Government Appears To Crack Down on Microblogs and Blogs

August 6, 2010

An apparent government crackdown on microblogs and blogs in China reportedly began in mid-July 2010, involving service disruptions at major microblogging sites, removal of the blogs of well-known activists and lawyers, and increased monitoring of journalists' blogs. Blogs and microblogs have become increasingly popular in China, with hundreds of millions of users.

In mid-July 2010, a government-linked crackdown on the use of microblogs and blogs on the Internet in China reportedly began. Blogs are personalized Web pages on which users provide running commentary on all kinds of topics. Microblogs (weibo) allow users to post messages containing up to about 140 characters at a time and to follow the postings of other users (see the Chinese search engine Baidu's definition here), much like Twitter elsewhere. (Twitter is blocked in China, although some citizens obtain access through circumvention tools.) According to mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, and foreign media, recent actions taken against microblogs and blogs in China include:

  • Disruptions in the microblogging services of at least four major Chinese Web portals - Sina, Sohu, NetEase, and Tencent. Microblogging services at these sites were reportedly suspended for maintenance, or switched to testing (or beta) mode, according to a July 16 New York Times (NYT) article. A July 15 South China Morning Post article (subscription required) said that "beta version generally means that the system is still unstable and might need maintenance for some time." Microbloggers at Sina, which reportedly has 20 million users, discovered that links to foreign-based Web sites would not work, the NYT article said. Sohu's microblogging site went offline for maintenance from July 9-12, and users were unable to conduct searches or link to sites other than Sohu, NYT reported. According to the NYT article, employees at two of the Web portals said "the latest tweaking was in response to direct pressure from Chinese Internet authorities to bolster their systems for monitoring content." A July 15 report in Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post cited unnamed industry insiders as saying the latest measures were the result of pressure from regulators. According to a July 14 Reuters article, company sources told the news agency that tightening government restrictions were the cause. NYT reported that other employees at the companies denied any tightening of control by saying that the services had continuously undergone testing from their inception, although the NYT article said "they had no clear explanation for why they had not noted so previously." A source at Sina who refused to be named told Global Times that the reversion to testing mode had nothing to do with government pressure, according to a July 15 article. A survey of reports on the issue found that virtually all sources refused to be named (or were not named) and that government officials could not be reached for comment, reflecting the opaque environment in which Chinese officials regulate and censor the Internet. (See also July 15 articles in Associated Press (via Washington Post) and South China Morning Post (SCMP, subscription required).)
  • Requirement that the microblogging services delete posts and user accounts that touch upon sensitive political issues or pornography. The July 15 SCMP article reported on the deletion demands, quoting one insider as saying, "We believe this round of control is just a warning [to all portals]." Another SCMP article on July 17 reported that mainland microblogging sites also were asked recently to impose greater self-discipline, and that microblog searches now displayed fewer results and, in the case of sensitive topics, sometimes no results. The July 15 Associated Press article reported that dozens of blogs for prominent rights advocates and bloggers were suddenly shut down, including those of rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and legal expert Xu Zhiyong. The July 16 NYT article said that the rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan had one of his blog posts removed within five minutes.
  • Targeting of journalists' microblogs. The July 17 SCMP article reported that Sina's microblog service had been ordered to verify the accounts of journalists at traditional media outlets. Verifying which accounts belong to journalists will make such microblogs easier to monitor, according to a media analyst cited in the article.

The media reports offered possible reasons for the crackdown, including increased concern over loss of control over these types of online social networking tools, possible plans by officials to subject these sites to greater regulation, and journalists' use of these tools to post information not allowed to be published in their newspapers. The reported crackdown also came shortly after the July 7 release of a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on new media that alleges that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook may be used for subversive purposes and exploited by Western intelligence services, according to a July 9 Global Times article and the July 17 SCMP article.

Social networking media such as blogs and microblogs have become popular in China in recent years. According to the official China Internet Network Information Center's latest report on Internet use in China, there were 231 million bloggers in China as of June 2010. According to iResearch statistics cited in the July 17 SCMP article, almost 81 million Internet users in China used microblogging services in May, an increase of almost 50 percent over March. According to the July 15 Global Times article, major domestic portals such as Sina recently launched microblogging services to fill the void left after Chinese officials blocked Twitter and Fanfou following the July 2009 demonstrations and riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Fanfou was a Chinese service similar to Twitter. While Chinese officials tout the prevalence of blogs as evidence that Chinese enjoy freedom of expression (see the Chinese government's June 2010 Internet white paper (Chinese, English) and accompanying CECC analysis), the extent to which the Chinese government censors online content continues to violate international human rights standards. In China, censorship of the Internet and cell phones is not limited to the removal of content such as pornography, spam, or content deemed to violate intellectual property rights, but also political and religious content the government and Communist Party deem to be politically sensitive.

For more information on Chinese government regulation of the Internet, see pp. 58-64 of the Commission's 2009 Annual Report.