When a Chinese netizen railed in a microblog post at the official claim that lightning caused last month’s deadly train collision near Wenzhou, he probably expected the snarky post to be shared and laughed at among his followers.
“Blame it on the lightning? You think that we are idiots? Why not just say it was Voldemort?” the microblogger wrote, referring to the archvillain of the popular Harry Potter book series.
But in a matter of minutes, the post disappeared, seemingly having vanished into thin air as if it had never existed.
That post and millions of others like it on Sina Weibo are removed every day, even weeks after the crash, as the Chinese communist regime steps up its crackdown on online discontent over the bureaucratic ineptitude and graft that caused the accident.
“Censors are deleting fast and furiously at Sina’s microblogging platform Weibo to kowtow to government sensitivities about the recent train crash in Wenzhou,” a report released on Tuesday by RedTechAdvisors, a Shanghai-based research and consulting firm on Chinese technology, reveals.
In the hours and days that followed the tragic collision on July 23, Sina Weibo was flooded first with reports of the crash, then sympathy for the deceased and the injured, followed by trepidation over riding trains, and eventually sharp anti-regime grievances.
When mass sentiment of microblog messages reached the last stage—of frustration and anger—the Chinese Communist Party, which does not tolerate dissent, put its foot down. Sina was coerced into widespread self-censorship.
“The ham-handed way in which Sina is executing the cleansing implies pressure from the government,” the RedTechAdvisors report said, adding that the frank discourse prompted the authoritarian regime’s “tightening of Weibo’s leash.”
Aside from simply deleting posts critical of the regime, Sina also purged trash crash-related topics from its list of popular topics several days after the incident.
For 10 days, until Aug. 1, the top few hot topics on Sina Weibo were all related to the Wenzhou collision. (“Railway Ministry,” “victims,” and “spokesperson” were the top three on Aug. 1.) But on Aug. 2, these trends were mysteriously toppled by “Chinese Valentine’s Day,” the news anchor “Yansong Bai,” and “FIBA [Fédération Internationale de Basketball] World Championship,” according to the RedTechAdvisors report.
Sina Weibo claims 90 percent of the microblog market in terms of time spent, mostly because it’s “so good at rooting out scandals,” the report notes. Chinese netizens have relied on Weibo to post controversial and candid information about social and political issues ranging from exposing corruption to satirizing government propaganda.
Sina Weibo’s boom has Beijing fretting. The Communist Party has been keeping an increasingly wary eye on the site, its members, and their predilections ever since a wave of independent candidates declared in June that they were seeking to gain a seat on local People’s Congresses without the support of the Party.
In the past, Sina Weibo banned but a handful of topics, like Falun Gong, Taiwan independence, and Chinese Premier Hu Jintao’s bald spot, the RedTechAdvisors research note says. Even a search for any of the aforementioned topics would bring up nothing.
But more stringent measures in stifling Internet dissent demonstrate that the Communist Party is on the offensive, dictating to Sina Weibo that its list of prohibited topics shall expand to anything that might threaten the ruling Communist regime’s stranglehold on public discourse.“The train crash has not only confirmed the power of microblogs in China, but also revealed just how much candid discourse the central government will tolerate,” the report said.
“The line in the sand is now clear. … The central government as an entity is off limits.”