Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chinese Twitter clones

Twitter Clone Helps Chinese Family Thwart Authorities

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Sept. 21) --
It was a typical case of property seizure, like those that happen nearly every day in China, but with a key difference.

This time microblogs blasted the story across the Chinese Internet, causing an immediate outpouring of sympathy this month for the Zhong family at the center of the dispute, and outrage against the local officials that tried to evict them.

By the end of the Internet drama, eight local officials had been removed from their posts or were under investigation, according to Chinese media reports. And the Zhong family's home remains standing.

The Zhongs' story shows how powerful social media have become in China as citizens turn to Twitter-like services in the absence of effective legal recourse, government help or a free media.

The drama unfolded in a small town in Jiangxi Province, according to a Southern Metropolis Daily article translated at the popular blog EastSouthWestNorth.

The local government had planned since 2007 to build a bus depot and was relocating residents, the report said. The Zhongs, who owned a three-story home on the planned site, were the last hold-outs -- and one of several families unhappy with the government's compensation offer.

In May the government cut off the family's electricity. Then, on the morning of Sept. 10, scores of local officials and police officers came to evict them by force.

In the struggle that ensued, the mother, Luo Zhifeng, an elderly male friend of the family, Ye Zhongcheng, and a daughter, Zhong Rujin, doused themselves with gasoline and lit themselves on fire in protest. The daughter, Zhong Rujin, tumbled out of the second floor to the ground outside the home like a "human fireball," according to the Southern Metropolis Daily, a scene caught in graphic photos taken by a neighbor.

All three were taken to a burn center; the man later died of his injuries.

Two other daughters of the family, Zhong Rujiu and Zhong Rucui, then attempted to take a plane to Beijing to petition the central government -- a common, if often ineffective, recourse for Chinese who feel local governments have violated their rights.

Local officials surrounded them in a ladies' restroom at the airport, forbidding them to go to Beijing. And that's where the microblogs -- weibo in Chinese -- came in.

A reporter for Phoenix Weekly "tweeted" about the restroom showdown on a microblog at Sina.com and posted local officials' cell phone numbers -- posts that quickly got over a million views, before Sina.com contacted the reporter to ask him to delete his posts.

The two sisters then launched two microblogs of their own to plead for help and support and to post the latest developments of their case.

In her first post on a Sina.com microblog on Sept. 17, one sister wrote, according to Chinabroadcast.cn: "How are you? My name is Zhong Rujiu. I am the youngest daughter in the family involved in the self-immolations in Yihuang county, Fuzhou city, Jiangxi province. I have seen how everybody on the Internet has been concerned about my family. I am very grateful."

Her posts notified net-users of each new development in the real-life drama, including the arrival of scores of local officials to seize her uncle's body, despite the family's protests. Later, when officials took the sisters and other relatives away on a bus, a picture of Zhong Rujiu pressed against the window was posted and re-posted on the Internet, faster than censors could delete it.

The case shows how social media is becoming an increasingly influential force in the lives of many Chinese, as well as a source of breaking -- if not always 100 percent accurate -- news.

According to a count from one social media consultant earlier this year, there are 221 million blogs and 176 million social network users in China, out of a total Internet population of 420 million.

In a recent poll by China Youth Daily reported at China Daily, half of survey respondents, most of whom were under 40, said they browse microblogs frequently, with more than 94 percent saying microblogging is "changing their life." More than 73 percent view microblogs as an important news source.

Sina.com hosts China's most popular Twitter clone, or microblog, with 20 million users since its launch just over a year ago, according to the website micgadget.com. Twitter itself is blocked in China.

In July, several Chinese microblogs were briefly inaccessible, fueling speculation that the government was tweaking them to allow them to be more easily blocked or censored when necessary. When the sites relaunched, all links to websites outside China were blocked.

Chinese authorities recently decided to require microblogs to appoint "self-discipline commissioners" responsible for censorship, according to the media group Reporters Without Borders.

China maintains a vast army of Internet censors who rapidly delete content deemed subversive from chat rooms, or block entire sites and blogs.

Forbidden content includes excessive criticism of the central government, promotion of Tibet or Taiwan independence, and discussion of the banned religious group Falun Gong.

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