Almost every week, there are stories in the press or on Chinese social media about what even the official Chinese media call "hot online topics": stories about how people in a particular village or town used weibo to expose malfeasance by local or regional authorities. This calls the central government's attention to problems which it can then swoop in and solve, making the central government look like it is more concerned with the common people than are local officials. Citizens even manage to use cyber-vigilantism -- popularly known as the "human flesh search engine" -- to bring about the resignation of badly behaved officials. Sometimes laws and regulations are even changed, and policy reforms implemented, as the result of concerned citizens' online campaigning.
Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state. I call its new style of information-oriented governance "networked authoritarianism." Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing -- at least sometimes -- without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles. In the case of the Bo-Gu-Heywood scandal, social media "is forcing a level of transparency in how the government handles this case that never used to exist," explains media entrepreneur and blogger Jeremy Goldkorn, who has been living in China since the 1990s. China's political system may not have changed, yet the public has become both a constituency and a pawn in the nation's political battles.
If anything, weibo may even help the Communist Party re-centralize its political power at the expense of local officials and regional governments, which over the past three decades of economic reform have gained greater autonomy from Beijing. The weibo companies are all headquartered in the capital and required to take orders from the central government. ("For a local government to have content blocked or deleted requires getting on a plane to Beijing," Anti explains.) The advent of weibo has created a cycle in which the public is increasingly emboldened to use social media to report on localized abuses by individual officials, with some reason to hope that once the central government is alerted to the problem justice will prevail.
At the same time, the consequences of any efforts to organize protests, meetings, or movements focused on criticizing or changing the central government remain the same as they been for more than two decades, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Liu Xiaobo, who circulated the "Charter 08" treatise calling for multi-party democracy and who won a Nobel Peace Price in 2010, is serving a 10-year jail sentence. Many signatories of his charter received visits from the police. In early 2011, dozens of people who re-tweeted calls for "jasmine protests" inspired by Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" were questioned or arrested. Weibo postings by intellectuals calling for political reform are quickly removed, and have not been allowed to go viral as the Bo Xilai rumor postings managed to do. Chinese journalists are being muzzled more tightly than ever to prevent them from conducting investigative reporting that might damage the central government's power.
Meanwhile, Beijing is doing everything possible to remind China's Internet users of who is in charge. Several websites popular with Maoist supporters of Bo Xilai have been shut down or suspended. The People's Daily issued an ultimatum against online rumors and people who spread them. The professional media has received strict instructions not to report unauthorized news on the Bo-Gu-Heywood case. More than 1,000 people have been arrested for "spreading rumors."
Last week, the "great firewall" system that normally blocks blacklisted foreign websites temporarily blocked all foreign websites. Since then, bloggers and Internet industry insiders report that the overall level of website-blocking has noticeably increased. Postings by weibo users with more than 10,000 followers will be individually vetted. The government is also pushing the weibo companies to implement a "real name" registration system by the middle of the year, which means at least in theory that it will become much more difficult for weibo users to disguise their identity from the authorities, if not from the general public. "If it is really implemented," says Beijing-based Internet investor and commentator Bill Bishop, "the real effect will be a reminder to people that the government is watching and they should be careful about what they say."
The paradox of the Chinese Internet is that despite all of these measures, weibo remain a lively place, where most Chinese Internet users feel freer to debate and discuss matters of public interest than ever before. A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference.
These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China's political future. As Anti puts it, "The political change will come from non-Internet factors, but thanks to the Internet people will be more ready to do something positive with it."