Illustration by Paul Sahre.

Microblogging in China

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In the last several years, microblogs and social-media sites have become ubiquitous platforms for the exchange of information and ideas. This unique opportunity for expression has never before existed in China. Platforms such as Weibo have become the main force for people to question authority and share information, to demonstrate their will and political demands. New forms of technology are uncontrollable and pose an everyday baptism by fire for the authorities in China.

Repressive governments do not respect or even like to hear about these unfettered channels of communication. In China, the government has a very strict policy regarding the internet. They erected the Great Firewall and try to limit information that questions authority or that differs from official propaganda. The official version of the truth is sensitive because its character is always twisted. I think the Chinese government understands the potential danger of microblogs and social media because there is no way for them to deal with the free flow of information and discussion.

The recent requirement for Weibo users to register their real names is part of the Chinese government’s attempt to control the internet. It is a policy designed to scare people away from seeking accurate information. According to Chinese law, people can be sentenced to prison for years just for speaking one sentence or a single poem. This shows how the totalitarian system is dependent on censorship, and demonstrates the Communist Party’s view on public opinion and engagement. This is a mishandling of social media and, in fact, contradicts China’s own constitution.

The Weibo registration requirement may frighten away some speculative thinkers, but people like me who want to express themselves won’t be intimidated. It’s very ironic because although I always use my real name online, the authorities constantly block me and then I am forced to use another name to register. Now, I am going to register under my real name again to test if Weibo will accept my registration in compliance with its own policy. Between February and March, I registered at least 100 accounts under different names, but all of them were deleted after a few days. On Weibo, aihuzi has been my longest-lasting “fake” name. When people started to lend us money to put up the bond for the tax investigation into my wife’s company, I was able to use that name online for about a week. At that time some 30,000 people got in touch via Weibo and loaned us a total of RMB 9 million (USD 1.42 million). It’s a miraculous story. It also scared the authorities and alerted them as to what might happen if they let me speak freely on Weibo. 

Twitter also recently announced that it will have the capacity to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis. In my view, it is unlikely that Twitter will accept the kind of restrictions that the Chinese authorities would want to impose on it, so practically I don’t think this will work in China. Although nations will adopt different policies toward public information and areas that they believe need censoring, I think China’s policy on censorship is beyond what is acceptable. Also, China has no need for Twitter. Twitter has fewer than 200,000 Chinese users in comparison to Weibo’s 300 million.

In an environment of harsh censorship, the demand for truth, like an uncontrollable pressure cooker, creates a high potential for instability. People don’t trust traditional means of communication that are already censored, so they have turned to social media. Eventually microblogs will be accepted because they are really just convenient tools for human communication. They are quite simple and don’t need much technological sophistication on the part of the user, but of course they require trust and understanding between netizens. Microbloggers connect via certain types of personalities and characters that are grounded in freedom of speech, individualism, critical opinion and even fantasy. They can relate to symbolic figures online that they identify with in terms of political views, aesthetics or moral judgments. I don’t think the authorities can stop this, but the type of struggle that lies ahead and its costs remain unclear.

In the end, what is memorable and important for me about the internet is how I have been able to relate my art and reality to the online world. I can share my ideas and passion, as well as some very important moments, with hundreds of thousands of others in that virtual space. What comes out is a kind of form or voice that is very encouraging, almost like a miracle. Many desperate people, including myself, have experienced a kind of liberation that would never have been possible without the internet. That is something worth mentioning.