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Weibo debut highlights complicated dance with Chinese censors

Reuters | Monday, Apr 21, 2014

Weibo Corp executives on Thursday toasted the Chinese social media firm's debut at Nasdaq's New York headquarters. Hours earlier in Beijing, Charles Xue, a Chinese-American venture capitalist and prominent Weibo user, celebrated a different kind of coming-out: his release after eight months in jail.

The timing of the two events, though coincidental, highlights the fundamental challenge for Shanghai-based Weibo: progressing from being a microblogging phenomenon in China to becoming an entrenched member of the international social media industry.

Xue's arrest for soliciting prostitutes stemmed from a government campaign launched last autumn to clamp down on online dissent, political analysts claim. Now, as Weibo celebrates its warm reception on international financial markets, its conflicts with censors at home raise the question of whether the firm known as the "Twitter of China" may eventually be derailed by government interference.

Over the past year, a series of detentions of influential online commentators may have hurt Weibo's user numbers, some researchers say.

A study released in January by Britain's Telegraph newspaper and East China Normal University in Shanghai claimed that the number of Weibo posts have fallen as much 70 per cent since its peak in 2012, after the government required users to display their real names to post content.

However, the company's regulatory filings said that monthly active users have grown for eight straight quarters, including a 34-per cent gain to 144 million in the quarter ending last month.

TECH DEBUT

Investors chasing growth aren't fazed for now. Weibo shares rose 19 per cent from its offered price of $17 on Thursday, the eighth-best debut for a US listed tech stock this year.

"Weibo has to answer to two different bosses: one is the Party and one is the stockholders," said Min Jiang, a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte who studies Chinese Internet issues.

Jiang said the Chinese government enacted a series of policies - requiring real names on social media in early 2012 and introducing new laws prohibiting "rumour-mongering" last September - after the Facebook- and Twitter-fueled Arab Spring protests swept the Middle East.

"Especially after the Arab Spring there has been a top-down push to implement policies that have a real impact on the user population," Jiang said.

Chinese officials have argued the necessity of containing malicious rumours and Internet defamation in order to uphold social order in the world's most populous country.

In its prospectus distributed to potential investors, Weibo described the new online speech laws as a risk. "The implementation of this newly promulgated judicial interpretation may have a significant and adverse effect on the traffic of our platform and discourage the creation of user generated content," it said.

Weibo spokesman Matthew Lindberg said the company could not immediately respond to questions about censorship on Thursday.

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