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As Govt Ups Censorship of Microblogs, Chinese Netizens Migrate to Other Platforms

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, January 17 2014

Zhihu, a newer online platform allows for more liberal discussions than the oft-censored Weibo (credit: screenshot)

If you’re in China, don’t get too attached to your microblog. Sooner or later, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will begin to censor it and you’ll either have to suck it up or move on. New data shows that most are choosing the latter, migrating from the popular microblog Weibo to the (seemingly) more private instant messaging service WeChat, as well as new debate platforms like Zhihu (“Did you know?”), which currently allows users to ask tough questions.

The Wall Street Journal reports today a nine percent drop in usership on China’s most popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. It is down from 308.6 million to 280.8 million. Reporter Paul Mozur attributes the drop to rising censorship of the microblog:

The government has renewed a campaign to crack down on microblogs, which act like a virtual town square for many in China to voice their opinions about a range of issues from official corruption and environmental degradation to sports and pop stars. Beijing has long sought greater control over information distributed by microblogs, known as weibo in Chinese, and mandates that companies operating the sites closely monitor and censor content.

In September 2013, the CCP increased efforts to crack down on so-called online rumors. As techPresident previously reported, 450 Chinese netizens were arrested that month for allegedly spreading false rumors.

While usership on Sina Weibo dips, it has has more than doubled in the past year on WeChat because it is perceived as more private in nature and its networks are generally smaller. WeChat boasts about 272 million users.

"Its influence is not as big as Weibo, but it can be very effective because you're talking to people who you know and who will pay attention to what you say. It's not as easy to control or monitor because there are so many small networks, and you can constantly change your account," Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Wall Street Journal.

That won’t deter the government from keeping tabs on its citizens. As if the CCP couldn’t be any more clear, Lu Wei, one of the top officials controlling and censoring the Internet, published an opinion piece on the People’s Daily, a state sponsored newspaper, explaining,"If we do not effectively occupy newly emerged public opinion battlefields, other people will occupy them, creating challenges to our power of initiative and discourse as we carry out public-opinion work."

As previously noted by techPresident, Chinese and Tibetan activists have reported a higher risk of government surveillance on WeChat even if it is less likely to get censored. A 19-year-old Tibetan was arrested in January 2013 for distributing photos of monks self immolating. A well known Chinese activist, Hu jia, was surprised to hear his private WeChat conversations referenced to him upon his arrest.

Tea Leaf Nation reports that another platform, Zhihu, is, becoming increasingly popular:

Zhihu is an interactive, online platform similar to Quora.com where anyone can post questions, with the best responses upvoted by others. Featuring high-profile Chinese entrepreneurs and public intellectuals among its users, Zhihu is increasingly providing Chinese netizens with a space for rich discussion, one surprisingly free — at least for now — from government censorship.

Some topics for discussion include:

Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese debate the hypothetical political processes required for reunification; other users sophisticated arguments about the fraught relations between Chinese ethnic minorities and the Han, who make up roughly 92 percent of the population. Some of the repartee that results from sensitive topics can be both humorous and tragic. One commenter asked about the most common way for intellectuals to commit suicide during the anarchic, decade-long Cultural Revolution; another responded, “Tell the truth.” “Do Taiwanese generally dislike Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, and if so, why,” was a popular question — and one of the most popular answers was yes, “because they can” in Taiwan’s democratic society.

Founded in January 2011, Zhihu currently has 40 million users, possibly not high enough for the CCP to bother with, but it too self monitors. As Tea Leaf Nation reports, a disclaimer on its website says it forbids content that “spreads rumors, disrupts social order, or breaks social stability.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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