When China’s Sichuan province was hit by a major earthquake in April 2012, users of China’s Twitter clone, Sina Weibo, lit up the Internet with tweets about the disaster.
In 2011, when one of China’s high speed trains crashed into another train, and plunged off a viaduct in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, killed 40, hundreds of Weibo users tweeted photos and accusations that authorities were trying to cover up malfeasance by burying some of the damaged cars.
Earlier this month, Typhoon Fitow flooded Yuyao, a medium-sized city in Zhejiang. Sina Weibo was comparatively quiet, probably because of new government efforts to stifle expression on the service.
But that was then. On Oct. 7, Typhoon Fitow hit China’s eastern coast, bringing the heaviest rainfall in a century down on Yuyao, a city of over 800,000 people in wealthy Zhejiang province. More than 70 percent of the city’s downtown lay submerged, according to state media. Authorities immediately dispatched disaster relief teams after the flood hit, providing emergency generators for hospitals and feeding displaced locals, though some residents in rural parts of Yuyao reportedly went days without aid. But, oddly, they didn’t take to Weibo to gripe. With Yuyao, China’s once-powerful social media seems to have lost its voice. While the 2012 Sichuan Earthquake, which killed at least 180 people, drew an estimated 5 million comments on Weibo, the flooding in Yuyao generated only an estimated 170,000 posts on the same platform.
What happened? An ongoing government crackdown on online expression — including a Sep. 9 law that expands the definition of defamation to include vaguely defined “online rumors” read 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times — has raised the stakes for online expression. Meanwhile, Beijing is trying to bolster trust in traditional media, which it largely controls. To do this, it is trying to sideline influential Weibo users like investor Charles Xue (11.9 million followers) and former Google China chief Kai-Fu Lee (51.8 million followers), both of whom have commented frequently on politics and current affairs.
More: Don’t Tweet This Chinese Flood - by Liz Carter
Xue was detained in August, accused of sex crimes. He later appeared on national TV, apologizing for “spreading rumors” and overstepping his responsibilities as a citizen. techinasia.com His arrest and recantation was to serve as an example for other, less influential micro-bloggers. Don’t criticize the government, or else.