Chinese censorship is nothing new. But recently the relationship between censor and dissident has grown more complicated as the government comes to accept that social media is no longer something it can simply take away from Chinese citizens. Brooke speaks with Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who recently traveled to China and spoke with some tech-savvy new dissidents.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Weibo is China’s most popular social networking site, home to 324 million users, frequently referred to as “China’s Twitter,” and it’s desperately seeking censors. It seems the currently rumored one-thousand censors just isn’t enough.
Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, visited Weibo’s offices last week. He wrote that, quote, “The Chinese government’s can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it relationship to Weibo epitomizes the paradoxical condition of free expression in China.”
JACOB WEISBERG: There’s a genie that’s out of the bottle here. People love it. I also think it’s useful to the government, in certain ways. How do you stay in touch with public sentiment in a country that doesn’t have free expression, where there’s not a democracy? How do you take the pulse? How do you know how much jeopardy you’re in? And I think social media is a prime way that the government sort of measures public sentiment.
The latest thing is they’re instituting a point system on Weibo. You start with eighty points, and if you get down to zero points, your account is suspended for some period of time. And if you get higher, I don’t know, you can win valuable prizes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do [LAUGHS] you earn points?
JACOB WEISBERG: By posting in a constructive way, not being critical. You lose points for spreading rumors, whether the rumors are true or not. I mean, the Bo Xilai story, which is the biggest political story to hit China probably in several years –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is the official whose wife was implicated in the murder of a British businessman.
JACOB WEISBERG: Right, and it was at first completely suppressed from the official press, and most people in China found out about it through these rumors, which in that case mostly turned out to be true. So there’s this constant question, if you're a Chinese Internet user. You don’t know where the boundaries are, what you can get away with. People are constantly playing games with censorship and pushing the boundaries. They can’t refer to June 4th, which is the date of Tiananmen Square, so they’ll refer to “May 35th.” People’s names are banned. They’ll use a rhyme, almost like cockney rhyming slang –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hm.
JACOB WEISBERG: - for the name.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What else do they do?
JACOB WEISBERG: Another woman, who I probably shouldn’t name, but who has a very big following on Weibo, four or five or, or six million people, and she says someone actually, at Sina, the company that runs the biggest Weibo, will call her up and sort of say, that’s enough for today. And remember, Sina, the company, which is, well, I guess, you could analogize to Twitter, is in a tricky position because they don’t necessarily like or favor censorship. They’re afraid of the government. And it’s never clear how much is being imposed upon them and how much they’re imposing on users.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Weibo refers to the kind of platform it is, the Twitterish platform, but Sina is the biggest provider of this platform. There are other Chinese Twitters about.
JACOB WEISBERG: There are other Weibos. And it, it’s important to understand, it’s a little different from Twitter, partly because in China it’s 140 characters, and a character is more like a word. If you have 140 characters, you can say a lot more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also met with Ai Weiwei, an artist who’s become internationally famous for his provocations, starting with questions that he raised in connection with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
JACOB WEISBERG: Yes, Ai Weiwei, who is a sculptor, and started to become very political when he got involved in documenting the names of the children who were killed in the earthquake and the shoddy construction methods. And he became very active on social media, but in his case it was on Twitter, itself, tweeting in Chinese but using Twitter, which you can access going around the great firewall which blocks websites that the government doesn’t like, using something called a proxy server.
Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011 on trumped-up tax charges. He was detained for 81 days, and they let him out and put a number of conditions on his release. One of them was that he stop using Twitter. He completely defied that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I read in your article that he’s posted 70,000 tweets?
JACOB WEISBERG: Well, he considers it an artform. He said that Twitter is his art-in-language form.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But since his imprisonment, he didn’t just use words. He also turned surveillance cameras on himself and posted that video continuously online.
JACOB WEISBERG: The government has put him under this intense surveillance. If you go to his home and studio in Beijing, you see these cameras that they’ve put looking down on him. He’s being watched all the time. He said, “What if I put myself under surveillance?” And he planted his own cameras around his home. And there was a website where you could go watch in, in real time, this Ai Weiwei cam. [LAUGHS] And the government got really upset about that, and he said they begged him to stop, I think because it was so undermining of their authority, basically because it was making fun of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s nothing worse than humor.
JACOB WEISBERG: [LAUGHS] Well, I mean, other people play this cat and mouse game. Ai Weiwei is more known for his famous gesture of giving them the middle finger. I just read this other account about something that happened recently, where he went up to these two monitors who were following him in the park taking pictures, grabbed this guy’s camera, ripped out the memory card, and they ended up in the police station. And, as he described it, this government agent ended up in tears, saying, “Don’t you understand how hard my job is?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
JACOB WEISBERG: Thank you, Brooke, a pleasure talking to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group.
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