Top Chinese official warns Sina's Twitter-like service

Sina Weibo, a social networking platform, has 200 million registered users

A top Chinese communist party official has urged the country's Internet companies to firmly put an end to the spread of fake and harmful information, a statement that appears to be a warning to one of China's most popular Twitter-like websites.

Liu Qi, a member of China's politburo and party secretary of Beijing, made the comment on Tuesday as he visited the Chinese Internet firm Sina, according to state media reports.

Liu praised the company for its achievements with Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging platform with 200 million registered users. But he also urged China's Internet firms to improve the management and application of new technology, while working to stamp out harmful information over the Web. He also called on China's microblog users to be responsible and counter the spread of fake information.

China heavily regulates the Internet, going as far as blocking websites and deleting Internet postings in the case of content deemed to be anti-government or politically sensitive. U.S. sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been blocked in the country.

Sina Weibo and other domestic websites fall in line with the orders of Chinese censors by routinely removing sensitive content. In the case of Sina Weibo, the service has previously prevented users from searching for posts containing certain terms, like "Hillary Clinton" and "Inner Mongolia", because they related to sensitive topics such as protests and Internet freedom.

Despite the censorship, Sina Weibo has become a platform for users to expose scandals and criticize government officials. This happened, for example, in July after a high-speed train wreck in China killed dozens. The crash immediately became the most discussed topic on Sina Weibo, with users critical of officials for inadequate train safety.

"It's not only a place for keeping track of celebrities, but it's actually become a place where news is broken," said Michael Clendenin, managing director at research firm RedTech Advisors. "It's become the fourth estate of China. It's really become a new media."

As a result, the Chinese government has been watching the platform closely, clamping down when necessary, Clendenin said. In the case of the train wreck, Sina Weibo moved quickly to phase out discussion of the topic because of the anger vented against authorities.

But Sina Weibo has also become a hotbed for rumors and fabrications. In a recent case, a Chinese woman showed off her wealth through her account, claiming she worked with a company that had ties with the Red Cross Society of China. This caused Sina Weibo users to believe the charitable organization had been allowing employees to misuse donated money. The woman later apologized, saying she had lied about her employment.

"Microblogging holds a lot of potential to be very damaging, to organizations and to people's reputations in China. And this of course is raising the interest of the government," Clendenin said.

Ao Deng, a 24-year-old Sina Weibo user in Beijing, said the service excels at providing information other media outlets don't have. But recently, she has noticed Chinese Internet censors are deleting more Weibo posts.

"There are a lot of rumors, which will just anger people. But sometimes people talk about what's really happening in the country," she said. "You can rely on yourself to determine what is fake and what is true."

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Tags governmentsocial mediaregulationinternetsocial networkingInternet-based applications and servicesTencentSina

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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