China’s weibos pass 300-million user mark

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Months after revealing that its online adult population had gone past the 500-million mark, Chinese state authorities announced that more than 300-million people in the country have microblogging accounts.

The microblogs, known as weibos (pronounced wei-bohr), emerged and went from strength to strength after Chinese censors blocked Twitter in 2009.

Two of the country’s internet powers, Tencent Holdings and Sina Corporation are the largest weibo providers in the country. Their products integrate a number of the services from their chat and blogging portals and should not, therefore, be mistaken for mere Twitter clones.

On Sina Weibo, for instance, users can view comments in much the same way as they can on Facebook. The microblog also beat out Twitter with an automatic link-shortening feature.

Both Tencent and Sina announced plans for English-language versions of their weibos this year, although Tencent was first off the mark, giving it a critical edge when it comes to targeting the international market.

Anyone accessing the site from a recognisably foreign IP address is automatically redirected to the English-language version of the site.

Like all websites in the country, though, the weibos have to comply with China’s strict online censorship system, commonly known as The Great Firewall of China. Any content regarded as politically inflammatory is immediately snuffed out by the system.

This has not however stopped people from using the weibos to criticise government officials and their handling of corruption, scandals and disasters.

Earlier this year, for instance, a weibo user was believed to have broken the news about a high-speed train crash in which 40 people were killed, provoking widespread condemnation of the government.

Footage of bodies falling from train carriages as heavy machinery lifted them off the tracks just hours after the accident triggered a particularly furious response.

In the wake of this incident authorities stepped up their efforts to control so-called rumours, which spread quickly on the weibos.

Initially the companies behind the weibos looked to block the accounts of users they deemed guilty of spreading false information.

Recently, Chinese authorities vowed to intervene more directly, hunting down and even arresting users it claims are spreading rumours online.

At a recent secret meeting in Beijing, the country’s Communist Party officials reportedly agreed on a new set of online directives including stricter controls on social networking sites and a crackdown on “vulgar” online material.

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