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China: Social media as political subversion tool

This past month has been an interesting one in the cat-and-mouse game between Chinese Internet censorship and its non-conformists. Microblogs in the People's Republic had begun to feel the weight of a heavier government crackdown, following the publication of a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) claiming social networking websites are used as tools of “political subversion”. The Internet Blue Paper, published by CASS in early July, claimed microblogging and social networking platforms, such as Facebook, helped spur on the ethnic riots in Xinjiang in 2009, in which 200 people were killed and 1,500 injured. It said:

Facebook has appeared as the rallying point for overseas Xinjiang separatist groups … these social networking sites have become a tool of political subversion used by Western nations, including the United States.

(…)

Faced with the popularity of social networking sites … it is imperative to exert control … [and] pay a lot of attention to these potential risks and latent dangers.

Following the riots, both Facebook and microblogging platform Twitter were blocked in the People's Republic, where they remain unaccessible without the use of proxy servers or virtual private networks (VPNs). A domestic microblog, Fanfou, was also shut down last year prior to the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. However, other homegrown versions, namely those of portals Sina, Sohu and Neatease, remain incredibly popular. Sina Weibo alone has over 5 million users and, AFP has reported, government figures have shown that around 176 million Chinese Internet users were using social networking sites at the close of 2009, with most between 20 and 29 years of age.

Yet, these versions too have felt the wrath of the net nanny. After a brief period of being inaccessible (which, according to a Sohu customer services representative speaking to the WSJ, was due to maintenance rather than government censorship), sites such as Sina Weibo, Neatease and Tencent bore a ‘beta’ icon next to their logos. This would suggest testing of some kind, offering users a prototype version. Bnext summarized the situation

各家網站異口同聲地表示,與政府命令無關,只是單純網站維護;新浪網行銷中心副總劉奇表示,從去年八月微博上線,其實一直都是試用階段,目前正在策劃上線一週年紀念日再度啟用儀式。儘管如此,數家網站同時出現「beta」版本還是讓網友擔憂,部分網友更在網路上發表,顯示維護的真正原因是中國政府勒令清除敏感內容,並稱為「713殺博事件」。

All portal websites claimed that it has nothing to do with the government, just a matter of regular maintenance. The deputy director of Sina market department said that Sina micro-blog has been in the beta period since August and they are planning to relaunch the website in their first anniversary. However, the fact that a number of portal websites turned themselves into “beta” version is worrisome. Some netizens said that the reason behind maintenance is government censorship order to clear sensitive content. They even call the incident “713 murdering of micro blog”.

The team at ChinaGeeks also tested the theory that the URL shortener on Sina Weibo only works for domestic websites:

As you can see from our Sina Weibo, we attempted to post five links. The first four were to innocuous and unblocked websites outside China, including a New York Times article and the Geico Insurance Company website. All four were converted into shortened links automatically, and when clicked, they returned only an error message. However, when we tested a fifth time using a domestic link (youku.com), the shortened URL worked fine and we were directed to the Youku.

So anything — anything — that isn’t on a Chinese website can no longer be linked via Sina Weibo. I’m not even going to comment on this one. Will it push more Chinese internet users outside the GFW in search of a microblogging experience that doesn’t pretend half of the internet doesn’t exist? Who knows.

The bridge blog also translated a post by lawyer and blogger, Liu Xiaoyuan, detailing his own battles with Chinese censorship techniques. It was promptly deleted by Sohu, though remains unblocked by Sina (incidentally, upon seeing the ‘beta’ logo, Sina microbloggers had written open pleas to the site to not remove posts):

In March of 2007, Sohu started to block and hide some of my blog posts. I got fed up with it and on August 16, 2007, filed a lawsuit with the Haidian district People’s Court. After nearly a year and two trials, both of my suits2 were rejected. If even the People’s Court sees but does not care about the violation of a citizen’s right to free speech, what could I do?

(…)

On July 28, 2009, I had been writing on my Sohu blog for more than three years. That day was the first time my blog was forcibly closed. They didn’t tell me anything [about why the blog was suddenly closed]. So fine, if you won’t tell me anything, then I will tell you something! I immediately registered another Sohu blog and gave Sohu a piece of my mind.

I never thought that this blog would be killed on July 12, 2010, before it had even reached one year of age. On the 13th, I opened another Sohu blog, but it only lived for a single day and was “assassinated” on the 14th.

I’ve said before, the best way to protest when they close your blog is to open another. [I've opened another blog,] I really don’t know how long this one will survive.

The glitch, however, seems to have been temporary. We tested ChinaGeeks’ Sina Weibo links this morning, all of which were working within the confines of the Great Firewall. Furthermore, it would seem as though the notorious Green Dam filtering software is reaching its demise. A project office set up to promote the software, which the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), deemed manufacturers ship PCs with, has been shut down due to a lack of financial support. With intense backlash from the blogosphere, including the vehement declaration by the Anonymous Netizens in June 2009, plans for mandatory installation were withdrawn.

Prior to this month's events, the government released its first White Paper on the Internet in China, which stated that “Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.” That is, so long as they do not “infringe upon state, social, and collective interests or the legitimate freedom and rights and other citizens.”

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