Weibo Credit: Chinese Microblogging Site Tests Points-Based Censorship

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Jason Lee / Reuters

China's Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai pauses during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 5, 2012.

Ashley Esarey was surprised at what he saw when he logged into Sina Weibo, China‘s most popular microblogging site. He happened to be in Beijing in March when news of Bo Xilai‘s ouster from his post as Communist Party secretary of Chongqing was made public.

“I was just amazed at the amount of support there was for Bo Xilai immediately after the announcement,” Esarey, an associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, says. “It was really free, with all kinds of voices supporting him with various homonyms to mask their criticisms of state policy.”

It doesn’t look like a coincidence that now — less than three months later, during which rumors of a presidential coup also spread through the site — that Sina Weibo is implementing a “user credit system.”

(MORE: Political Rumors Spur Online Crackdown in China)

According to a translation from the Wall Street Journal, its “purpose is to purify the Weibo environment and safeguard good order on Weibo by relying on the reports of numerous users to effectively reduce untrue information, invasions of privacy, personal attacks, plagiarized content, the assuming of others’ identities and harassment of others.”

The problem, of course, lies with the Chinese government’s interpretation of “untrue information.” Under the new system, users will be docked points for violations and awarded points for reporting people who break the rules. People who earn low enough scores risk penalties, including losing the ability to post on microblogs or gain new followers.

Why would Sina Weibo risk angering its 280 million users? It all comes back to Bo Xilai. In April, after the Internet in China was ablaze with pro-Bo Xilai sentiment and various rumors, commenting on Sina Weibo and Tencent (another popular microblogging site) was disabled for three days.

That put Sina Weibo in an uncomfortable position. One one hand, as the country’s largest microblogging site, it faces more scrutiny from the government than other sites. On the other hand, it became popular in the first place precisely because users can engage in passionate discussions about issues they care about.

It’s a fine line — court too little controversy and your pageviews will go down, court too much and the government will crack down on you.

Microbloggers in China face censorship, but compared to traditional print and broadcast media outlets, they are relatively free to express themselves — often anonymously (this despite an unenforced decree in March that all microbloggers must register with their real identities).

This, in Esarey’s opinion, is why Sina Weibo decided to test out the new points system. “I think they were under a lot of pressure and were hoping to come up with some kind of compromise between a real hardline censorship approach and a new system that would give users incentives to produce the kind of content that the regime would like to see.”

In the end, it could end up hurting both Sina Weibo and Beijing. There’s no guarantee that users won’t quit Sina Weibo and flock to Tencent and other sites — or drop microblogging altogether. That’s not to mention that Sina Weibo faces the Herculean task of implementing and maintaining such a complex points system across a network of 280 million people.

As for China’s Communist Party, this fall is a politically sensitive time, with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabaon both stepping down. Perceived pressure on Sina Weibo and other microblogging sites — which, for the most part, are home to pretty innocuous conversation — could potentially backfire.

“I think this is going to lead to a politicization of the medium that didn’t exist before these attempts to ratchet up control,” says Esarey. “People aren’t going to lose the will to express themselves online. It could potentially radicalize people who weren’t radicalized before.”

(MORE: In China, Google Offers a New Tool to Detect Sensitive Words)

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