Chinese microbloggers: deadbeats.
That, at least, seems to be the deduction made in the 2013 edition of the “Annual Report on the Development of Chinese New Media” released Tuesday by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country’s most influential government think tank.
The report claims that of China’s 300 million microbloggers, 74.88 percent only have a high-school education or less and 94 million are students; 92.2 percent earn less than $813 a month, while fully 91 million lack any income at all (which makes sense if 94 million are students).
What, then, do these poor, uneducated and mostly unemployed microbloggers spend their time doing? The report gives them credit for exposing 156 corrupt officials between 2010 and 2012, but notes that such crime-fighting pursuits of microbloggers are tightly wrapped up with another favorite pursuit: rumor-mongering. Of 100 microblogged “hot topics” tracked over a year, rumors appeared in more than one-third. Predictably, these rumors were not high-minded. Rather, 17.3 percent were about the entertainment industry, and the rest related almost exclusively to law-and-order issues: murders, abducted children, organ theft -- the report even mentions corneal-theft rumors.
It’s not surprising that among microbloggers there’s considerable skepticism and anger at the findings. Chinese microblogs, after all, are dominated by elite voices, especially those belonging to entertainment, business and literary celebrities. For all their faults -- they are certainly rumor-filled -- they also happen to be the most socially disruptive and politically potent tool available in contemporary China, in large part because they’re available to anyone with a few coins to drop at an Internet cafe or to spend on a used smartphone at the local electronics market.
Even more than that, there’s an underlying sense that the authors of the report weren’t so much interested in putting together an accurate portrait of China’s microbloggers so much as having a means to further justify reining in microblogs. Over the last two days, members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have been using the report, and the publicity surrounding it, to argue for more regulation of China’s digital spaces and social media. The case they make is simple and clever: Freedom of speech is a good thing, but surely it can’t be trusted in the hands of unemployed, rumor-loving students. The Beijing News, a Communist Party-owned newspaper that wrote a widely circulated story on the report, put it this way: “The Internet gives users freedom of speech. However, some users have abused that right.”
In other words: More censorship is on the way, deadbeats.