A power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently led to a social media crackdown, proving that China’s leadership is not ready to relax its regulations on Internet use.
The problems stemmed from an incident involving Bo Xi Lai, a now-former Communist Party official, and Wang Lijun, the police commissioner for the city of Chongqing. A dispute over the murder of a British national drew the attention of party leadership when Wang sought asylum at a US consulate. Both men appear to have been sacked following the incident, which has been humiliating for the CCP.
All this drama made for an appealing story on social media outlets, particularly microblogging services like Weibo. Users made comments such as “This really is a movie,” and they speculated about espionage. Where the state’s official information sources remained silent (on the whereabouts of Bo and Wang, for example), rumors and speculation filled the void. Reports of tanks and gunfire at party headquarters in Beijing even led to far-fetched talk of a coup. The CCP responded to these rumors by blocking searches for the word “coup.” Sixteen Websites were shut down entirely for posting the rumors.
During the crackdown, users were banned for 72 hours from commenting to one another on microblogging sites. And the ban stirred comments about comments. According to the Wall Street Journal and Sina statistics, the number of posts on the Sina Weibo site relating to the word "comment" soared from 22,000 on Friday to more than 115,000 on Tuesday.
In the attempt to scrub the Web of information related to the conflict, 208,000 “harmful” messages were removed, and 1,065 people were arrested.
It is suspected that Weibo and its closest competitor, Tencent Weibo, each employ hundreds of people to police user content to comply with CCP directives. Further, around 250 million people in China use microblogging services, and the government is attempting to force them to use accounts linked to their real identities. Representatives from the microblogging companies have expressed their frustrations with the restrictions. They say moves like restricting anonymity or comments undermine the appeal (and therefore the financial value) of their products.
"The government certainly doesn't want to shut Weibo, they don't want to kill it -- they want to control it," Bill Bishop, a consultant based in Beijing, told the Telegraph. "If there is another burst of rumors in the next couple of weeks about particularly sensitive things, I don't think the government will have any qualms about taking other steps to rein things in."
This seems to be the consensus of most analysts monitoring the issue. China has long banned Facebook, YouTube, and other Websites owned by Western companies that are unwilling to cooperate with the CCP on content monitoring. Chinese companies often work directly with the CCP to make sure their content is in line with party directives, so there are still Websites with similar functionality to Western social media sites online in the People’s Republic.
Still, this incident has made it clear that the CCP is unwilling to have its traditional control of the news media in China reduced by advancements in technology such as social media.
Hannah Thoreson, a physics student and blogger at Arizona State University, contributed to this blog.
— William Foster is a senior research associate at the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy (CISTP) at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.