As recently as two years ago, China’s equivalent of Twitter, Sina Weibo, “was crawling with tales of political scandal.”
It all seemed consistent with our assumptions about the unstoppable forces presented by the Internet, even among anti-democratic regimes.
But such tales and accusations in China are fewer and far between these days. The online community is more passive, perhaps as a function of intimidation.
It may have started in the summer of 2012 with a government official pictured smiling at the scene of a bus accident, with other revealing images of the official wearing his luxury watches.
How could he afford those? The online outcry led to his conviction and a clear spike of other scandals disclosed on Sina Weibo. That increase was on display through 2013.
“But then something changed.” The spike ended and a sharp decline in such online allegations ensued.
One explanation suggests a mix of a new law meant to prevent “rumors” on the Internet and bloggers simply losing their appetite for kicking up a fuss.
Whatever, the result is the same.
Seeking guidance, on Monday I tracked down Evan Osnos, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and former Beijing correspondent for the magazine and the Chicago Tribune.
Osnos won the 2014 National Book Award for nonfiction for his “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.” His take on what’s playing out:
“There was a period, in 2011 and 2012, when it seemed that the energy of the Chinese Internet was approaching a point when the technical powers of constraint — censoring software, online monitoring — would no longer be able to keep up with the expansion of critical commentary.”
“But then the government adopted a new strategy: offline, case-by case pursuit and control. It approached individual bloggers and writers and made it clear that they would be punished for the effects of their voices.”
So for those who assume there’s some irresistible, democratic, tyranny-busting essence presented by the Internet, you might think again.
When it comes to the Chinese government’s response to unsettling news, charges and innuendo, “The strategy has proved remarkably effective at narrowing the force of the Web,” said Osnos.