With the growth of the Chinese middle classes, social and digital media in the country has exploded, and billions of users now take to state sanctioned sites in order to discuss the biggest news stories in the country; ranging from quirky human interest pieces, to stories about government policy. Although the government is still trying to maintain some degree of control over what is shared on social media, it is becoming increasingly hard for them to keep ahead of the game.
The Growth of Social Media
Although many forms of Western social and digital media (such as Facebook) were sanctioned in China, alternative sites took off in the country. Around the same time that current President Xi Jinping was coming to power in 2013, social media growth in the country was reaching a peak. Because of the large number of microblogs, chat sites and other types of social content that were being started up across various digital platforms, it was difficult for the government to keep as tight of a control on shared digital content as they would like.
In 2013, new legislation was introduced which attempted to create stricter internet restrictions “across the board” to help to reign in the influence of activists who operated on microblogging sites such as Weibo. The new regulations meant that any website user who shared “defamatory” content which was read more than 500 times could be arrested and given a three year prison sentence. This was a huge threat to many users, who were previously only at risk of having an individual post or a user account deleted. For many users, it was unclear as to what would be considered to be defamatory content. The State Internet Information Department ran a seminar for several influential bloggers, where these bloggers were allegedly warned to avoid posting about the Communist Party, political occurrences, or anything that could be interpreted as contradicting the official party narrative. Several high profile bloggers and activists have been arrested under this law.
A revision to the Criminal Code which was introduced in November 2015 meant that anyone who was considered to be “spreading rumours” via an online platform could be sentenced to seven years in prison. The vagueness of the law means that the term “rumours” is wide open to interpretation. Although this has not been in force long enough to interpret the impact, it is expected that the law could be easily manipulated to control rogue bloggers.
It is impossible to accurately predict how Chinese digital and social media will change over the coming year. Undoubtedly the government are attempting to censor social media users; however social media use may also develop faster than the government is able to legislate.