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Sorry Dick: 3 reasons why Twitter will NEVER be unblocked in China

El Reg on why Costolo's Shanghai trip is not about the Great Firewall

The new Twitter logo. Pic: Twitter

Comment Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is in China this week visiting the country but rumours of the microblogging platform’s resurrection there have been greatly exaggerated.

Twitter and Facebook have been blocked in the Middle Kingdom since 2009, when the government claimed they had been used by protesters to organise ahead of deadly anti-government clashes in the western province of Xinjiang.

However, just as the internet rumour mill goes into overdrive whenever Mark Zuckerberg pays one of his many visits to China, so netizens have been wondering out loud whether Costolo’s first trip there could herald a change in government policy.

Adding further fuel to the fire are reports the Twitter boss will be focusing his three-day trip exclusively on Shanghai, talking to government officials and representatives from the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone.

The zone was set-up last year with the aim of encouraging more direct foreign investment and opening the yuan up to international markets. But there were also rumours at the time, swiftly denied by state media, that the government was planning to lower the Great Firewall in the 28km2 zone.

Others have pointed to the fact that business social network LinkedIn recently launched a Chinese language service in the Middle Kingdom after agreeing to censor according to local laws, as sign that the time could also be right for Twitter.

A Twitter statement sent to Reuters was deliberately vague:

Dick is visiting China because he wants to learn more about Chinese culture and the country's thriving technology sector.

There are three very good reasons why Beijing will not be unblocking Twitter, or Facebook for that matter.

The first and most obvious is that the firm is very unlikely to censor its service to appease the authorities. Yes, since 2012 it has given governments the ability to request certain tweets be withheld in their country, but this is nowhere near enough for China’s censors.

A statement sent to IDG on Monday appeared to confirm Twitter’s intractability on the issue, stating: “We have no plans to change anything about our service in order to enter the market.”

The second point is that China is getting more restrictive in what user-generated content it allows online, not less.

Since Xi Jinping took over at the helm of government and Party, there has been a severe crackdown on “rumour-mongering”, with jail terms now promised for transgressors. Real-name registration for services is being enforced and influential celebrities have been intimidated into clamming up online.

Most recently WeChat accounts were shut down or suspended as part of the clampdown on free speech online.

Finally, there’s absolutely no socio-economic reason to unblock Twitter.

Tencent and Sina both run hugely popular and sophisticated microblogging and social communications networks, boasting hundreds of millions of users and a rigorous approach to self-censorship of UGC.

Allowing Twitter won’t make citizens’ lives any better and it won’t significantly improve the lot of Chinese businesses, Beijing will think.

LinkedIn is a different beast in that the content generated by users will by its very nature tend to be less controversial than that on Twitter.

What’s more, the firm still doesn’t have any major rivals in China which can boast a global platform that could actually benefit domestic business efforts to internationalise.

In fact, Costolo may well be planning to use part of his trip to encourage more Chinese companies to advertise on the service – touting Twitter as a key platform via which to reach and improve brand awareness among international users.

State-run media including Xinhua, Global Times and China Daily may all have Twitter accounts, but that’s about where the love ends. ®

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