China’s Weibo Losing Users

China’s version of Twitter has been bleeding users this year, thanks to a government crackdown and the rise of new social technologies.

01.25.14 10:45 AM ET

On the night of July 23, 2011, two high-speed trains collided near Wenzhou, a large manufacturing city in China’s Zhejiang province, and caused an accident that claimed 40 lives. Within minutes, users of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, began uploading photos of the crash and speculating on what may have caused it. As first responders tended to the injured, word of the disaster spread throughout the country—even though no official media source had reported on it. In China, where state-run newspapers and television often suppress bad news, this wasn’t unusual. But because information of the accident had already leaked online, Communist Party officials could not ignore the story for long. The following day, Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu arrived in Wenzhou to coordinate rescue efforts.

The Wenzhou collision revealed the shaky foundation of China’s high-speed rail network, the crown jewel of the country’s transportation infrastructure. But the incident became an important media story, too. China’s state-run media had traditionally functioned as a propaganda network, employing top-down coverage of the stories the Communist Party wished to report. Now, because of bottom-up sources like Sina Weibo, this fundamental balance was starting to shift. In its recap of the crash, The New York Times wrote that the event signaled “the arrival of weibos [the Chinese word for ‘microblogs’] as a social force to be reckoned with.”

Two and a half years later, SinaWeibo’s arrival looks, in retrospect, more like its peak. This week, the China Internet Network Information Center reported that for the first time since 2010, membership in SinaWeibodeclined by 28 million people, or nine percent. And a survey released this summer found that among Weibo’s most popular users, those with 10,000 or more followers, activity declined in October 2012.This decline, too, comes at a time when China’s Internet population continues to grow by 10 percent annually.

So why are users abandoning Weibo?

The first explanation is the simplest: The Chinese government has accelerated its crackdown on online speech. For years, the Communist Party has selectively censored online speech, employing a small army of workers to delete objectionable content as well as contribute pro-government commentary to blogs and message boards. Of course, the vast majority of online content in China—much like everywhere else in the world—has nothing to do with politics. Content that is political in nature typically involves issues like environmentalism and local government corruption; few challenge the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

But in 2013, the first year of Xi Jinping’s administration, the Communist Party engineered a crackdown on SinaWeibo’s “Big V” users—those with “verified” accounts and millions of followers. And as Weibo’s membership exceeded 500 million, hundreds of popular users were detained on account of “spreading rumors.” One, an investor and U.S. citizen named Charles Xue who had achieved a wide following on Weibo, was accused of soliciting prostitution. His forced confession, televised throughout China, sent a chilling message: Become popular online at your own risk. Some users got the message. One, nicknamed smallspearv, told the BBC that using Weibo was “simply not worth it anymore.”

But the more plausible explanation for Weibo’s decline has less to do with censorship than with something far less sinister: competition. Since its creation in 2011, WeChat, an application developed by Sina’s rival Tencent, has replaced Weibo as China’s go-to web service, and has—if the China Internet Network Information Center’s numbers are accurate—siphoned off 34 percent of Weibo’slost users. The two services are not identical: Weibo essentially functions like Twitter, while WeChat is like a combination of What’sApp, Instagram, and Skype. Nevertheless, WeChat has emerged as the hotter product in a China where obtaining a wide following online has lost much of its appeal. As Charlie Custer, a journalist who writes about Chinese technology at Games in Asia writes, “Weibo is a publishing platform, in essence, and WeChat is a chat platform. One is for talking to the world, the other is for talking to your friends."

The logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblog website "Weibo" is seen on a screen in this photo illustration taken in Beijing September 13, 2011. A stream of warnings in state media has exposed how nervous Beijing is about the booming microblogs and their potential to tear at the seams of party censorship and controls. Despite the jitters, Beijing is extremely unlikely to close microblogs, and is instead exploring ways to tame the medium so it remains a useful forum for monitoring opinion, but stays within the ultimate grip of authorities. Picture taken September 13, 2011.      To match analysis CHINA-INTERNET/       REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS LOGO) - RTR2RDI0


The logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblog website "Weibo" is seen on a screen in this photo illustration taken in Beijing September 13, 2011.

WeChat’s other advantage is even more basic. According to Xinhua, 70 percent of China’s new Internet users use cell phones to go online, a market that cheap smart-phone manufacturers like Xiaomi has come to dominate. And WeChat—with its wide range of services and simple, intuitive interface, has become an essential app for these newly wired millions.

“The circles formed on Wechat are smaller and more intimate, and are mostly among friends and acquaintances,” says Helen Gao, a writer and Beijing native. “It allows you to message them, follow their activities, and speak to them more easily than Weibo does.”

It’s easy to view the decline of Weibo as a setback for free speech in China, and by all means, this is the intent of the Communist Party. But the rise of WeChat shows that, though China’s next major train crash may not achieve as much circulation on Weibo, it will hardly go unnoticed online.