Tea Leaf Nation

Whisper Together

Startling new findings suggest China's social media crackdown is working. But where are the users going?

Findings by East China Normal University (ECNU), a research university in Shanghai, commissioned by U.K. outlet The Telegraph and released Jan. 30, lodge concrete data behind what frequent users and analysts of Chinese social media have felt for months: Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, which once provided the closest thing China had ever seen to a public platform for free speech and debate, is losing its mojo.

The ECNU data, which have also been made available to Foreign Policytrack the daily posting habits of 1.6 million Weibo users from the first day of 2011 to the last day of 2013. December 2012 saw a total of 300,394 users making 40 or more posts per day at least 20 times that month. In December 2013, there were only 114,062 such users, 62 percent lower than a year earlier, and a drop of 74 percent from December 2011.

In its heyday, Weibo provided a valuable window into the often-opaque country for foreign journalists, and a steam valve for aggrieved citizens. Like any important media property, it both drove and reflected widespread sentiment. It did this by collecting what had once been isolated dinner-table conversations and agglomerating them into one massive digital space. The effect was exponential, not additive. Once Chinese with minority opinions -- even heterodox ones -- had a way to learn that they were not alone, they felt emboldened to speak further. But after a Chinese government crackdown on China's virtual public square beginning around August 2013 -- which included the detention and arrest of hundreds of microbloggers, as well as new rules that tightened penalties for online speech crime -- Chinese political discussion has retreated into private corners again. That includes social networks like the now-thriving WeChat, a smartphone-based social network that keeps discussions mostly between friends -- and Chinese authorities, who assuredly monitor it. Think of it as a virtual dinner table, albeit one with a microphone strapped to its underside.

In a statement to The Telegraph, a Sina spokesman argued that the study "cannot represent the whole of Weibo," and he's surely right. Weibo in 2014 does not resemble a ghost town; it's more of a digital Disney World, filled with celebrity gossip, thinly veiled ads, and pictures of cute animals. That was always true, but it used to contain a rich vein of political discussion among the quotidian, one that's now much harder to tap. Indeed, the drop-off in chatter shown by ECNU research began to accelerate in September 2013, around the time that Chinese authorities threatened by the growth of an independent platform for opinion-makers began to flash their knives.

During its halcyon period, press would often refer to the "power of Weibo." That may have overstated the case. Platforms like Weibo are ultimately abstractions, ones comprising human beings, with all their attendant flaws and vulnerabilities. Once Chinese authorities got wise to this, they focused on instilling fear in some of the people who made Weibo special. It's a decision that has brought stress and tragedy into the lives of hundreds of human beings. The result is deeply disheartening to Chinese citizens and frustrating to those seeking to make sense of the world's largest country.

But it also offers a reason to hope. If in fact hundreds of millions of Chinese people constituted the heart and soul of Weibo -- and not some serendipitous strings of computer code -- then their collective citizen power remains, even if it's currently a disembodied force in search of a digital or institutional host. Just on Wednesday, Jan. 29, a billionaire activist and once-prolific microblogger named Wang Gongquan appeared to return to the Weibo medium, just seven days after being released from months in prison -- and a possible 60 days in solitary confinement -- for what amounted to speech crimes. The account connected to him was quickly deleted, but the risk Wang took in opening it shows just how hard Chinese authorities must work to keep some citizens silent.

Like everyone else, Chinese people want clean air, reliable institutions, and the chance to voice reasonable demands for a better life. Sooner or later, those complaints will find another home.

AFP/Getty Images

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