Recently, Elon Musk, the new CEO of Tesla and founder of the aerospace company Space X, surprised the world by purchasing one of the largest and oldest social platforms on the Internet.
After six months of back and forth, Musk completed the purchase. Several top Twitter executives were fired, including former CEO Parag Agrawal, and some suspended accounts were reinstate. The new owner tweeted, “the bird is free.”
Many users of the platform believe that Musk could restore freedom of speech on Twitter. However, this would be very negative for the CEO of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter.
Twitter is banned in China; Chinese users who use the platform, thanks to breaking through the Great Firewall, could face police prosecution and a prison sentence. This means that anyone from China, if they publish any opinion contrary to the official discourse, contrary to the Chinese communist party, the country’s leaders, the economic crisis, the Zero-COVID policy, or other “sensitive” issues for the regime; the next day the police could knock on the door and give them some disciplinary blows, in addition to using the government judicial offices to open a court case and present evidence for a sentence of several months in prison. This is the reality for Chinese citizens.
Of course, facing the consequences of attempting to access freedom that does not exist in the country, such as freedom of speech, is very hard and risky; therefore, the Chinese make use of platforms regulated by the Chinese Communist Party, such as Weibo.
Netizens fury aimed at Weibo CEO
Weibo CEO Gaofei Wang commented on the Chinese social network about the recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, causing a flurry of comments on his post. Before finalizing the purchase, the Tesla CEO said via Twitter he wanted the platform to become a place “where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”
Wang, in line with the communist regime’s opinion control and censorship, said that “this is reasonable, the upper limit of punishment of the platform should not exceed the law, and the upper limit of punishment in the Weibo community is also prohibited. It only happens when authorized by national laws and regulations. Accounts will only be banned if they are within the scope of Weibo, and Twitter has really gone too far in the past.”
The Weibo CEO’s comment showed a tacit agreement with Twitter’s policy on suspending accounts that went “over the limit,” as well as pointing out that Weibo is not that extreme and “only” applies the “maximum punishment” if authorized by laws and regulations.
Despite strict censorship on Chinese social networks, the flood of comments criticizing Weibo’s CEO could not be stopped or removed so easily. Weibo users expressed in the comments their repudiation against censorship of free speech on the platform and criticized Weibo for banning accounts in the long run with vague “national legal regulation.”
Comments came one after another, “How dare you say that?”, “I’m shocked! Weibo CEO condemns Twitter for being too strict!”, “Wang Gaofei, you are so cheap!”. Hours later, all comments with criticism had disappeared from the social network, an overseas Chinese media outlet claimed.
The Sina Weibo platform is a social network launched by Sina.com, and users can create microblogs, post updates, upload photos and videos, make live broadcasts, etc. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presented it as the “Chinese version of Twitter” and had the power to control the discourse of netizens.
Deleting comments contrary to the CCP’s wishes is common and normal on Weibo, as well as censoring topics and trends. Recently, Hu Jintao’s departure during the closing ceremony of the 20th Congress was a banned topic for users of the Chinese microblogging network. Instead, in the West, the moment Hu was removed from the venue appeared on Twitter and Youtube, and even the international media reported on what happened.
A one-off event that occurred days ago shows that the platform’s censorship is not only for ordinary users.
Recently, the German embassy in China published on Weibo a thread of posts about the diplomatic relations between the two countries over the past fifty years.
The thread of commemorative events and historical facts started in 1972; the dates cited in the posts were non-controversial, devoid of criticism of the communist regime, with some even praising the socialist ideas of Karl Marx and his influence on Mao Zedong’s thinking.
As 1989 arrived, the publication, issued on October 28 by the German embassy, aimed to point out that it was a special year for both countries because they faced social challenges and pro-democracy demonstrations. For Germany, 1989 was the year the country was reunified under the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
However, for the People’s Republic of China under communist rule, 1989 was one of the most dangerous years for the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. The world witnessed the demonstrations of the Chinese youth, who demanded democracy and freedom. The image of the Chinese tank in the street in front of one person went around the world. The cruelty of the Chinese communist party was on display in Tiananmen. Although the official data does not exist because the CCP provides it, thousands of students are estimated to have died under tanks and bullets from the armed forces.
Therefore, the German embassy’s publication was blacked out to hide the mention of the Tiananmen massacre, leaving the part related to what happened in Germany. It has not been possible to verify whether the embassy did the deletion or the photo was crossed out beforehand. Yes, it can be stated that it was not censored by Weibo, although comments to the post were limited.
This demonstrates the power of censorship and the degree of control exercised by the CCP within its Chinese social network Weibo. The example of the German embassy is telling. In this sense, what else can Chinese citizens expect—will the new owner of Twitter remember them?