Beijing Tightens Restrictions on Social Media

The Chinese government is enforcing tighter restrictions on social media and instant messaging.

A statement released Wednesday by the Communist party central committee signals a new initiative to rein in a growing surge of free speech on “Weibo” microblogs - a Twitter-like social media platform that has given Chinese citizens an unprecedented opportunity to previously taboo topics and criticize the government.

The document, carried by the official government newspaper The People’s Daily, stated that the government plans to “strengthen guidance and administration of social internet services and instant communication tools, and regulate the orderly dissemination of information.”

It goes on to state, “Apply the law to sternly punish the dissemination of harmful information.”

According to the China Internet Network Information Center, the number of microblog users reached 195 million by the end of June, allowing Chinese to disseminate and access information more quickly and more widely than ever before.

When a video surfaced last week of Wang Yue, a toddler left bleeding on the street as 18 people passed by without stopping, millions viewed the footage on microblogs and then posted their own reactions.

Earlier this summer, when a high-speed train crash left more than 30 people dead, citizens expressed their outrage and frustration over the government’s response on microblogs.

The public's boldness (at least in cyberworld) has left analysts wondering when the other shoe would drop. “This [statement] is what we have been waiting for,” David Bandurski of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, told The Guardian. “It is important, but it does not tell us exactly what’s going to happen. It sends the signal: ‘Everyone watch out.'”

But Chinese microblogs are far from a free-for-all. Certain keywords and topics are already prohibited, and censors monitor posts to remove sensitive content. Still, because of the sheer number of posts and speed at which microbloggers react, users can often find ways around censorship.

The Guardian reported that analysts doubt officials will actually shut down social media sites because of their tremendous popularity. Rather, they may pressure the site's operators to beef up their monitoring procedures and increase vigilance against controversial posts.

“The more important risk we see for Sina Weibo and other [microblogs] is that they self-regulate out of business [interests]… and that they self-neuter and that makes the platform so boing no one wants to use it,” Michael Clendenin of RedTech Advisors told the Guardian.

The news comes on the heels of an announcement that Beijing is also tightening restrictions on television programs, aiming to address “excessive entertainment and a trend toward low taste.”

Predictably, Chinese citizens turned to microblogs to voice their discontent. The Wall Street Journal reported that Wu Jiaxiang, a political commentator and former visiting scholar at Harvard University, reacted to the television censorship with a Weibo post: “Cultural reform has mutated into the Cultural Revolution.”