Sina’s Twitter-like microblog service Weibo has released new guidelines to restrict users who share banned content, according to international news reports. It’s the first time such guidelines target users who adopt puns, homonyms, and other veiled references to discuss censored news stories without using keywords on the propaganda department’s blacklist, the reports said.
Weibo’s operator is getting squeezed. With government censorship restrictions on one side and a select group of users determined to flout them on the other, it has struggled to regulate content with a series of measures, from real-name registration to canceling user accounts. These measures were patchily enforced and arguably failed, as Weibo users still use their accounts to break news and discuss banned content.
Sina introduced user contracts on Monday which establish a kind of information credit score, according to international news reports. Each account begins with 80 points, which increase with “unspecified promotional activities” but will be reduced for spreading rumors, impugning China, or calling for protests, according to The New York Times. Users will be warned when their score drops below 60, and see their accounts canceled if they hit zero, the Times said.
The new system appears complex and carefully calibrated, but it’s actually arbitrary. It is not clear who will assess alleged violations and how many points they will remove. The violations are outlined in broad terms that cover reporting on censored news stories and expressing anti-government opinions–hence the opportunity to apply them to even the most creative allusions to banned content (and the possibility that some users will be punished for innocuous use of suspected code words).
Chinese journalists and dissidents are already routinely punished for these offenses, not with points, but with severe and invasive surveillance of the kind that blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped in late April. Capital Week financial magazine journalist Li Delin disappeared and was believed detained in March, after he reported seeing tanks in Beijing on his microblog in the wake of the Bo Xilai corruption scandal, according to CPJ research. His status is still unclear. The majority of the 27 journalists CPJ documented in prison in China last year were imprisoned on anti-state charges for writing online. Some face a decade or more in jail, one a life term. They’re not concerned about their status on Weibo.
The guidelines, if fully implemented, could have a chilling effect on regular users, but they will not impede writers and activists in the vanguard of the fight for free expression. Unfortunately, they will not replace the Chinese Communist Party’s use of criminal prosecutions–or extralegal punishment–to silence those writers and activists, either.