The China Internet Network Information Center—China’s state-run Internet registry—reports (Chinese PDF) that the number of Web users in China increased by 12 percent in 2011, reaching a total of 513 million users in December 2011. As a point of comparison, that means China has 67 percent more Web users than the entire U.S. population: five Chinese citizens access the Web for every three Americans—regardless of whether those Americans have Internet access or not.
However, while the overall number of Web users in China might have been up 12 percent for the year, the number of users of microblogs—weibo, services akin to Twitter—exploded, with nearly 250 million users. That’s a four-fold increase compared to 2010. However, the CNNIC reports reports that most of that growth came in the first half of 2011…before new regulations on the industry began to take effect.
The popularity of microblogs highlights the difficulties the Chinese government faces in its attempts to control Internet content, where it routinely purges and blocks access to material it deems inappropriate, disruptive, or dangerous. Just like social networking tools in the western world, Chinese microblogging services move in real time, making them very difficult for censors and monitors to control effectively. As such, microblogs were crucial sources of information for many events during the last year, including reports of government corruption, a high-speed rail accident, an industrial accident in the northern city of Dalian, and an ongoing rebellion in the southern village of Wukan.
Chinese authorities have repeatedly characterized microblogs and social media as tools of western (and particularly American) imperialism, saying the technologies are primarily being used to usurp Chinese cultural values, distribute misinformation, and impose western culture—and even likened the services’ tendencies to rapidly spread reports and rumors as a psychological “drug” with societal downsides comparable to pornography and gambling. The United States and other western countries are even helping fuel this stance a bit: the U.S. State Department is actively funding technologies to work around censorhip regimes by enabling peer-to-peer social networking and clandestine communications networks, among other things.
Chinese authorities are also no doubt wary of the role social media has played in the so-called Arab Sprint movements in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria. Although Syria continues to be a hotbed of conflict and Bahrain successfully quelled dissent against its regime, Facebook and Twitter were crucial to distributing information in Tunisia and Egypt. In late 2011, the Chinese government introduced new “real-name” regulations requiring microblog users provide operators with their real names. Microblog users will still be able to use screen names, but the government will be able to associate those with real identifies, raising the risks of challenging or even questioning the government.