Malcolm Moore at the Telegraph has a piece over here that makes the claim Boss Xi has put his big meaty fist through China’s Weibo social media platform. Usage has dropped sharply since anti-rumour legislation made it possible to hate-retweet someone into jail. The arrest of Charles Xue, a major figure on the platform on ostensibly unrelated prostitution charges also put the frighteners on the Big Vs, the multi-million follower ‘opinion leaders’ who generally supported reformist and/or liberal causes.
That started a lively debate about to what extent Weibo’s decline was a result of government action and how much the service was failing anyway. There’s been an emerging consensus for a year or so now that weibo was going the way of MySpace with punters increasingly drifting off to WeChat (Weixin) a messaging app based service in which users share whatever they want to share among small groups (WeChat is keyword censored, but not – as far as I know – actively monitored in the same way as weibo). In other words, whatever Beijing did to the service just accelerated an existing process. There’s also a school of thought to the effect that the political edge to weibo – or perhaps the stridency of the politics - played a significant role in pushing the less oppositionally minded off the service.
Whatever the combination of reasons, people seem to be convinced that the game is up, something which is going to cause changes in the way China is reported, since foreign journos tended to use it quite a lot. One good thing about Weibo was that it meant people outside China got to hear a lot of previously unheard government-critical voices. On the other hand, you did get a kind of weibo effect whereby a report about an event in China would drift into reporting about weibo’s response to the event and from there inevitably reporting about the way response to the event was censored, with the actual event itself sometimes tending to get lost. And because opinion on Weibo tended to be made a substitute for Chinese public opinion as a whole, a false note of imminent crisis often tended to creep into reports of interesting but not necessarily consequential events.
What we can see now is that the social importance of weibo was overstated. The view was that since it served as a general platform for discontent with the government Weibo would therefore provide an essential mechanism for public discours, so Beijing would never dare to neuter the service. Weibo was seen, by many, as an unanswerable challenge to China’s whole information apparatus. In the event, when Boss Xi decided to stick a fork in it, he found that very easy to do. And people were drifting away in increasing numbers anyway, which tends to demonstrate that it wasn’t so essential to the Chinese public as assumed.
As everybody knows, weibo was China’s version of twitter and I wonder if in the end people got irritated with it for the same reasons people here find twitter irritating. The constant stream of angry strangers, the weird virtual mob formations, the constant streaming of the meme of the day into the timeline, the sheer wall of babble, and so on. And on top of that you have the Communist Party stamping around in the undergrowth. So when people had the chance to move to a less frenetic instant communication environment, many were glad to take it. Even in an atmosphere of pervasive censorship, there is such a thing as providing people with too much information they don't want.