BEIJING – For Chinese Internet users frustrated by the government blocking of Western social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the best way to communicate has been on microblogging services via major Chinese Web portals like Sina, Sohu, NetEase and Tencent.
Microblogging – short, punchy, Twitter-like posts that can be as brief as a sentence – has become an increasingly popular way to communicate. That is, until now.
‘Sorry,’ no Internet today
It started with the microblogging service on the Chinese site, Sohu.com, which suddenly became inaccessible last Friday night and recovered service early Monday morning.
On Tuesday, NetEase.com, another microblogging site, had a notice saying, "Sorry, we are currently undergoing maintenance."
NetEase restored its service Thursday afternoon with its official notice "We have finished upgrading the system." But users discovered that the site’s old search function had disappeared.
The microblogging services on two other popular portals, Sina.com and Tencent.com, were not shut down. But a "beta" logo is appearing on both of their microblogging front pages, which means they are testing the service.
The shutdowns come just as the government-sanctioned China Internet Network Information Center released a report saying the number of Chinese Internet users reached 420 million at the end of June.
The speed at which Internet use is growing has made it more challenging for the government to monitor what people say and read online every day.
Early last year the Ministry of Industrial Information ordered that so-called "Green Dam" software be installed on all personal computers in China. The government said the software was meant to block websites considered inappropriate or harmful to users. But there was such an outcry from China’s netizens that the government was forced to abort the plan. And more recently, Google pulled out of China briefly due to a dispute over censorship of search results. The U.S. technology giant resumed business on the mainland this month after Beijing renewed its license.
None of these major portals’ spokesmen or editors has confirmed whether the government is behind the current spree of unexpected glitches.
The explanations given were either "system maintenance" or "upgrading," although the simultaneous timing is highly suspicious.
Bloggers still get word out
Gaoming, a Chinese tweeter, wrote on Twitter.com about the shutdowns. "All major domestic microblogging services have stopped their URL link functions. You can’t find any links on theses websites anymore." (Sophisticated Internet users have been able to access Twitter and Facebook via proxy servers.)
Another tweeter and popular commentator, Wen Yunchao, wrote, "Internet control policy in China can be concluded in one sentence: Trying as hard as possible to stop the spread of information."
But, despite the turmoil, Lian Yue, one of China’s most popular bloggers and a microblogger on both Sina and Tencent, said he’s still optimistic about the future of microblogs in the country.
"The government will definitely tighten their control over microblogging, but I don’t think they’ll completely shut them down," said Lian. "It’s hard to dig out the real reason behind this temporary shutdown, but it could be related to the change of the way information spread. Microblogging speeded up the information flow, but information censorship has always been there."