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Comeuppance comes

16 December 2011 By John Foley

Sina Weibo was China’s unruliest child in 2011. The Twitter-like social network, with 250 million users and counting, proved a thorn in the side of the ruling Party, and spawned at least one large protest. Comeuppance comes with plans by Beijing’s city government to force microbloggers to use their real names. Other cities are likely to follow. Expect 2012 to be the year Weibo is firmly brought to heel.

Two-year-old Weibo resembles its U.S. cousin Twitter, except it carries images, videos, and plenty of censorship. Searches for dissident artist Ai Weiwei, or premier Wen Jiabao, draw a blank. Surveillance neuters the traffic. But news and views spread fast, helped by users’ relative anonymity.

Social networks don’t cause protests, but they do make them more visible. An ongoing siege by angry villagers in the town of Wukan was widely Weibo-ed. In 2012 there may be more to protest about, from rising prices to a property bubble soon likely to pop. With a new premier and president named in 2012, order will be bought at any cost.

There are two ways Weibo can be tamed. First, the state can block content and create diversions. It can run self-styled offensives against “drug-like” rumours that poison society, and lock up “rumour-mongers”. A quaint offshoot of this is China’s return to old-style propaganda – including mass singalongs. It’s no surprise that government accounts on Weibo tripled in 2011.

The second taming tool is profit. Weibo could be a gold mine for Nasdaq-listed owner Sina Corp if it plays by the rules. Consider Facebook’s mooted $80 billion valuation, equivalent to $100 a user. Adjust it for real income per capita, and a Weibo user might be worth $16. That’s already a $4 billion valuation, more than Sina’s market capitalisation. Add a premium for more and richer users, and it could be double that.

Dullness is the danger. Overzealous censorship, as well as being authoritarian, makes the likes of Weibo less vibrant. Users may switch off. But while the state remains in charge, competitors will be equally straitjacketed – and in China, being favoured often pays more than being innovative. Even if Weibo loses its shine, it shouldn’t lose its financial allure.


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