Chinese censors blocked access to Facebook and Twitter a year ago for fear the foreign sites could be used to sow political unrest. Now it appears they're taking aim at the popular Chinese imitators that filled the void.
Known as microblogs, or weibo accounts in Chinese, these personal sites function a lot like Twitter, giving users the ability to post messages and links in short, almost instantaneous bursts. Offered by China's leading Web portals, microblogs have surged in popularity. The number of weibo users more than tripled this year to 100 million.
The sites were quickly embraced by China's techie cognoscenti. Celebrities discovered they could be used as promotional tools. Government officials found them an efficient way to reach citizens. And though most weibo chatter is trivial, some intellectuals and activists have used the microblogs to discuss human rights and other topics considered sensitive by China's censors.
The weibo was an unexpected advance in freedom of expression at a time when authorities were clamping down on Internet communication. But hopes of a wider opening were dashed this month when some of the sites were temporarily shut down. Four major portals — Sina, Sohu, Tencent and Netease — said their weibo services went down for maintenance. Internet experts were dubious. More likely, they said, authorities forced the shutdowns to impose stricter oversight and controls.
That could mean pressuring portals to hire more staff to delete content seen as challenging the state's authority. This week, for example, search results for "Cantonese" and "Guangzhou" were blocked from some portals after Cantonese-speaking residents demonstrated in that southern city to protest the growing use of Mandarin, China's official language.
Wu Mingliang, a magazine editor who has used his weibo to highlight rights issues and abuse cases, said his account vanished one recent morning.
"The page didn't exist anymore," said Wu, who had about 1,000 followers subscribing to his feeds. "I was shocked."
The government goes to great lengths to sanitize the Internet in China. It forces websites to delete objectionable material and pays Internet users to sway opinion on forums. It also maintains a vast censorship apparatus, nicknamed the Great Firewall, to filter information flowing in from abroad. Some savvy Chinese netizens have learned to jump that barrier using technology that links their Chinese computers to servers located outside the country, beyond the reach of state minders. Still, these proficients remain the minority among China's estimated 420 million Internet users.
Meanwhile, the government is bent on tightening its grip. In the last year alone, authorities have taken aim at pornography and violent computer games. They mandated that computer manufacturers install filtering software on all new personal computers sold in China (though they later retreated when the much-criticized program proved ineffective). Then Google Inc. shut most of its China-based operations, citing increasing government censorship and cyber assaults from hackers suspected of targeting the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
But regulating weibo service could prove an especially big challenge for Chinese authorities. That's because of the burgeoning number of users, which is growing by about 10 million a month, and the speed at which they can post messages.
"It's very difficult to control these [microblogging] sites," said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the Beijing-based Danwei.org, which covers media in China. "No matter how great the Great Firewall is, all it takes is one guy to post the complete works of Master Li of the Falun Gong," Goldkorn said, referring to the founder of a spiritual group that is outlawed here.
The growth of social media clearly has alarmed Beijing. Authorities last year shut down access to Twitter and Facebook from inside China. Many here believe it was because protesters used those services to communicate and organize during ethnic riots in China's restive Xinjiang province. A government think tank recently released a report alleging that U.S.-born sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could be used by Washington to overthrow foreign regimes.
"We must pay attention to the potential risks and threats to state security," the report said. "We must immediately step up supervision of social networking sites."
Local police in Beijing are now holding workshops for Internet industry employees aimed at increasing their vigilance over anti-government material.
Jason Ng, a prominent blogger, attended a meeting this month, the same day Sohu's microblogging service went offline. He described the event to his followers on Twitter by accessing the service through a server located outside China.
"They told us we had to delete illegal material, especially anti-government information" anywhere it was found, Ng said in an interview. "One security official said they had to shut down a major weibo portal that day and the boss of the company had to go meet with authorities at night, even though it was raining."
Well-known political blogger Michael Anti, whose recent posts include information on the Guangzhou protests, said he too is feeling the heat. Anti said he recently was contacted by an editor at the portal Sina who told him to tone down his weibo feeds if he didn't want his content blocked. Anti capitulated. He's decided to save sensitive material for his Twitter account. Like Ng, the Beijing resident accesses Twitter through a foreign server to avoid Chinese censors.
"Microblogs are going to be more and more nonpolitical," Anti said. "It's just going to be entertainment."
What's clear is that most of China's most-followed microbloggers are celebrities. More than 2 million people subscribe to comedian Yao Chen's Sina weibo.
There, she posted photos of her tour of an earthquake-stricken region of China, as well as shots of one of her more recent purchases: a cream-colored Chanel sweater embroidered with the brand's name in Chinese.
Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.