How China Tamed The Country's Top Bloggers, And Took Back The Net

from the Weibo-vs-WeChat dept

Techdirt has been reporting for a while on China's continuing clampdown on the internet, the latest step being the new national security law. You might think these stringent measures, combined with numerous previous moves to strengthen censorship, would be enough. But a fascinating report in The Australian Financial Review reveals that over the last few years the Chinese authorities have also used other techniques in order to ensure that their control of the online world is as complete as possible.

As we reported last year, the number of posts on the Chinese microblog site Weibo plummeted by 70% as a result of new censorship rules that were brought in. The Australian Financial Review feature explains what happened next:

[China's Communist Party], which runs one of the world's slickest propaganda machines, was smart enough not to kill off social media entirely. Instead, it has encouraged the development of a more appropriate platform.

That is WeChat, the four-and-a-half-year-old service that boasts 500 million active users and a parent company with a sharemarket value of $US190 billion ($248 billion), making it the world's eighth-largest technology stock.
Here's the crucial difference between Weibo and WeChat:
Acquiring friends or followers on WeChat is more difficult than Weibo, as you either need to know a user's phone number, be in their vicinity or meet them in person whereby you can scan their QR code. Then they must accept your invitation to become a contact.

There is also no search function to seek out celebrities or opinion leaders and no way to determine how many followers or friends a user has.
That makes WeChat much more intimate -- and much less useful for spreading hot news rapidly or stirring things up.

Not content with replacing the mass-medium Weibo with the smaller-scale WeChat, the Chinese authorities have also ensured that the celebrities of the social media world, who once wielded immense online power, and represented an emerging challenge to the state, have been reined in. Sometimes this was done in the crudest possible manner, as the arrest of a popular political blogger last year shows:

At a nearby police station, in addition to the handcuffs, shackles were placed on his ankles. They would remain in place for 24 hours while he was interrogated.

Blackmail was the blogger's stated crime, although no documents were produced to substantiate these allegations.

"They told me just confess to something and you can go home. If I didn't co-operate, they said, 'you will be in jail for years'."
Remarkably, he didn't, and the situation deteriorated:
In the months after his detention, the man's father has been threatened and the blogger has been beaten up twice by hired thugs, once outside a public building watched over by security guards.
Understandably, in the end he yielded:
After some initial resistance, the blogger who describes himself as a "mild reformist" retreated from the field of battle. He is no longer exposing corruption and hypocrisy within the party.
After a few other high-profile bloggers were arrested and treated harshly, the intimidation could become more subtle:
Last month, at a state-run hotel outside Beijing, a group of China's most influential bloggers assembled. None was there by choice.

They had been summonsed to the Changping district, north-west of the capital, by the State Internet Information Department for a seminar on "Domestic Current Affairs".

It was the modern version of a re-education camp, complete with swimming pool, towelling robes and a buffet breakfast.
Central to that re-education were some helpful hints about what topics they might like to write about in the future:
During the seminar, the authorities even put up a slide, showing what they believed to be a successful re-education of one blogger. The person in question, who had once written about politics and the rule of law, had now turned his keyboard to more appropriate subjects, according to the moderator, such as hotel reviews, fashion and first-world type lifestyle problems.
As the rest of The Australian Financial Review's report makes plain, most of the country's top bloggers have gotten the message. Social media is now a "dreary mix of food reviews and gossip," and China's grip on the online world looks firmer than ever.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+


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  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 10 Jul 2015 @ 10:12am

    ""They told me just confess to something and you can go home. If I didn't co-operate, they said, 'you will be in jail for years'.""

    Wow, they watched "Training Day" in China. =o

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 10 Jul 2015 @ 11:09am

    How is China even considered part of the civilized world?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Hephaestus (profile), 10 Jul 2015 @ 11:18am

      Re:

      They are not, and with the coming failure of their economy, they will become much worse than they currently are human rights wise.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2015 @ 1:13pm

        Re: Re:

        I wouldn't say they are "failing" economically. More like stagnating in national economy and crashing on the stock market.

        But in the long run China has much more difficult problems related to regionalism in the western parts, corruption in the main cities and a growing democracy support in the southeast.

        You can do a lot about dampening the economic changes and making insignificant concessions on human rights, but the anti-establishmentarianism is a massive problem that will be hard to handle in the long run.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anony mouse, 10 Jul 2015 @ 11:17am

    the new Chinese National Security Law has some interesting twists for what concerns the Chinese Root Certification Authorities... it practically imposes mandatory state control on all Chinese-operated Root CAs.

    I fear that CNNIC's certificate for man-in-the-middle interception might have been just a practice run for the things to come... Time to revoke all China/HongKong/Taiwan CAs?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2015 @ 12:47pm

    It's really sad to see how culturally destroyed the Chinese have become...They're well on their way to becoming the next North Korea so it seems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DerekCurrie (profile), 10 Jul 2015 @ 1:12pm

    C E N S O R S H I P ≠ 'Tamed'

    Censorship from a lame government that can't stand criticism. So to hell with the human right of freedom of speech.

    China: Criminal Nation.

    And yes: I've been urging businesses to get the hell out of China since 2007. Put your money into respectable countries.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Jul 2015 @ 2:11pm

    Meanwhile...

    The USG and UK governments can only look on in admiration, wistfully wondering when they'll be able to do the same and finally get rid of that pesky 'free thinking' and 'independent reporting and discussions'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Jul 2015 @ 6:27pm

      Re: Meanwhile...

      Don't forget the other members of the Five Eyes community. Australia's current far right wingnut government is just itching to get in line with China & show them how it's really done. For the children, of course!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2015 @ 3:04pm

    and it seems as if the same tactics are going to be put to work in the UK, the way Cameron is threatening to ban certain internet platforms. when someone does that, to me, it always means they have a lot to hide and much to fear! sooner or later it will come out, but in the meantime, how he can try to make out still that the UK is the pivotal country of freedom and privacy, when he is destroying it? i'll bet there are a hell of a lot of people there who wished they had voted differently now!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 11 Jul 2015 @ 1:40pm

    Nice description: every western government official is drooling.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jul 2015 @ 3:20pm

    if chinese terrorists would stop killing innocent children abroad most people wouldn't have a problem with china

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    GEMont, 12 Jul 2015 @ 11:49am

    The coming darkness.

    When every western free trade deal contains language that does almost the same thing as China is doing on its own, I find it difficult to fault China, without also faulting every western government in the Five Eyes Cabal as well.

    The only difference is that the Five Eyes is sneaking the changes into place while China is simply doing it all in broad daylight.

    The end result is the same and is apparently where the world is headed regardless of what flavor of politics the various leading nations pretend to adhere to.

    The future does not look bright on either side of the imaginary political line, when the merchant is king.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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