Beijing's Weibo ban hits close to home
Suspension of accounts after the July 1 protest a worrying sign of threat to innovation, freedom
Hong Kong is apparently becoming the next Tibet or Xinjiang on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, in terms of the level of political sensitivity these days.
Politics and business can never be completely separated in this world. If someday Sina Weibo, already listed on the technology-heavy Nasdaq stock market in the United States, fails, then Beijing should be blamed for how the central government indirectly helped to kill one of the country's biggest business innovations in recent decades.
It is believed that at least 500 Sina Weibo accounts, mostly Hong Kong-based Weibo users, were suspended following the massive pro-democracy July 1 march in the city, which some foreign media described as the worst political crisis in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover from British colonial control to Chinese rule. My colleague William Zheng, the chief editor of SCMPChinese.com and I were among the suspended Weibo users last week.
Both William and I were given no reason for why our accounts were suddenly suspended. Our account suspensions happened shortly after we posted reports and photos about the July 1 march.
Other Hong Kong Weibo users whose accounts were also suspended included many local celebrities, such as singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming.
Interestingly, Weibo more heavily censored posts related to Hong Kong's July 1 march than posts on the other traditionally sensitive date, June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
An average of 70 out of every 10,000 Weibo posts made on July 1, also the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover, were quickly deleted, according to researchers at the University of Hong Kong.
Many journalists like using Weibo because it is a completely new way for news-gathering and offers a way to directly engage with their readers.
The innovation offered by Weibo has also helped Beijing ease social pressure in an unprecedented way, especially during emergency situations.
Many government agencies, from the central bank to police stations, are already on Weibo, but that does not mean it should become an online platform only for official information or propaganda.
Sina, the parent company of Weibo, was initially considered a clone of Twitter but later it introduced many functions such as long posts and sharing multiple photos in one post.
The large-scale Weibo account suspensions last week - which sources say were out of Sina's control, with the orders coming directly from the central government - are now prompting many users to wonder if it is time to break through the firewall and create their own profile on Twitter too.
After all, nothing is more important than freedom.