The 2012 leadership change will be the first since the explosion here of Weibo, the microblogging sites that are like a Chinese version of Twitter with some of the visual elements of Facebook tossed in. Weibo has more than 200 million users, and the number is growing.
Although the traditional media here remain largely controlled by government censors, Weibo has emerged as a freewheeling forum for breaking news, exposés and edgy opinion — often to the chagrin of censors. For example, Weibo users first broke the news of the July 23 high-speed train collision in Wenzhou that killed 40 people — even using cellphones to post photos directly from the crash site — well before traditional government-controlled media reported the accident.
Also, although newspapers, television and radio are typically owned by the government or the Communist Party, the Weibo sites are run by private companies, meaning the censors’ control had to be more indirect.
But that seems to have changed.
Last Friday, a spokesman for the State Council Internet Office, which is under China’s State Council, or cabinet, issued a statement warning Internet users to “show self discipline and refrain from spreading rumors.” The statement was carried by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.
A day before, Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Internet Office, told a conference here that social networking sites posed a problem for the government.
“Many people are considering how to prevent the abuse of these networks following violent crimes that took place in some parts of the world this year,” Wang said, referring to rioting in Britain that was fueled in part by youths using BlackBerry messaging and cellphones. “The Internet should not be used to jeopardize the national or public interest,” he said.
The companies that run the most popular microblogging sites seem to have gotten the message. Sina, whose Weibo site is the most commonly used, has stepped up efforts to remove what it calls unsubstantiated rumors from its site and to indefinitely freeze the accounts of users who spread rumors.
Sina’s move came after Beijing Party Secretary Liu Qi, who is also a member of the party’s Politburo, visited its head office in Beijing in August. Afterward, Sina said in a statement that it would “put more effort into attacking all kinds of rumors.”