Was it really just a year ago that we basked in the digital détente of the Olympics? Those were fine days. Excitement was in the surprisingly clean air, luminaries descended upon Beijing, and the internet was largely unfettered for several months, bringing forth the wonders of Wikipedia and other once-forbidden fruit.
Times have changed.
Wikipedia is still available, but that makes it something of an exception. Many of the usual suspects, sites that depart from Communist Party orthodoxy on the "Three Ts" and such, are perennially blocked. But a recent binge of censorship has seen Twitter and Facebook, both increasingly popular amongst cosmopolitan Chinese users, also banned. Even the venerable Danwei blog, which follows the Chinese media industry, is currently off limits.
The likely cause of this wave of censorship was the recent unrest in Xinjiang. With disturbances escalating in July, the Chinese government killed all internet and SMS services in stricken areas. The blocking of Twitter and Facebook followed rapidly.
Out of order
It’s easy to see why Beijing would single out foreign social media sites. By definition they are powerful organizing tools immune to state propaganda guidance and bereft of Chinese editors with antennae tuned to political sentiment.
What surprised was the way in which the ban extended to several Chinese micro-blogging sites, including Digu, Zuosa, Jiwai and trendy Fanfou. Not all such sites were blocked, but the swathe was wide enough to raise the eyebrows of an internet community usually blasé about censorship. Weeks later, Zuosa is back online, but Digu and Jiwai are still "down for maintenance" and Fanfou is simply gone. The rash of "maintenance" notices kindled memories of a similarly widespread outage on June 3, which Chinese internet wags christened "National Website Maintenance Day."
But the June outage only lasted a few days. With the events of July now receding, the persistence of the latest round of shutdowns is surprising even hardened observers of the Chinese internet.
Many blame the upcoming, politically sensitive 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Others, however, believe this is a sign of something more systemic and worrying. Writing on her blog, former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief-turned-academic Rebecca MacKinnon linked the wave of censorship to a broader crackdown on Chinese liberals driven by a fundamental shift in the government’s attitude.
That’s a worrying thought, and it seems likely that at least some of what is happening now is due to real anxiety about the power of social networks as organizing tools. But another possible explanation is that we are in the feeling-out period that follows the rise of any powerful, new application on the Chinese internet.
Foreign repeat-offender YouTube is blocked, but Chinese video sharing sites have been largely unmolested in the current crackdown. It’s worth remembering that those sites also went through a fraught period just a year ago. In the sweaty weeks before the Olympics there was doubt as to whether the government would license the big, independent video sharing sites 56.com, Youku and Tudou. The first of these was forced to shut down for a month, and never completely recovered.
Beijing eventually developed a measure of comfort with the video sharing sites, but it took delicate negotiations and the institutionalization of a regulatory regime and content monitoring systems that the government had faith in. We may well see much the same approach to micro-blogging services.
The picture is cloudier for foreign social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps we are indeed in a new era of conservatism. On the other hand, as with the Olympics in 2008, the looming Shanghai Expo promises another round of détente. But 2011 will bring the 18th party congress and the supremely delicate naming of a new leadership.
Chinese have long believed that history moves in cycles. That is certainly true of the Chinese internet, with its cycles of blossoming and restriction.
Long term, however, the trend has been toward more openness and diversity. That is likely to continue, even if with Chinese characteristics. In the end, the Chinese internet will be fine. But it will most definitely be the Chinese internet.