The Reality of Chinese Microblogging

Beijing based Sina Corporation is China's biggest and most often used micro-blog service. Other providers — such asTencent Weibo, Baidu and Ren Ren — pale in comparison to Sina Weibo, which claims to attract over 50% of China's microblog traffic.

Sina Weibo follows many of the same formats as Twitter. You are limited to 140 characters and can emphasize words for search by using a hash tag. But despite these technical similarities, the two are very different. Twitter is relatively uncensored while Sina reportedly employs over 1,000 people to monitor and censor posts.

In addition, it is estimated that the Communist Party employs more than 10,000 of its own monitors to make sure that the Sina Weibos of the world are following guidelines. Thus, the Sina censors must go beyond stated Party directives and anticipate which posts should be allowed and which should be deleted.

Currently, for examnple, any mention of disgraced Communist Party official Bo Xilai, or of his wife Gu Kailai, or of his son Bo Guagua, or of his just convicted police chief, Wang Lijun, will all be immediately captured by Sina's tracking software and the blog in question will not be posted. Postings that escape the initial automatic censorship but that seem to receive a high amount of attention by other followers will also be identified by Sina software and examined by the monitors. If one is thought to be inappropriate it is quickly deleted.

You or I might be appalled by such active censorship, but then again, let's not forget that Google has left town while Facebook and Twitter are blocked. Do we really want to have no micro-blogging at all in China?

Two weeks ago I was speaking with a Sina executive. Politely, I asked the inevitable question, "What about government censorship?" He hesitated for a moment and then said one word. "Balance."

I then listened to him expound on something I have heard many times before in China. He explained how in China, it is expected that you often take two steps forward and one step back. He talked about appreciating the ying and the yang and balancing the good with the bad.

"We need to take a middle position in China and not let our personally held ideas take precedence over the harmony required to do business in China. Furthermore," he said, "we are dramatically changing China for the better. If we were to follow an 'all or nothing' approach like some Western firms, we would be stopped before we could even get started.

"We know how far we can go. We have made an enormous difference in what is being reported now. We were influential in the news distribution to the masses of the Bo Xilai scandal, the Wenzhou train crash, and the faults in managing the Sichuan earthquakes as well as the shoddiness of some of the buildings that collapsed and killed children."

Even though I have strong misgivings about censorship, I believe this Sina executive was on to something. Sina Weibo has made a big dent in government corruption, it has forced mining companies to take steps to avoid disasters, and it has helped to temper anti-foreign sentiments. In fact, some government officials have opened their own Sina Weibo accounts in order to readily reply to criticisms. This kind of interaction was unheard of just a few years ago.

So what is the message? Perhaps it can be stated with a simple analogy. If your landlord says "no pets," even though you think no one has a right to restrict your ability to live with your beloved labrador, then you choose. I will live there with Daisy and risk being evicted, or look for another place to live. And so it is with living and doing business in China.

I know an American CEO in San Francisco who once told me, "I don't want a presence in China. I don't respect the politics and how they treat their citizens. So I won't go." While this position may cost the firm enormous sums, it is his right to take that position. In some ways, that is why Google left. But if you want to be in China, then you must respect your host and the rules of the games they develop.

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