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China’s estimated 485 million Internet users include 195 million Twitter “tweeters” and other social network “microbloggers,” reports Caixin Weekly, a Chinese business magazine.

But how long will the government — which tightly controls Chinese society — allow such freedom of expression? One excuse that the government may use to clamp down is that the social media too often spreads news embarrassing to the Communist Party.

A few months ago, Chinese cyberspace buzzed on the “news” that a manager at the state-owned energy company Sinochem had turned in a liquor expense bill for 820,000 yuan — more than US $127,000.

In another instance, reports Caixin Weekly, “Microbloggers roared again on news that a newly restored palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City had been turned into an exclusive club for the rich and powerful.

“A single China’s microblog message can pack up to four times more information than a Twitter message in English thanks to the Chinese writing system,” the magazine notes. After all, a single Chinese character can express an entire word. “Moreover, comments can be added by someone forwarding a microblog message in China. In addition, photos and video clips can be posted.”

“So far, the authorities haven’t suggested they’re jittery about the potential for the microblog to mobilize people or organize dissent,” writes Nailene Chou Wiest. “Their confidence seems to stem from knowing they can pull the plug if ever need be.”

Indeed, Facebook is shut down quite regularly there. Friends outside of China often receive messages from the mainland reading, “I was surprised to see Facebook is working this morning. I am catching up on several months of messages …”

Wiest writes:

“I remember that when the SARS epidemic was keeping people at home, back in spring 2003, China’s cyberspace was a lot livelier. The Internet buzzed with an almost unfettered exchange of views.

But slowly, the vise tightened. And soon, almost all the sites I visited regularly had been shutdown. The microblog may yet suffer a similar fate, a victim of its own success.

Beijing’s 1,000-member Shouwang Church — which is feeling the wrath of an insecure Communist Party — uses the Internet to announce outdoor services. The Chinese government tightly restricts all religious practice; all Protestants are supposed to worship in Three-Self Patriotic Association churches, where sermons are pre-approved by Party officials and no children are allowed.

So illicit Christian “home churches” are booming with an estimated 150 million members — many who communicate over the Internet, often using code words, such as “please talk to your Father” instead of “please pray.” Indeed, the Chinese church is believed to be the largest in the world.

And the Communists are worried that Christians are outnumbering Party members — so such large “home churches” as Shouwang are tightly monitored. Whenever a service is announced on the Internet, the police show up in force.

However, a weekly ritual is emerging as members and leaders share internationally on the internet their mistreatment by police.  

And the Chinese government understands the power of the Internet — as evidenced by this week’s disclosure that Chinese hackers have attacked scores of companies and organizations, including the United Nations — reading confidential files and copying official secrets.

So, will the Chinese people’s access to the Internet be shut down? It’s not likely — however, the government will continue its tight monitoring. Bus loads of police will keep showing up whenever a public gathering is announced on China’s social media.

“It’s a tough call to expect that a ‘People’s War’ can be won in cyberspace,” writes Weist. “After all, who would be the ‘enemy’ of such a conflict? Perhaps the cartoon character Pogo has already given us the answer: We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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