Thursday, September 8, 2011
China Has Moved To Control Tide Of On-Line Criticism
Beijing has moved to stem a tide of online criticism by tightening its grip on China's hugely popular microblogs, but experts say it will struggle to control the country's online masses.
China, which has the world's largest on line population with 485 million users, constantly strives to exert its control over the Internet, blocking content it deems politically sensitive as part of a vast censorship system.
But the huge and rising popularity of weibos microblogs similar to Twitter that have taken China by storm since they first launched two years ago has posed a major challenge to the censors.
More and more Chinese people are turning to weibos to vent their anger over government corruption, scandals and disasters in a country where authorities maintain a tight grip on the media.
Though censors, many employed by the companies themselves, erase offending messages from the web as rapidly as they can, some stay online for hours or days before they are caught.
Weibo users more than tripled in the first half of 2011, official data showed. Internet giant Sina.com said last month its weibo, by far the most popular, now has over 200 million users.
Weibo users can post commentary on others' messages, videos and images including pictures of sensitive documents that might otherwise be censored allowing information to spread rapidly in a country of 1.3 billion people.
A train crash that killed 40 people in July sparked an outpouring of public fury on the weibos, where thousands demanded to know why more care had not been taken over safety on China's flagship high-speed rail network.
The scale of the response appeared to take authorities by surprise. Shortly after the accident, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of China's Communist Party, urged officials to use the weibos more to communicate with the public.
Weeks later, Beijing's most senior Communist Party official, Liu Qi, visited the offices of Sina and Youku, a Chinese site similar to YouTube, to urge them to stop the spread of "false and harmful information".
Xiao Qiang, media scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, said the weibos made it easier for individuals to speak out, and harder for censors to pinpoint troublemakers.
China's leaders have made countless speeches in recent years urging the country's state-run media to become more open and less reliant on state subsidies, as they respond to the growing availability of information online.
The rise of microblogging has also forced changes in the way traditional state-run media operate.
Many newspapers were unusually critical of the government in the week that followed the July train accident until Beijing's official propaganda department ordered them to stop.