In the latest sign of increasing pressure on Chinese companies to tighten control of the Internet, Chinese authorities convened an unusual seminar in Beijing for senior executives of 39 major enterprises involved in Internet services, technology and telecommunications.
Official news agency Xinhua reported on the proceedings, which took place from November 3 to 5, on its Chinese-language website.
Signaling the importance of the meeting, Xinhua listed among the attendees top leaders of both public- and private-sector companies, including Jack Ma of Alibaba (a privately owned group of Internet-based businesses), Robin Li of China's largest search engine Baidu, the instant messaging provider Tencent's Pony Ma and the microblogging giant Sina's Charles Chao. China's three telecommunications operators were represented, as were major hardware manufacturers and state media entities.
The companies' representatives unanimously agreed that "Internet enterprises must strengthen self-supervision, self-restraint, and self-discipline, fulfill their enterprise legal duties, social responsibilities and moral obligations... firmly check the tendency of Internet rumors, Internet pornography, Internet fraud and the other illegal and harmful information to be widely disseminated online," according to Xinhua.
Wang Chen, head of the State Council Information Office, the government's propaganda and information department, cited a directive issued at the recent sixth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which focused on cultural development. Wang exhorted the attendees to take the lead in developing a "healthy Internet culture" as decreed by the recent directive, Xinhua reported.
It's not clear whether new regulations will be introduced to help assert the government's control in the realm of online media -- measures such as licensing of social media sites or requiring social media users to register under their real names. But it's likely that private Internet companies will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure their survival by helping to ensure the survival of the Communist Party.
Beijing's concerns over the role of social media have risen over the past year as huge numbers of Internet users have flocked to social networking sites, in particular the Twitter-like microblog services (known as weibo in Chinese) run by Sina and Tencent. Official figures put the number of Internet users in China at 485 million as of mid-2011. Sina claims 250 million registered Weibo accounts as of October 2011, and Tencent says it has a similar number of users for its microblog service.
The role of social media in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa this year have added to the sense of urgency in maintaining control over unauthorized sources of information. Microblogs have emerged as a source for breaking news such as the Wenzhou train crash in July, providing a forum where both citizen journalists and media professionals can share information that might not find an outlet in the tightly controlled mainstream media. The services also allow users to organize campaigns that counter official actions, such as fundraising to help artist and activist Ai Weiwei pay off a recently imposed $2.4 million tax bill, arranging group visits to the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who remains under house arrest with his surrounding village blockaded, and rallying support for independent candidates in local elections.
To date, authorities have taken steps to emphasize proper management of information online, often under the guise of combating the spread of rumors. Recent measures have included campaigns in official media outlets, detentions and arrests of users alleged to have posted untrue information online, and visits by senior Communist Party officials to Internet companies.
China's microblog users naturally weighed in on reports of the proceedings, marveling at the government's ability to call the heads of the Internet industry together and questioning what the meeting would portend for the future of microblogs.
"What institution can compel... 39 Internet tycoons and bosses to assemble together in their entirety and furthermore to gravely bow their heads..." wrote one user.
"The problem is microblogging is so big and so fast, how can one get enough manpower to supervise it?" asked another.