The Cat-and-Mouse Game on Chinese Social Media ; Political Chatter Shifts from Weibo to WeChat to Avoid State Censorship

By Johnson, Ian | International New York Times, July 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Cat-and-Mouse Game on Chinese Social Media ; Political Chatter Shifts from Weibo to WeChat to Avoid State Censorship


Johnson, Ian, International New York Times


For years, Weibo has been used by millions of Chinese to express views different from the government's. But limits there are driving many to WeChat.

CORRECTION APPENDED

For the last few years, social media in China has been dominated by the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, a microblogging service that created an online sphere of freewheeling public debate, incubating social change and at times even holding politicians accountable in a country where traditional media outlets are severely constrained.

But in recent months, Weibo has been eclipsed by the Facebook- like WeChat, which allows instant messaging within self-selected circles of followers.

The shift from public to semi-private communication, abetted by a government crackdown on Weibo, has fundamentally reordered the social media landscape for China's 600 million Internet users, curbing what has been modern China's most open public forum.

"This is a new phase for social media in China," said Hu Yong, a journalism professor at Peking University. "It is the decline of the first large-scale forum for information in China and the rise of something more narrowly focused."

WeChat has its advantages and its defenders. It is less censored than Weibo, and some users say it allows them to speak more freely knowing their conversations are private. Many users relish its added functions, including voice messaging.

In May, though, the government announced that even WeChat's less public space would be more heavily monitored. Saying that instant messaging services were being used to spread "violence, terrorism and pornography," the agency charged with policing the Internet said it would "firmly fight infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad," according to a government statement.

In its heyday, Weibo had promised much more. It came to prominence in 2011 after a high-speed rail crash killed 40 people. Weibo users detailed the mayhem and government shortcomings that led to the accident, part of a surge of criticism that led to the resignation of the powerful railway minister. It was a signal moment in the Internet's coming of age in China, a reminder of how the new medium could challenge even a formidable authoritarian government and one of its most powerful leaders.

Weibo is still important. Edgy news and commentaries are still more easily found there than in the more tightly controlled world of government newspapers or magazines. It also remains popular for following celebrities and gossip. Sina reported that in March, Weibo had 66 million daily users, up 37 percent over a year earlier.

But government figures show that the overall number of microblog users, including Sina and other providers, fell 9 percent last year, with many migrating to WeChat. That shift, along with a general decline in technology stocks, contributed to a disappointing New York stock market listing in April for Weibo, which raised $286 million instead of the anticipated $500 million.

"It's far from what it used to be," said He Weifang, a prominent lawyer and onetime heavy blogger on Weibo with more than one million followers. "You can still find facts on Weibo, or news reports, but the comments aren't as interesting or deep."

One reason is the government crackdown on the so-called "Big V" accounts -- prominent commenters who often had millions of followers. After hundreds were detained, most stopped posting on Weibo.

Other users quit because of the sharp tone of commentary on Weibo, which often devolved into nasty, ad hominem attacks. Some grew tired of the dizzying list of banned terms and the cat-and- mouse games with censors to evade them. For example, "June 4," the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, was banned, so creative minds came up with "May 35" (which would work out to June 4), until that fictitious date was also banned. Such word play amused hard- core aficionados but confused ordinary readers. …

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