The Regulation of the Chinese Blogosphere

This is another in a series of blog posts produced by the PhD students in my Public Intellectuals seminar being taught through USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

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The Regulation of the Chinese Blogosphere

by Yang Chen

On September 9, the highest court and prosecution office claims that non-factual posts on social media that have been viewed more than 5,000 times, or forwarded more than 500 times, could be regarded as serious defamation and result in up to three years in prison.

This new law reflects the tense relationship between the government and the emerging and yet proliferating online public sphere. As one of the 500 million registered users on Weibo (the most popular tweet-like microblog in China), I feel a hint of nervousness. Normally my posts would be read around 500 times – which is far less than the 5000 quota – but Weibo is an open space where anyone can view and comment on any posts. Thus I have to be much more cautious about what I post in order to keep myself out of trouble.

I hope you won’t ridicule my timidity. Everybody has to be cautious, because the first account user who got arrested for violating this new law was an ordinary 16-year-old schoolboy, whose posts questioned the police’s negative act in a case and a conflict of interest in the court (Further information, go to China detains teenager over web post amid social media crackdown). But other than this poor boy from Junior School, there are a group of people who are much more nervous towards this law – the Big Vs.

Who are the Big Vs? Big Vs are the opinion leaders who actively engage in the discussion of political, economic, and social issues online. These prominent figures are followed by more than a hundred thousand netizens on Weibo. Unlike other grassroots users’ hidden identities, these users are verified by the website with their real names and occupations, and there is a gold “V” mark beside their account names that stands for “verified.”

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Because these Big Vs are followed by a considerate number of Weibo accounts, their posts or reposts can reach a much larger audience than that of grassroots user accounts. As a matter of fact, though verified accounts only represent 0.1% of the Weibo accounts, almost half of the hot posts (posts being commented more than 1,000 times) were written by them. Thus instead of a We-media platform, Weibo is more like a “speaker’s corner” for the Big Vs; their posts easily get reposted and commented more than ten thousand times. Although everyone has the same rights of free speech on Weibo, some people like the Big Vs speak much louder than the others.

Of course, with real identities and huge popularity online, they are also much easier target for this new law. Let’s take a brief look of what happened to some of the big Vs recently.

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Most Big Vs are Chinese venture capitalists and investors; they would put their properties at risk if they go against the government. Thus not surprisingly, there has been an inclination that the Big Vs chose to cooperate with the government.

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After an account is verified and branded with a “V,” the website fits the account into categories such as education, entertainment, business, and media. The verified account enters the “House of Fame” under that certain category, and be recommended to general accounts which are relevant to that category. This move leads to closer connections among the people under the particular category and would simultaneously distance people in the other categories.

Earlier this year, the website has asked all users to fill in their education backgrounds and the newcomers to register with their phone number. This move would also allow the website to identity users’ background information and recommend them to people who have similar backgrounds. As a result, highly educated individuals are communicating with other highly educated individuals; individuals with lower education, with lower educated individuals.

Due to this classification, a user who follows a verified Weibo account will recommend the verified account to members within their groups, so people end up following the same verified accounts. This system creates information barriers. For instance, the likelihood that a high-educated member will recommend a verified account with lots of helpful and accurate information to a lower educated member who is in another group is slim. The lower educated member may never be given the chance to increase his or her access to information, although both are using the same networking service.

Users are also separated by geographical location. Individuals from northern regions are speaking to individuals also from northern regions; individuals from southern regions, to individuals from southern regions. Each user is matched into groups based on the user’s characteristics and is subject to an environment where the user can only meet other users similar to the user. From this process, these groups are drifting further and further apart from one another.

Not surprisingly, I have found out that users from outside the country also are segregated from domestic users as well. When I first come to US, I have registered a Weibo account using my U.S. mobile phone number. I found out my posts have been deleted very often secretly without any explanation from the website. It is even more ridiculous that on my personal page, everything looks fine, but on my followers’ page, these posts secretly disappeared. If my friend had not told me, I would never have known.

A screenshot from My follower’s page

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The Screen Shot from My Page

As I have shown, the post in the red circle was shown on my personal page, but deleted in my follower’s page. I found the similarity of my “deleted” posts: all of them having the common word “activity,” since I were spreading the information about USC’s upcoming events – some of these events are not even related to China or Chinese regime. Because some of these posts were deleted the second after I posted them, I guessed that a strong automatic filter system was applied to my account – maybe because my U.S. mobile put me into a more sensitive position. I was right! After I changed my mobile number into a Chinese domestic number, I never encountered another deletion. The segregation is really simple, yet effective; there’s no doubt that the censor system creates more information barriers.

The big Vs constitute the verified accounts that each followed by millions of people, that make them serve as the “links” among different groups. Controlling these links means further isolating the different groups and getting a tight grip on the information flow on Weibo.

The purpose of the policy maker is to develop a regulated and peaceful internet public sphere. However, we should bear in mind that the word “peace” doesn’t equal  “quietness” or “weakening voices.” There are obviously problems to be solved, voices to be heard. If tears were burried deep in one’s heart, it doesn’t mean the wound is not there anymore. I will end this blog with an old saying in China, “防民之口,甚于防川:” it means if you trap water in a stream, there would be a disastrous flood; if you shut up voices from the public, a worse disaster would be waiting ahead.The old saying is from thousands of years ago, but the words transcend time and still apply today; the Chinese regime should still take lessons from the wit of our ancestors.

Comments

  1. It is indeed a very good article on Weibo.
    However, there are several minor factual mistakes that, I believe, need to be pointed out.
    1. Sina Weibo started the classification procedure last year, requiring all newcomers to register with ID card number and their telephone number.
    2. Even though the Big Vs are much easier to be targeted on the surface, ordinary netizens like me are the real targets. What the authority needs is what we call the chilling effect: netizens are less like to post or comment without 100 percent confidence on the credibility of their sources.
    3. Besides, based on what we have seen, the most comment strategy is to charge those Big Vs with nondefamation-related reasons, like prostitution. That is not a new trick.

    I also found a very interesting ponit about this topic. Recently, Renmin Daily (the biggest official peper of Chinese regimes) released editoral to warn provincial governments not to abuse the new law. [Generally speaking, scholars in China are inclined to equal Renmin Daily’s editorial with the voice of politic leaders.] The inconsistency between the editorial and the new law must mean something, but I just do not know what it is.