Microblogging services are taking off among China's fast-growing Internet population, but regulation by an authoritarian government is challenging their growth.
Twitter and some of its local rivals have already been blocked in China as the government clamps down on free speech expressed in microblogs. But some of those sites have reemerged, and others have sprung up as a social-networking craze starts to take hold in the country.
Microsoft, local search engine Baidu.com, big Chinese portals and small Internet startups all are among the companies that have launched microblogs or similar services in China.
"The biggest challenge for them is content supervision by the government," said Ashley Liu, an In-Stat analyst based in Beijing. "It is inevitable in China."
China has at least 340 million Internet users, more than the population of the U.S., and they are overwhelmingly young. Among them about 124 million people already use social-networking sites, and half of those write some type of microblog post daily, according to a government survey. The figure likely includes Facebook-style status updates, but it still shows the exploding popularity of social-networking services in China.
A raft of microblogging sites are trying to build on that fervor. Twitter and a group of similar Chinese services were becoming well-known before they, along with Facebook, were blocked nationwide in July. The move came as authorities blamed online chat and social-networking tools for helping to cause deadly ethnic riots in the country's western Muslim region. Official accounts say nearly 200 people died as members of the country's ethnic majority, the Han Chinese, and the Uighur minority group hunted each other in packs on the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. The alleged planners of the initial violence were said to have arranged it online.
Months on, Twitter and local microblog sites Fanfou and Jiwai are still blocked. Another microblog site that went offline, Digu, has reappeared in recent weeks. The company declined to answer questions about its outage.
Shutting down Web sites is only the bluntest tool authorities have wielded against the fledgling industry, and other microblogging sites remain online. Requiring self-censorship is another tactic. A government watchdog is composing "self-discipline" guidelines for microblog providers that, like past rules released for blog sites, will likely call for illegal or "harmful" information to be deleted when it is posted by users. One Chinese microblog site, Zuosa, has said it already deletes sensitive user messages and that authorities have given it documents about online "information management."
The Chinese microblog sites shut down earlier this year were among the country's best-known. Since then, portal company Sina has launched what has become the best-known service, likely mopping up users left stranded after the other services were closed, said Liu of In-Stat. Another reason Sina is doing well could be that it is an established provider with experience in catching and deleting sensitive information.
But the main reason is probably Sina's use of celebrities to draw users, Liu said. As with Twitter, Chinese celebrities are among the most-followed users on Sina's service, called Sina Microblog in Chinese. Some of the actors, singers and famous businessmen posting messages and pictures have hundreds of thousands of followers. Sina promotes their accounts on the main page of its microblog service.
Other major companies also want in on the act. Microsoft recently launched a microblog-style site linked to its Windows Live Messenger program, which is widely used for instant messaging in China. Microsoft says the service is not a microblog, but it lets users post 140-character messages and displays them alongside messages from friends on a scrolling timeline. Top Chinese search engine Baidu has also launched a microblog-style service linked to its popular message board system, though the help page for the service does not call it a microblog.
The rise of local microblogs has come as China's single-party government grapples with perceived challenges to its rule from the Internet. Police in southern Guandgong province last month seized a local human-rights lawyer and his friend as one of them lectured at a university on how to use Twitter, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders advocacy group. The two were questioned for more than 12 hours. Twitter still has some Chinese users who access it via a virtual private network (VPN) or other circumvention tool.
China's police chief also warned in an essay this month that the Internet is creating new threats to social stability. Meng Jianzhu, the country's public security minister, called for more online communication with the public to ensure "correct guidance" of their views.
"The Internet has become an important tool for anti-China forces to perform infiltration and sabotage," he wrote.
At least one government body has used a microblog to share information with the public. The government of southwestern Yunnan province recently opened a Sina Microblog account, billed as an effort toward transparency, and has gained more than 13,000 followers. But the information shared so far has not been groundbreaking. Recent posts include one repeating an announcement of a campaign against online porn and another saying a plan to boost tourism in the province had received central government approval.
Microblogging has won little other official backing, but the services are set to keep growing and fighting for users. While Sina has a lead on rival services now, many other Web sites in China have huge numbers of users and could build their own microblog services with niche focuses such as games or news, said Yu Yi, an analyst at Chinese consultancy Analysys International. Microblogging is still getting off the ground in China, and startups could still win over users despite the advantage Sina has in its well-known brand, he said.
Censorship of user posts is also limited to certain topics and will not greatly affect the growth of microblogs in China, according to Yu.
"Different microblogs have different features," said Yu. "Many types of companies will look to seize this market."