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Why Twitter is banned in China

·4-min read
Broken Ethernet cable in front of Twitter logo.
China has its own Twitter-like platforms such as Sina Weibo and WeChat. (Source: Reuters)

China's determination to control and regulate content its citizens consume saw Twitter banned more than a decade ago.

In 2009, China banned the use of Twitter, as well as other external media sites such as Google, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube.

Many countries place tabs on social media around the time of elections or when there is public outrage against current events, according to research by Surfshark, but China also has other motives for banning Twitter.

Elon Musk's Twitter takeover (which is currently on hold), garnered widespread reactions from democratic politicians and human rights groups around the world, especially due to his business ties with China and how this might influence the billionaire's decisions surrounding free speech on the platform.

In China, users of the Twitter-like Weibo social media platform expressed mixed feelings about the announcement.

Some lauded it as a step forward for freedom of speech, while others described it as a display of Western capitalism where the rich get to control too much.

While China officially banned all foreign social media platforms in 2009, there is renewed interest in how the country might leverage its business ties with Musk's Tesla to influence how it is positioned and perceived on Twitter by a larger audience.

Here's a look at why China has caged the Twitter bird.

The Ürümqi riots

Twitter was blocked from being used in mainland China amid the 2009 protests in Urumqi, in the country's north-west, when the Chinese government suspected it was one of the platforms being used by rioters to organise.

The government recognised Twitter’s potential to spread information and, in a move to curb further conflict, decided to entirely ban the platform.

And the ongoing censorship of other Western internet platforms, known as The Great Firewall of China, grew stronger following the Urumqi unrest.

People circumvent the block to use it

While Twitter is officially banned in China - and those trying to access it will immediately see an error page - the block is not without loopholes.

With an effective VPN (Virtual Private Network), not just Twitter, but any other site blocked in China can be 'unblocked', according to Comparitech.

However, it is not easy to identify the right VPN for this purpose. While technical experts might find it easy to bypass the firewall, some natives and residential expatriates do whatever they can in an attempt to hack their way around it.

However, this is illegal and punishable by law.

National security

As content produced on Twitter cannot be controlled, Chinese authorities view it as detrimental to the ideals of the Communist Party.

It also considers blocking such sites a matter of national security, since these sites collect vast amounts of information about users, which can then be used by global media companies as well as advertisers.

Two Chinese girls using a smartphone.
Sina Weibo is the most popular microblogging platform in China with over 516 million monthly active users. (Source: Reuters)

Promoting homegrown websites for economic growth

Blocking many media sites to prevent users from accessing information deemed by the government to be unsuitable also gives China the opportunity to promote homegrown platforms such as Sina Weibo, WeChat, Tencent QQ and others.

This not only gives the government full control over information, but also allows for greater economic development of the tech companies within the country.

Cultural differences enable greater economic growth

According to China Business Review, there are some differences between Chinese and foreign social media.

China’s social media platforms and online behaviours vary in important ways from those that may be considered their international equivalents. This variation is not entirely due to censorship.

In China, local variations of Internet use are driven by language, culture, levels of economic development, and the underlying digital ecosystem.

Sina Weibo was launched in 2009, about three years after Twitter, but it has grown to be the most popular microblogging platform in China, with more than 516 million monthly active users (compared to Twitter’s 396.5 million).

While censorship of websites is an important issue, it is not the top priority of China's roughly 1 billion internet users. They simply wish to connect with other Chinese online, preferably in their own language.

In a country where information is pre-filtered by state-run media, the presence of platforms like Sina Weibo allows users to freely connect and share perspectives with others.

It is this state-approved ecosystem in which China's businesses thrive.

For example, almost 50 per cent of Sina Weibo’s updates are sent via mobile phone, in comparison to 20 per cent of Twitter updates in the United States.

This highlights the growth of China’s mobile internet, one of the biggest trends in the country.

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