At the risk of repeating myself, I think it needs to be said: Sina Weibo’s new user contract and credits system is not a big deal. It’s not even really much of a change.
First, a brief summary for those who aren’t already aware: the user contract lays out guidelines under which users can be punished for posting “harmful” information of various kinds. The credit system assigns a team of community members to police weibo posts, adding points for participation in official activities and deducting them for posting things Sina doesn’t want you to post (politically sensitive news, rumors, etc). Users whose “credit” dips low enough may have their accounts disabled or deleted.
Since the implementation of the new rules, we’ve seen a lot of articles like this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists. I don’t mean to pick on that organization — which I think is important and does admirable work — but let’s take a look at some of what’s written here about Sina’s policies. I’ve seen similar things written other places, as well.
It’s the first time such guidelines target users who adopt puns, homonyms, and other veiled references to discuss censored news stories without using keywords on the propaganda department’s blacklist, the reports said.
While true, this is somewhat misleading, as it gives readers the impression that prior to now, puns and other veiled references were permitted. That is not the case. Although they can be harder to censor (for obvious reasons), Sina has been deleting messages and even blocking the accounts of those who use puns to discuss sensitive news for some time now. For example, more than a year ago when netizens coined the phrase “love the future” as a way of discussing the plight of then-imprisoned dissident Ai Weiwei (the phrase sounds similar to his name in Chinese), Sina’s censors tracked and deleted those posts, and in some cases punished the users. I myself had several “love the future” messages I posted deleted.
The new system is the first time Sina has stated publicly that the use of puns to to make reference to censored news is not permitted and will be punished. But Chinese punsmiths have been having their posts deleted on Weibo for a long time now. This user contract does not appear to introduce any real enforcement changes, it’s simply more open about what is being done.
Sina introduced user contracts on Monday which establish a kind of information credit score, according to international news reports. Each account begins with 80 points, which increase with “unspecified promotional activities” but will be reduced for spreading rumors, impugning China, or calling for protests, according to The New York Times. Users will be warned when their score drops below 60, and see their accounts canceled if they hit zero, the Times said.
The new system appears complex and carefully calibrated, but it’s actually arbitrary. It is not clear who will assess alleged violations and how many points they will remove. The violations are outlined in broad terms that cover reporting on censored news stories and expressing anti-government opinions–hence the opportunity to apply them to even the most creative allusions to banned content (and the possibility that some users will be punished for innocuous use of suspected code words).
Again, this is all true, but doesn’t indicate any real change in enforcement. Users who posted too many sensitive messages have been getting their accounts canceled by Sina virtually since Weibo’s inception, the only difference is that now there is a numbering system attached to it. As CPJ points out, though, this system is pretty arbitrary, which essentially means that things are just as opaque as they have always been. It’s still not entirely clear what you can and can’t say, or what the repercussions — if any — will be when you get caught.
Actually, to me the credit system almost sounds like a way for Sina to tacitly endorse politically sensitive speech. The message it sends is that it’s essentially OK to post messages that end up censored, as long as you can balance that point loss by adding points to your account through participation in official Sina activities. However, I expect that Sina will continue to close accounts with disregard for the points system — I doubt, for example, that Ai Weiwei is going to be allowed on Weibo for long, no matter how many points he has — so weibo life will probably go on more or less as usual.
The guidelines, if fully implemented, could have a chilling effect on regular users, but they will not impede writers and activists in the vanguard of the fight for free expression. Unfortunately, they will not replace the Chinese Communist Party’s use of criminal prosecutions–or extralegal punishment–to silence those writers and activists, either.
The second half of of this paragraph is right on the money, but that first sentence is puzzling. If these guidelines are implemented, what has changed? Effectively nothing, as far as I can tell. Before the new rules, weibo users who made posts about sensitive subjects often saw their posts deleted, and if they did it too often, their accounts were closed. After the new rules, weibo users who make posts about sensitive subjects will continue to see their posts deleted, and if they do it too often, their accounts will be closed. The only difference is that now there will sometimes be a fairly arbitrary number attached to the process.
Don’t get me wrong, I think China’s censorship of the internet (in fact, any censorship of the internet) is repugnant and a major obstacle to the country’s development. My point is just that this “new system” doesn’t seem to be all that new. The posts it targets are posts that Sina has already been targeting for years, the only difference is that we’ve now been offered a little explanation as to what’s going on. The system still seems too opaque and arbitrary to award Sina any points for transparency, but I really don’t understand why so many people are presenting it as some new, harsher crackdown when all it appears to do is put down on paper what Sina’s censors have already been doing for quite some time.
Link to full article