A Free Twitter Has Lost In China To A Booming But Censored Weibo

Twitter is now offering its web interface in Simplified Chinese. But a two-year-old block on Twitter being accessible in China has allowed Sina’s homegrown Weibo to flourish – and now it’s already blossoming in to far more than a Twitter-style microblogging tool

A redesign being rolled out by Weibo includes chat, apps, featured content and a virtual currency. “I don’t think it makes much sense to compare it with Twitter anymore – Weibo is evolving in to a social network,” writes TechNode’s Gang Lu.

On Times Square, a Sina (NSDQ: SINA) neon billboard recently flaunted how Weibo had grown to 200 million users in half the time it took Twitter.

“Even before Twitter got blocked, it did not have many users in China at all, probably only geeks were playing with it,” Lu says. “Now we got millions of Weibo users, I bet most of them do not even know Twitter’s existence.”

The microblog craze is now sweeping China, letting citizens openly share and shine light on government malpractice, just as when citizens recently criticised authorities’ response to a recent tragic train crash. As this happens, Weibo, too, is facing its own government pressure to censor

“Because sometimes rumours can spread too quickly, Sina is now establishing more mechanisms to quash rumours through a variety of channels,” CEO Charles Chao says (via Reuters). “There is a lot of false news on Weibo, and there are also many rumours, and this is creating a big challenge for government management and is also a huge challenge for vendors on our platform.”

This new interventionism, in which Weibo is having to contort itself to work within government rules, appears to give carte blanche to censorship. When the first news breaks of, for example, a train crash or a village being flooded by dam water, how is Weibo to differentiate the fact from “rumour”, as China’s government might like such reports to be categorised?

That’s a problem UK prime minister David Cameron didn’t venture to wrestle with, after recently vowing that social networks through which riots are incited should be blocked. Even Cameron’s ministers didn’t both wrestling with the idea – they met the networks but effectively shelved his idea as unworkable and unpalatable.

As microblogging grows, its geopolitical imprint appears to be mimicking that of search. Censored in the country, Twitter, just like Google (NSDQ: GOOG) before it, is not operating in China, but is operating outside of it, in Chinese – just like Google, Twitter is losing to domestic rivals.

“How can Twitter handle the content monitoring?,” asks TechNode’s Gang Lu. “You can not imagine how much effort Sina spent on it and the enormous pressure from different authorities.

Twitter has no chance in China.”