Within moments of two high-speed trains colliding in Wenzhou City, China, on July 23, users of the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo told about train cars derailed, the violence of the impact, and casualties. In the days that followed, microblogs on Sina Weibo provided relentless and often revealing commentary on the causes of the crash.
The Chinese regime would have preferred that such reporting and commentary be silenced, as it sought to suppress information about the crash, even going so far as to bury train cars that had derailed rather than allow them to be inspected.While microblogs may look to the Chinese people to be a vital new source of information, they often appear to the Chinese regime to be a source of what it calls “toxic Internet rumors.”
The regime recently announced its intention to eradicate such “rumors,” and on Sept. 2, the overseas edition of the state-run People’s Daily published a long commentary stressing the importance of increasing Internet control.
Last week, Sina Weibo sent out notices to its 200 million users saying that two reports posted on its websites were false. The move has drawn strong criticism from netizens that see it as part of the regime’s new campaign to control microblogs.
Beifeng, a famous Chinese blogger, social activist, and former journalist, has charged the regime is carrying out a campaign of disinformation to discredit him. He published an open letter on Aug. 27 disclosing that his Sina account “@Wenyunchao” was suspended because he called for an investigation to identify the victims of the July 23 train crash in Wenzhou.
Recently, another @Wenyunchao account appeared on the Sina microblog with his photo but Beifeng says he did not post the messages. “The intent of planting and framing is very obvious,” he said, via Radio France Internationale.
Beifeng also told Deutsche Welle that there are indications that the regime has identified microblogs that have created difficulties for them because they influence public opinion. To control such unwanted information, nothing is more convenient than labeling it as “rumor,” Beifeng says.
According to New Tang Dynasty TV’s commentator Wen Zhao, microblogging has weakened the regime’s power to control the Chinese people.
The Chinese regime has been able to control public opinion effectively by maintaining full and tight control of traditional media. With a rigid organizational system, which includes layer upon layer of administration, the regime has been able to prevent people from assembling and organizing.
Microblogging, Wen observes, has turned news publishing into a grass-roots movement that doesn’t rely on main media resources that are under the Party’s control, or on traditional organizations to mobilize people to action.
Pu Fei, a long time human rights activist told Radio Free Asia, “The development of new media has played a very important role in China’s human rights movements and citizen movements, as well as social transformations.” He is hoping that the authorities will take heed of the roles played by the new media, instead of suppressing them in the usual manner.
China’s most popular blogger/writer Han Han, however, was not very hopeful. In an article that was removed by the authorities, he jokingly made some bold predictions in January 2010 about the regime’s measures to control the Internet:
“2015: The authorities shut down the Internet completely and introduce computers dedicated to Internet access, which are the only portal for accessing the Internet.
“2016: The Chinese netizen population drops to 1 million. All websites will lead to a single website no matter what URL you type. This single website updates itself based on People’s Daily.” People’s Daily is the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
But according to Wen, the Internet is like an information highway and the regime’s dependence on that highway makes its disabling all microblogs in the near future unlikely.
“When an emergency arises, the authorities can block a section of a highway for a short time, but not permanently, as it could lead to economic collapse,” Wen said. “Nowadays the Internet has become a part of world economic activity, which the regime wants to take part in. It therefore is unlikely to do whatever it wants to the Internet.”
According to Wen, the regime wants simultaneously to enjoy the enormous commercial opportunities enabled by the Internet, while at the same time maintaining strict information censorship.
“However, with the two contradicting each other, the Chinese regime is holding a tiger by the tail. If the regime cannot solve this problem successfully, it might lead to its own demise,” he said.