OPINION
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The clicks of liberty

When Weibo was created, the Chinese government had all servers located in Beijing to facilitate immediate blocking of the networks

Click by click. Thus goes the fight on the keyboard; thus liberty gains or loses ground. Millions of people, especially the young, thus exercise their right to expression, telling what they see, know or feel, which is often the denunciation of abuses, or crimes. This is going on all over the planet, mainly in the dictatorships. And in China, with the huge numbers typical of its demography: 350 million users on Sina Weibo, the largest Chinese social network.

Weibo, which means micro-blogging in Chinese, is a blend of Twitter and Facebook: photos, videos, emoticons. It is a news instrument of the first order in a country where journalism is subject to strict control by the regime. In three years of life it already has 350 million users, an impressive figure, if compared to the 500 million achieved by Twitter in twice the time.

According to the Chinese journalist and blogger Michael Anti, pseudonym of Jing Zhao, China's Twitter can be summed up in two words: cloning and blocking. The original is copied and access to it is blocked, so that the Chinese public has to turn to the new, controlled system. Since 2009, when Weibo was created, the government had all servers located in Beijing to facilitate immediate blocking of the networks, if need be. The Arab Spring can't happen in China, says Anti.

The Chinese government has conflicting feelings about information technologies. On the one hand it feels obliged to promote them, and even to be in the vanguard of their use, knowing that the future of a modern economy is bound up with them. On the other, it knows that they challenge its pretensions to authoritarian social control. The chosen formula is a certain margin for liberty, astutely combined with severe censorship of messages that may affect political stability.

Rumors had broken out about the ousting of Bo Xilai, the "red prince" and mayor of Chongqing, whose wife has been convicted of the murder of a British citizen

China is too big a market to be left entirely in foreign hands, however willing these hands may be to submit to the arbitrary demands of a single party. Thus emerged the Chinese networks, which soon became hegemonic, and from birth were organized on the government's lines of self-control.

The thought police reside within Weibo itself, tracing forbidden words, closing accounts, and erasing between 10 and 20 percent of messages, depending on the time. The peak moments are when a big scandal breaks. March 8 of this year was the heaviest day for Weibo erasures, according to an investigation by the University of Hong Kong. Rumors had broken out about the ousting of Bo Xilai, the "red prince" and mayor of Chongqing, whose wife has been convicted of the murder of a British citizen.

According to Kaiser Kuo, rock musician and spokesman for Baidu, the Chinese clone of Google, for the first time his country possesses, in Baidu, a public forum outside the total control at which the government aims. Yet, remarkably enough, the Communist Party itself is using this forum for its own political infighting between different tendencies or different levels of the organization, thus tending to widen its margins. Many denunciations escape censorship because within the party someone decides to use the scandal to get rid of a leader, damage a faction or promote his own.

China is gearing up for the 18th Party Congress, to be held this fall at a date still undetermined, which will see the fifth generational turnover in the leadership of state and party. It is the first time a Congress will take place with this ambiguous public forum under way. The eclipse of the presumptive future president Xi Jinping during a week, amid a flood of rumors, would have gone practically unmentioned within China, were it not for Weibo. There will be no Arab Spring, at least for the moment; but it will grow harder for the censorship to contain the frantic pressure from millions of people using the keyboard for free expression.

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