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China's police join the microblogging masses

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
December 7, 2011 -- Updated 0400 GMT (1200 HKT)
An Internet user points to the account page of China's President Hu Jintao on a microblogging site
An Internet user points to the account page of China's President Hu Jintao on a microblogging site
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China's police are enthusiastic adopters of microblogging
  • The move is part of a government drive to connect with bloggers
  • Social networking has more than 500 million users in China
  • The government fears an economic downturn could stoke social unrest

(CNN) -- China's police have long played a game of cat and mouse with China's millions of microbloggers, plowing through terabytes of celebrity gossip and other electronic drivel to drill down to anything that may constitute an anti-state opinion.

But with the hydra of Chinese microblogs proving to be strongly crackdown resistant, the Chinese government is now taking an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach by taking the propaganda war to the blogosphere.

At last month's annual policy meeting, the Communist party announced it was launching a campaign to establish a microblog beachhead on Sina Weibo, an internet portal with an estimated 250 million users, reclaiming the microblogs for the party.

Social media to curb 'rumors' in China

Since Sina Weibo launched the government edition, some 19,000 government officials have started tweeting, according to a report from Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.

The police, normally the scourge of China's pro-democracy netizens, have been the most enthusiastic adopter with more than 5,000 accounts.

Increased censorship might dampen the conversations significantly
Jeremy Goldkorn

Under the tag "Peaceful Beijing," a team of microblogging police has been giving a glowing account of the force. According to a report in the Financial Times, one post recounted how officer Ma, from a south Beijing police station, stopped and checked nine buses over an 18-mile (30 km) stretch in search of a child left behind by its scatterbrained grandmother.

Microblogs have recently come in for special attention from the government amid fears that a slowing economy may stoke social unrest.

While much of what appears is harmless fare, microblogs offer forums reporting unrest or official abuses and Beijing is worried about their potential to erode the party's authority.

The police presence is unlikely, however, to stall China's twittering masses.

"I don't think increased government activity on Sina Weibo will affect the lively discussions on Weibo, but increased censorship might dampen the conversations significantly," said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the popular China media website Danwei.org

"Various government organs have been attacking 'rumors' and 'malicious statements' on Weibo and it seems the pressure is on for Sina to censor certain kinds of postings -- this is the type of government activity that will affect the atmosphere on Weibo.

"Government and police organizations (central, provincial and local) have been using Weibo, and previously blogs and websites for many years already," he added. "They do serve some useful services aside from propaganda."

Meanwhile, for many of China's microbloggers, getting around the censors, often no more than bots programmed to seize on keywords, has become an art.

During the Arab spring uprisings -- events likely to have made the Chinese authorities nervous -- search bots were programmed to highlight seemingly anodyne words such as Egypt or Jasmine.

Words such as "Tiananmen" or "June 4, 1989" -- the date of the Tiananmen crackdown -- have always come in for special treatment. However, typing in "8x8" -- shorthand for 64, in turn shorthand for 6/4 or June 4 -- allowed the reader to tune into some surprisingly open exchanges on the social networking sites.

References to "the Pharaoh nation" instead of Egypt, misspelling democracy as "democrasy" or "democrazy" or even scanning written comment and posting it as an image are just some of the ways microbloggers cheat the bots on social networking sites such as Renren and Sina Weibo.

Others use a mixture of street slang or dip in and out of one or more of China's 45 regional dialects to disguise comment. Others, still, are either past caring or simply like to test their nerves and those of the censors.

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