In June, Guo Yuhua, one of China’s best-known sociologists, announced her breakup with Weibo. “I tried friendly communication. I tried reason. I tried angry resistance,” Guo wrote in a public letter posted on WeChat, titled “Farewell to Weibo.” “I yelled and screamed, but to no avail.”
Over the last decade, Guo had kept up a tumultuous relationship with the social media platform. Known for her pointed critiques of government authority, calls for political reform, and insights into the plight of the rural poor, she has long been a target of censors: her account has been shut down over 80 times, and each time she had to start again from scratch. But this summer, the breakup was final. She was barred by the platform from opening a new account; Weibo had dumped her for good. “This is not a friendly goodbye, not a reluctant goodbye,” she writes, “but an expression of contempt and protest.”
It wasn’t obvious from the start that it was going to turn out this way. When Guo put her first post on Weibo in the spring of 2010, the platform still held promise, as did the internet itself. Conventional wisdom among China’s liberal intellectuals was that online expression would set the country on a path toward greater openness, plurality, and democratization. Liberty would spread via cell phones, cable modems, and, above all, through the microblogs that had very rapidly proliferated online: “weibos.”
Weibo, which literally means “tiny blog,” soon became synonymous with Sina Weibo, the largest microblogging site in China, with a user base of 550 million — more than 60% of all China’s internet users. Launched in 2009, Weibo became a vibrant space for public discourse: a hub for intellectuals to share and debate their ideas and, most crucially, a site for contestation and protest among an increasingly wired public. High-profile celebrities — such as the actress Yao Chen and the race-car-driver-turned-blogger Han Han — as well as university professors like Guo were voicing their opinions and debating issues of public interest.
Most crucially, ordinary Chinese people, unable to gather physically to air their grievances, had found a digital town square. On the platform, they protested factory pollution, called out gender discrimination, roasted political officials, and invented a whole compendium of memes to evade censors (the most famous being “grass-mud-horse,” a phrase which means, with its tones switched around, “fuck your mother.”) When a tragic high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou in 2011 sparked a torrent of outrage, Weibo users shared information, exposed malfeasance, and called for justice. Domestically and abroad, observers anticipated the arrival of a free speech revolution. “Blogs Erode China Censorship,” read one headline. “Weibo Watershed” read another.
But then, the enchantment waned, and the golden age of Weibo quickly came to a close. As with any breakup, it is hard to pinpoint when exactly things began to sour. Nonetheless, there were turning points. The eruption of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. government spying practices in the summer of 2013 alerted Chinese authorities to the security threats posed by the internet. When Xi Jinping entered office in 2013, he tightened the reins by implementing a sophisticated system of censorship and control. Conventional wisdom shifted: instead of allowing the internet to open China to the world, China would learn to control the internet and create a world of its own.
Intellectuals on Weibo felt the squeeze immediately. First, there was the crackdown on “Big Vs” (verified accounts with large followings). Then, the internet police detained hundreds of popular bloggers on charges of “rumor-mongering” and arrested Charles Xue, a popular blogger and venture capitalist, for “soliciting prostitutes.” With more than 12 million followers, Xue was one of the best-known critics of the Communist Party. Within weeks, he appeared on state television to apologize for his irresponsible online behavior. “I overlooked my responsibility as a Big V. The internet is a virtual reality, but it needs order,” he said, dutifully. “A mature cyberspace needs law to keep it in check.”
Before long, government bureaucrats began to outsource the work of censorship to internet companies, says Rongbin Han, a professor at the University of Georgia and the author of a book on the Chinese internet, forcing Weibo to proactively expand its capacity to delete posts and hide keywords. New regulations stipulated that Chinese cyberspace had to be scrubbed clean of sensitive political content — including anything related to the “Three Ts”: Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan — and whatever the party deemed immoral, including “unhealthy marital values” and hip-hop. Officials also deployed a so-called “Fifty Cent Army” of online trolls to flood the Chinese internet with nationalist propaganda and go after government detractors. “They have turned Weibo into a huge camp for anonymous ‘little pinks’ (nationalist trolls) and ‘wolf warriors,’ where they smear, slander, and attack those who tell the truth,” Guo writes in her letter. “It has become no different from a maggot-infested pile of shit, and the stench drives me away.”
Thanks to what research scientist Xiao Qiang calls a “triangular system of censorship,” consisting of internet police, in-house corporate censors, and nationalist propaganda, an entire generation of Chinese public intellectuals are now estranged from the platform, either put off by the “stench” of nationalism or simply silenced into irrelevance. As a result, although the platform remains one of the noisiest hubs for entertainment, popular culture, and celebrity gossip, some claim that Weibo has lost its status as a place of meaningful public discourse. In the wake of the government squeeze on online expression in 2013, the number of posts has dropped by roughly 70%. Today, the rate of growth of regular users, new sign-ups, and individual users is in decline. Furthermore, the users who have stayed with the platform have struggled to keep their voices alive. “After each closure,” Guo reflects, “I had to start again and be reborn.”
Like many Weibo users, Guo decided to digitally reincarnate herself elsewhere: on the Chinese super app WeChat, or “weixin,” which literally translates as “micro-message.”
Since leaving Weibo, Guo has created a WeChat public account called “Yuhua Watches Society,” where she continues to share her insights with a smaller, more intimate audience. On WeChat, users are connected by shared acquaintances rather than common grievances; one cannot simply “follow” an account but must instead request permission to enter somebody’s circle. If Weibo is the town square, WeChat is a private living room — it facilities community interaction but offers fewer opportunities for mass mobilization. Because of this, Han, the cyberspace scholar, notes that “from the censor’s perspective,” it’s far easier to control WeChat than Weibo. “You are speaking not into a loudspeaker but at the dinner table — a level of discourse which the government can manage.”
The consequence? Public conversation retreats into private spaces, nationalist furor drowns out voices of liberal reform and dissent, society breaks down into a collection of individuals. In this sense, Weibo’s decline reflects developments that are not unique to China but are taking place all over the world, in autocracies and democracies alike: the retreat from the public sphere, the fragmentation of discourse, the erosion of consensus reality. As common ground disappears, everybody becomes more isolated — not only physically but also digitally.
The retrenchment of online discourse has also given way to another bizarre twist: the championing of Donald Trump as a free speech crusader. While fighting for equality and justice at home, Guo and liberal Chinese intellectuals, such as Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei, have emerged on Twitter as staunch Trump supporters, condemning the Black Lives Matter movement, comparing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the radicals of the Cultural Revolution, and calling President Biden’s win into question. Through the cracked lens of today’s polarized discourse, Donald Trump’s opposition to the Chinese Communist Party has paradoxically made him an ally, and his rallying cries against the rhetoric of “political correctness” have won over Guo and others.
Is this romance an anomaly or a sign of what is still to come? It is impossible to tell, just as nobody knows what will come next for online expression in China. Any prediction is akin to drawing a line in the sand. Repression comes in waves; the cyclical process of relaxing and clamping down is one that some scholars of Chinese society call fang/shou (“opening up and tightening”). One day everything is silent, then the next day an incident might trigger an outpouring of anger, as happened earlier this year, when the death of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang in Wuhan prompted millions of Weibo users to share images of his masked face with the hashtag #WeDemandFreedomofSpeech. And yet, by some strange logic, the demand for free speech in the name of greater truth and transparency can translate into supporting those who represent the very opposite of these values. “Discontent cannot be eradicated,” said Qiang. “People still find ways to share.” Whether that discontent takes forms that are expected or desired, however, is an entirely different question.