China’s thriving online community has enabled the development of highly successful domestic internet services such as Sina Weibo and WeChat. But some of the conversations enabled by these platforms, and which have made them so popular, could come back to hurt the companies.
Sina Weibo, the leading microblogging platform, has more than 500 million registered users and has helped one of the nation’s earliest internet companies stay at the top of the game. Similarly WeChat, a messaging application for smartphones that is approaching 400 million users, put Tencent, another Chinese internet pioneer, back at the forefront. Interaction drives participation.
The leading internet firms are seemingly under threat. Since the early summer the government has been cracking down on online activity to control what is being said in the virtual world.
At the beginning of September, a legal interpretation of the Criminal Law was extended to cover defamation and “spreading of rumors” on the internet. Social media posts that are seen by more than 5,000 people or forwarded more than 500 times and fall under the above categorizations could land their authors a three-year jail sentence.
Although the law is not new, this is the first time that defamation regulations have been expanded to cover the online world, underscoring its prominence as a public sphere. Like in other countries and some US states, by making defamation a criminal act as opposed to a civil matter the Chinese government raises the risks involved in making public comments.
“The purpose of this interpretation is to ratify what is serious to national interests, what constitutes public disorder,” Yik Chan Chin, research assistant professor in the department of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, told China Economic Review. Such terms are often used in charges leveled at those people arrested for critical public comments.
In recent months Chinese security officials have detained several prominent Sina Weibo users, known as “Big Vs.” This has been interpreted as a warning to others to stay in line, and appears to be paying off. Social media analysis firm Weiboreach recorded a noticeable decrease in the number of posts written by influential microbloggers in August compared to previous months.
Some experts see this as a move by the government to control internet conversations. “If this increase in self-censorship, especially on topics of political consequence, coincides with a stronger propaganda push by the government, then we could see more CCP [Chinese Communist Party] dominance over online discourse,” said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst on internet freedom in East Asia for US-based advocacy group Freedom House.
Under such circumstances some sensitive conversations will likely be held elsewhere. “We are likely to see an acceleration of the trend of people shifting from more publicly facing social platforms like Sina Weibo to private networks like Weixin (WeChat),” said Cook.
WeChat is operated by Sina’s social media rival Tencent. The service consists of mostly private one-to-one or group conversations between contacts, whereas Sina Weibo is a Twitter-like service in which posts are mostly public.
Given the severity of the government campaign, however, WeChat users could find themselves under scrutiny, even when they talk behind virtual closed doors. It is possible that WeChat will be targeted in the clampdown, said Jin Yoon, an internet analyst at Nomura in Hong Kong.
Billy Leung, an analyst at RHB Research in Hong Kong, was doubtful that the private chats could be tracked. “I don’t see how feasible it is to [introduce controls] for WeChat.” More likely, censors would monitor the public segment of the service where users can share text and photos.
Officials are keeping an eye out on this space, known as “moments.” In late August Ding Renren, head of cybersecurity at the Zhejiang Public Security Department, warned users against posting unverified information in such venues, saying it is “illegal” to do so.
This is probably how some media activists were tracked earlier this year at demonstrations in support of journalists at campaigning newspaper Southern Weekend, who went on strike over what they claimed was an attempt to tamper with their editorial independence.
Tencent executives are hoping to stay clear of any problems. The company’s market value has soared above US$100 billion to close in on that of Facebook, driven largely by the huge success of WeChat. It is reportedly planning an IPO sometime in the next 12 months for the service. “Wechat is a significant portion of Tencent’s overall valuation – it [a clampdown] does impact Tencent both valuation wise and operationally,” noted Nomura’s Yoon.
Just how much Sina and Tencent could suffer at the hands of this campaign is open to much debate. What should be discounted now though is any notion that they could be forced to close Sina Weibo or WeChat completely.
Like all domestic internet companies, they could not operate in such a tightly-controlled system without the backing of government officials. They have demonstrated their willingness to follow the rules on what cannot be said and are in effect “safe” operators of internet portals.
Social media channels, for all the headaches they create for officials, are the only public outlets for many grievances held by Chinese citizens. Netizens use them to expose misdeeds such as corruption or public health scandals, noted Cook.
“It’s not clear that it is entirely in the CCP’s interest to have millions of people silently bubbling with frustration.”