The rise and fall of the weibo army

Greetings from Beijing, where one of the most fascinating developments in the time since I left, in 2013, has been how public conversation and debate has migrated away from the once-ubiquitous weibo sites over to more intimate platforms, like WeChat.  Chinese here say that for a period, weibo was like the public plaza, where people gathered to hear and exchange views.  But because of the crackdown on free expression under President Xi Jinping, that conversation has moved into private living rooms, and is held only among close friends and family.

Last week, The Edge Review, the digital magazine for Southeast Asia, dedicated its issue to the question of internet freedom and repression in Asia, and I contributed a piece on the rise and fall of China's weibo era.  I'll share it with you here, and invite your comments at the bottom. I also invite you to follow me on Twitter at: keithrchburg.com.  And if you want to read The Edge Review and my regular column, Inside Edge, please download the app at the app store.  Here's my piece:

The Rise and Fall of the Weibo Army

©The Edge Review

Anyone studying the recent, remarkable period of Internet openness in China can easily the date it began: August 14, 2009. And the date it ended when China’s Communist rulers decided the openness had gone too far: July 23, 2011.

China under President Xi Jinping has embarked on a sweeping crackdown on the  Internet, using its Great Firewall blocking technology to render sites such as Google and its e-mail platform Gmail virtually unusable.

Social media sites such as Instagram this year joined the long list of those like Facebook and Twitter that are blocked in China. And the government in January began interrupting the use of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, which many Chinese and foreigners living there used to get around the restrictions.

But the current crackdown has antecedents in those two earlier dates. They sandwich a unique two-year window that showed both the power of the Internet to galvanize public opinion and the threat it posed to the Communist Party’s near-absolute control of information.

August 14, 2009, is when China’s giant online media corporation Sina launched a microblog, or weibo. A clone of Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to post and re-post comments and articles of 140 Chinese characters. Sina deftly gave some accounts to popular film stars, sports figures and business celebrities in order to seed a large online following. It worked; within 18 months it had more than 100 million regular users.

The “weibo period” was a time of nearly unprecedented freedom for ordinary citizens to voice their views – often anonymously. They could criticize the government, expose corruption and demand officials be answerable to the people they supposedly serve.

“This is the era of disguised accountability,” a Beijing sociology professor told me in late 2009. "That means holding government officials accountable by relying on the Internet rather than on traditional means like elections and checks by the Congress.”

I was fortunate to have a front row seat to watch Chinese citizens raising viral protests against the government – and seeing, astonishingly, the government sometimes caving to the online pressure.

Popular weibos became like the nation’s public water cooler, with discussions on subjects once considered taboo. Citizen anti-corruption crusaders popped up everywhere, including one who made a sport on his weibo site of posting pictures of officials wearing expensive luxury watches or designer clothes they could never afford on their government salaries.

Those “netizens” weren’t all about politics. One well-known journalist led a national campaign to boycott a large dairy company at the centre of a scandal over tainted baby milk powder. Another popular microblogger used his weibo account to try to reconnect child beggars with their parents.

There was often, of course, a darker side to this new online activism. The anonymity of the Internet allowed ugliness to metastasize in all its forms — xenophobia, virulent nationalism, racism. And, in a country where the controlled official media is largely distrusted, rumours proliferated.

The death knell rang for this era of openness on July 23, 2011 when two high-speed trains collided in the rain in the coastal city of Wenzhou, killing 40 and injuring nearly 200.

China’s official government-run media were slow to report the crash. But everyone in China learned about the accident almost instantly from passengers inside the damaged trains using their cellphones to post gripping weibo accounts of the injuries and issue pleas for help.

With the Wenzhou crash, China’s powerful propaganda machine, which would instinctively suppress or downplay any bad news, proved no match for this new social media platform. And that was when the decision was made to rein it in, if not shut it down entirely.

The crackdown began in earnest a few months later, with several weibo sites closed, tens of thousands of online posts deleted and scores of microbloggers arrested. Later, the authorities drafted new rules to make anyone with a weibo account register with their real name and ID number, making users easier to track – and arrest.

Once in power, Xi intensified the online crackdown, including arresting some celebrity microbloggers with millions of followers. Others got the hint and voluntarily shut or abandoned their weibo accounts. Weibo is now a diminished shell. Serious discussion on sensitive topics has been all but stifled.

But for a brief window ordinary Chinese found their voice and enjoyed a remarkable period of online openness and freewheeling public debate. That debate is bottled up again for now, but having seen that period, I find it hard to believe those voices will stay silenced forever.

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