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.
Here's the crucial difference between Weibo and WeChat:
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.
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.
That makes WeChat much more intimate -- and much less useful for spreading hot news rapidly or stirring things up.
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.
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.
Remarkably, he didn't, and the situation deteriorated:
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'."
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.
Central to that re-education were some helpful hints about what topics they might like to write about in the future:
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.
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.