Mon, May 09, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Could Renren be vulnerable in a Chinese crackdown?

Reuters, NEW YORK

After then-US ambassador Jon Huntsman was seen in a crowd at one of the pro-democracy gatherings in Beijing, censors cracked down on microblog searches for his Chinese name. They have also blocked searches for “jasmine,” “jasmine revolution” and “Hillary Clinton” on popular Web sites.

So far, China’s rapid economic growth has outpaced its political problems, bringing many people from poverty into the middle classes. It has also ironically allowed China’s security apparatus to get all the funds it needs for surveillance.

LITTLE DANGER

Despite concerns about inflation and corruption — which both helped to trigger the Tiananmen protests — few think China’s rulers are in any danger of being threatened like the leaders in North Africa and the Middle East.

However, there have been protests and strikes and the authorities fear that if the nation’s economic growth were to slow significantly, unrest could bubble up. As social media-powered protests elsewhere have proven, Web sites like Renren could find themselves in the middle of a perfect storm.

“I don’t think there’s a threat in China of anything comparable to the Middle East,” but the fear of mass-mobilization is enough to create a sense of urgency around social media, Meidan said.

“Ahead of the political leadership transition in 2012, it’s going to remain very, very volatile,” she said, referring to the expected power handover from Hu.

Renren’s self censorship should be enough to protect it under normal circumstances, but if the Chinese leadership felt really threatened, the story might be very different.

One of Renren’s biggest appeals for US investors is its access to the biggest Internet user base in the world in a country that has put up walls to major global competitors.

However, that’s exactly what might be Renren’s Achilles’ heel. If a government can’t accommodate the Googles of this world, then what will happen to the local equivalent if it is implicated, even if unwittingly, in a major political eruption?

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