rail crash. Images of a peaceful protest against a north China chemical plant in August also spread on microblogs.

Earlier this year, searches and message forwarding on Sina's "Weibo" site were briefly suspended during government alarm over online calls for protests inspired by the Arab uprisings.

"At present, microblogging is still tolerable to the government, but there is a fear of a potential crisis such as the London riots," said Wang Wen, a newspaper commentator in Beijing who has advocated tighter management of microblogs.

"If there's a collective incident related to microblogs, the government will step up management of it."

NO SHUT DOWN

But China's leaders would consider shutting microblogs only in extreme circumstances, such as nationwide protests or panic, said Yu Guoming, a professor of journalism at Renmin University in Beijing and co-author of a recent study of microblogging.

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