When Chinese journalist Wang Keqin (王克勤) found himself cornered in the countryside two years ago by police who were trying to stop him looking into a rape case involving local officials, he looked online for help.
Wang, one of China’s most dogged investigative journalists, and his colleagues called a friend who posted constant updates about their stand-off with encroaching police to a Twitter-like microblog site. Authorities in Badong County were soon flooded with telephone calls from citizens warning them not to detain or hurt him.
“The county public security bureau was overwhelmed by all the calls. It was like a wave of pressure. Weibo saved me that time, and I’ve also used it to save people being chased by officials,” he said, using the Chinese term for the microblogging services that have bloomed as platforms for sharing news, views, gossip and public outrage.
“For Chinese people, weibo is creating an arena that is much more free than traditional media,” said Wang, who is well known for his painstaking reports on corruption and official misdeeds.
“It’s also turning more Chinese people into citizen journalists,” he said.
“Weibo is already a massive force. It can’t be shut down, although they might try to shut down VIP users,” he added, referring to online activists.
China’s microblog sites, which claim 195 million users and allow people to shoot out short bursts of often strongly worded opinion, have put China’s rulers in a difficult spot. Fearing an uproar if they block the sites outright, the censors struggle to keep ahead of the rapid-fire messages that often spread news and opinion the government would like to contain.
Chinese officials, Internet operators, media and citizens are all players in an online contest over how far microblogs will be allowed to challenge the censorship demanded by the Chinese Communist Party.
Twitter itself is blocked in China, along with Facebook and other Web sites that are popular abroad.
“Microblogs have pushed more of the traditional media to become more liberal and challenging,” said Wang Junxiu (王俊秀), a Beijing Internet entrepreneur and commentator who closely follows the microblogging world.
“They’ve also seen the role that social media played in the Middle East,” he added, referring to the popular uprisings across the Arab world that rattled Chinese leaders. “But under current conditions the government could not shut down microblogging. There are 200 million users, remember.”
China’s microbloggers have shown their collective potency in a string of recent official scandals, particularly the online uproar in the wake of a high-speed bullet train crash last month in which 40 people died.
These scandals have followed the same arc — of official censorship, spin and stonewalling buckling under the weight of rowdy microblog users impatient with the slowness and fetters of traditional media.
“People online seize on anything about officials and corruption, and they don’t let up,” said Liu Zhengrong (劉正榮), an official at the State Council Information Office who oversees Internet controls said, according to a Chinese newspaper, the Xian Daily.
“On the Internet, the public can send out something from multiple points and then to other multiple points,” Liu added, referring to microblogs. “Very quickly, the whole world knows.”