The mainland's hugely popular micro-blogging service Sina Weibo has a reputation for being largely uncensored, the result of a tussle between authorities about just how far to go in regulating the relatively new media. Some see it as a valuable means of measuring public sentiment, while others perceive it as a way of spreading harmful rumours and causing discontent. The latter thinking would seem to be winning sway, with the company admitting that it has been asked to further tighten measures against users seen as being troublesome. But closing a window that has been opened or turning off a tap is no way to deal with untruths or otherwise on the social web; the government would do better to build credibility by allowing the network to flourish.
Microblogs are an important part of life for more than 200 million mainland users. The state-controlled media does not allow the public to voice its views freely. But the social networks have not had such tight restrictions, providing a venue for people to express their most heartfelt opinions. They are an outlet for news, socialising and frustration that would otherwise be bottled up, perhaps to the point of boiling over. Authorities should be encouraging their use, not restricting access.
Accounts of the claimed corruption and misdeeds of officials are commonplace on Weibo, but the gossip, speculation and rumour extend to all facets of China. Officials, unused to such unbridled discussion in so wide a forum, were especially anxious about the postings after the deadly high-speed-rail crash in Wenzhou in July that questioned whether the government had tried to cover up the death toll and evidence. That spurred authorities to promise an open and transparent investigation. A system that ensures greater government accountability would be welcomed.
What is true or not true is sometimes difficult to discern on the internet. Forums, chat rooms and microblogs are a means of discussing concerns at all levels and it is up to those being talked about to make clear what is fact and fiction. Governments and companies need to develop strategies to properly handle criticism. Shutting down critics without justifiable reason or explanation will do more harm than good.
The government's monitoring and restrictions on the internet are among the most pervasive in the world. It has blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, allowing local variants to take their place. Curbing the free flow of thoughts, ideas and creativity, particularly across national boundaries, is not in the interests of China's development and growth. Ensuring a free flow of information on Weibo and the rest of the internet will help build an open and trusting relationship between the people of China and the government.