Pity those of us who monitor the ups and downs of China's popular microblog platform, Sina Weibo. For every story its users spread in defiance of local censorship, there follows a clampdown. Whether it's the latest strike against rumors, or real name registration, or newly banned keywords, there's always another restriction in the works as the service struggles to keep a lid on sensitive conversations without driving away its user base. "China tightens grip on social media," we might report, as the Financial Times did in April. And last October. (The U.K.-based newspaper also noted China's grip tightening on lawyers in March.) It's not that these headlines are misleading. They simply show how difficult it is to illustrate the grip that always tightens, but never quite suffocates.
To file under tightening grips and continuing clampdowns: Wednesday's news that a Weibo moderator posted a draft document outlining new guidelines for users, according to a translation of the content by Caijing magazine's English-language website. The contract restricts users from publishing information that "reveals national secrets," "spreads rumors," "disrupts social order," or "has other content which is forbidden by laws," among other regulations, according to the Caijing translation. These are terms favored by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department to justify censorship, and are vague enough to cover all kinds of sensitive content.
To drive the point home, Weibo disabled several high-profile user accounts in the past week, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. The reason for those closures was not clear, though users like the novelist Hao Qun, who writes as Murong Xuecun, believed his suspension from the site--which he was told would last at least a month--was for his posts on blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng. Another blacklisted user told the Post he had shared speculation about the Chinese leadership, notably a rumor about Premier Wen Jiabao stepping down. Plus ça change.
So what's actually new about this news? Well, the shutdowns were announced directly to users by Sina management, though apparently at the behest of top censors, the Post reported. Recent punitive measures against microblogs, like the temporary suspension of Weibo's commenting features in April, were targeted at the company itself. Perhaps it was the flurry of rumors in the wake of the Bo Xilai corruption scandal; perhaps it was Sina's self-confessed failure to enforce user registration, reported by Chinese Internet expert Bill Bishop on his website Digicha, but the authorities have not been happy with Weibo. The new guidelines look like Sina's attempt to get back in with the propaganda department by better regulating its willful clientele.
And why does it matter? Because if Weibo fails to satisfy the censors, it could still go the way of Twitter, now blocked in China for users without the circumvention tools commonly used to access overseas websites. Or the way of the copycat services like Fanfou which replaced it, and were simply shut down.
For all the challenges journalists face reporting on this power struggle, the biggest struggle is Sina's as it tries to stay profitable while balancing the competing demands of censors versus users. No one is more aware of what could happen when the grip tightens all the way than the company themselves. Via Digicha:
"While the Microblog Rules are not clear regarding the type and extent of punishment that will be imposed on non-compliant microblogging service providers, we are potentially liable...which may result in future punishment, including the deactivation of certain features on Weibo, termination of Weibo operations or other punishments determined by the Chinese government. Any of the above actions may have a material and adverse impact on our share price."