The battle between netizens and the government for control of content on China’s burgeoning social media outlets is heating up. China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, fired a broadside this week at Chinese internet companies, urging the police and other regulators to do more to clean up “poisonous rumors” on the nation’s websites.

This comes just a few days after one of Beijing’s top Communist party leaders visited the offices of the nation’s most popular Twitter-like microblogging service, Sina Weibo, and suggested the Sina must do more to block the spread of “false information” among its 200 million plus users.

In coming months, it’s likely to become clear whether the relatively open, grassroots expression of opinions that have characterized China’s social media communities will continue to exert influence on government policy and China’s future or become a footnote in the evolution of the country’s internet.

The grassroots power of the Weibos, with those managed by Sina, Sohu and Tencent being the most popular, has been apparent for many months in the wake of a series of government corruption scandals. But the heated and angry online uprising that followed a crash of a high-speed bullet train that killed 40 people in July, brought the situation to a head. The furious string of online challenges of the official account of the accident spurred government officials to act.

Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, says that, compared to microblogs, China’s traditional media face “technical and systematic restrictions” in their efforts supervise the government. Microbloggers have filled that gap by making it easy for people to speak their thoughts in real-time, essentially making their public voices louder, according to Professor Zhan.

But this week’s attack on microblogs by Xinhua, the official government news agency and most powerful media outlet in the nation, foreshadows that things are about to change.

“Fundamentally eradicating the soil in which rumors sprout and spread will demand stronger internet administration from the responsible agencies,” Xinhua wrote, according to a translation proved by Chris Buckley of Reuters.

It’s tough to bet against the Chinese government when it tightens the censorship screws, but the nation’s 550 million internet users have demonstrated remarkable creativity in evading the watchful eye of the Golden Shield in the past. And there is no doubt that the outcome of this struggle will have a profound effect on the credibility and openness of the world’s largest social media community.

Mark Hass
President, Edelman China