Sina Weibo is looking for more censors. The social media company, often described as China’s version of Twitter, has a rumored 1,000 “information security” editors working to remove posts and comments about forbidden subjects like “Chen Guangcheng” or “Tiananmen Square.” But according to a report in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the NASDAQ-listed company went so far this week as to post a help-wanted ad seeking reinforcements. In this context Sina’s logo—an enormous, red-rimmed eyeball, calling to mind an overworked Big Brother—begins to make sense.
I visited Sina Weibo in Beijing last week, on a trip sponsored by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that encourages positive relations between the two countries. Almost alone among the people we met with during our visit, officials at the company weren’t prepared to answer basic inquiries about their policies. They did, however, respond with alacrity to a question about whether their censorship efforts can keep pace with the rising volume of posts, emphatically insisting that they can. As a parting souvenir, they gave the members of my group what must be the perfect symbol of contemporary China: a doll version of their bleary Cyclops mascot, dressed in a People’s Liberation Army uniform.
Sina’s biggest fear seems to be not that users will complain about the limits placed upon their activity, but that that its failure to police the site itself will provoke the authorities to close it. Party officials have paid admonitory visits, and suspended commenting for three days last month in response to proliferating rumors about the Bo Xilai scandal. But shutting down Weibo (which refers to the Chinese version of microblogging, as opposed to Sina, which is the biggest company that provides a platform for it) would now count as an outsized act of repression, difficult for the government to get away with. China’s biggest blogging and micro-blogging platform has 324 million registered users, and there are millions more on competing services. Constrained though it is, Weibo has become a boisterous national conversation. Stopping it at this point would both infuriate its users and deny the security services their best tool for gauging public opinion.
The Chinese government’s can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it relationship to Weibo epitomizes the paradoxical condition of free expression in China apparent during our trip. State censorship is no longer just a question of dissidents testing the boundaries of what is permissible and regularly running afoul of the authorities—the old, familiar model. It has become a matter of authoritarian innovation as well, with the one-party state experimenting in with ways to constrain and control its explosive new media environment.
The old model of centralized control, which hasn’t in any respect gone away, relies heavily on self-censorship, encouraged by unpredictable consequences and exemplary punishment. On the Internet, the uncertain starts with the question of access. The Great Firewall blocks the most incendiary sites, search terms, and topics most of the time, but remains porous for those who go to the trouble to use proxy server. With a VPN, I was able to get to Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Sometimes I could access blocked sites without the VPN, sometimes I couldn’t access them even with one, and sometimes my connection slowed to the speed of dial-up. Unpredictable connectivity imparts a sense that someone is calibrating the size of the aperture and peering through it in the other direction.
For those who might be inclined to challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party, uncertainty produces a powerful chilling effect. Earlier this year, the dissident writer Zhu Yufu was sentenced to seven years in prison for a poem referring to “The Square,” and some messages sent over Skype. In Beijing, I met with He Depu and his wife Jia Jianying, fearless dissidents recently released from eight years in prison and 18 months in a labor camp respectively for advocating democracy. But such punishment is by no means certain. I had dinner in Beijing with Koonchung Chan, author of a subversive dystopian novel called The Fat Years, whose theme of which is the erasure of the Tiananmen Square massacre from public consciousness. His book can’t be published on the mainland, but Chan hasn’t been punished and speaks his mind with impunity. The ambiguous boundary also applies to journalists and scholars, who can be denied visas or arbitrarily evicted for unspecified reasons, as Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera English was earlier this month.
But self-censorship no longer seems to be getting the job done. When I visited China in early 2008, the overall conversation was far more constrained; You had to develop a feeling of trust with someone before he or she would criticize the government, especially in any kind of public setting. This time, an entire class of journalism students at Peking University shared their objections to the blocking of websites—and their professors seconded the sentiment. The lone dissenter was a student who came up to us afterward to say that he agreed with the government. One of the interesting moments on the trip came when a professor at another university turned to an official minder assigned to us and said, “Don’t turn me into the Party for what I’m about to say.” He proceeded to suggest that the government should apologize to the families of the students killed at Tiananmen Square.
If the old model depends on intimidation, the new model of repression relies as much on influence—the effort to shape and steer the conversation on Weibo and blogs. The government recently forced Sina to institute a new user contract that forbids posts that threaten “the honor or interests of the nation.” It has also required a real names policy (a la Facebook), that prevents anonymous commenting. One writer with a Weibo following in the millions told me that when she becomes too provocative on a topic like Bo Xilai, a contact at Sina will call her to say, “that’s enough for today.” The authorities like to be ridiculed even less than they like to be challenged. The artist Ai Weiwei, whom I visited at his studio in Beijing, told me a stunt that upset officials more than any other was when he trained surveillance cameras on himself for two days. The authorities begged him to stop and—for various reasons—he did.
In Shanghai, I met another key figure in China’s evolving free-speech landscape, Han Han. A teen heartthrob, novelist, race-car driver, and perhaps the most popular blogger in the world, Han plays a cat-and-mouse game with his censors. When he wants to write something especially provocative, he’ll post it in the middle of the night, or over a holiday weekend, when he figures that a personal censor who plays one-on-one defense goes off-duty. Sometimes Han’s posts get taken down right away, sometimes they’re removed later, and sometimes they’re deluged with negative comments he traces to officaldom. But with more than 500 million visits to date, Han’s blog is too popular to shut down. As he calibrates what he can get away with in relation to the government, the government calculates what it can get away with in relation to him.