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At Mao-style conclave, China embraces Twitter age

Associated Press Modified: November 13, 2012 at 11:46 am •  Published: November 13, 2012
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The clash of ideas underscores just how important the Internet has become in China's campaign to guide public opinion — a major shift from just a few years ago.

At the last party conclave in October 2007, Twitter was a little over a year old and hashtags had only just been introduced. Sina Weibo was still two years from launch.

But as elsewhere, China's Internet population has exploded over the last five years, jumping from 170 million to more than 500 million today. Social media have boomed with it and now play a huge part in everyday Chinese life, particularly for urban residents who use it to find restaurants, jobs and mates.

Beijing's initial reaction to social media was to block and censor, to limit conversations by banning access to Twitter and Facebook and to limit mention of anything considered sensitive or destabilizing with keyword filters. Though authorities still use those tactics, the government is increasingly proactive and working to wrest control of the online conversation by flooding the zone with its own content.

David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, said Chinese officials have learned that simply banning or blocking reports is no longer effective in the porous Internet sphere and that stifling information can backfire by fanning more interest in scandals and crises and sparking online rumors.

"You can't just stuff the genie back into the bottle," said Bandurski. "You have also to channel public opinion ... officially, they are seeing social media as the best way to send out their authoritative information and kind of drive the agenda."

But the government remains yoked to its party-ese, which can seem hopelessly out of date in the Twitter age.

A dispatch on the trend by the official Xinhua News Agency gives a hint to the flavor of Beijing's rhetoric.

"The Internet has been unprecedentedly embedded into the ongoing National Congress of the Communist Party of China," the news agency trumpeted over the weekend. "Not only can contents on the Internet be found in the congress report, but online media practitioners are attending the congress in person."

On Saturday, Chairman Mao's grandson Mao Xinyu tweeted this to his 105,943 followers on Renmin Weibo, the microblog of the official party paper, the People's Daily: "Mao Zedong thought will always be the guiding ideology of the party."

It got 155 retweets, a mediocre showing in China's lively Web sphere.

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Follow Alexa Olesen on Twitter at twitter.com/alobeijing