The @XHNews account has been tweeting since March 1, but it went unnoticed in China until this week, when the Yunnan Information Daily newspaper broke the story, angering Chinese netizens like this one:
@xhnews could u pls tell us , how can u go to twitte? isn't it illegal in china? uh?— 貓貓教 起哄黨 (@2013yy) December 11, 2012
China’s so-called “Great Firewall” prevents most Internet users from accessing Twitter, but many savvy netizens get around the wall using workarounds like virtual private networks, or VPNs. In fact, both censorship advocates, like the Global Times’ editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, and critics, like artist Ai Weiwei, are using the service.
Xinhua’s account has collected more than 7,000 followers by tweeting concise statements and articles about the Chinese economy, politics and society.
Chinese writer Mo Yan's books are set to be offered on Apple's iBooks, a day after Mo received the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature.— Xinhua News Agency (@XHNews) December 12, 2012
Most of the sources are state-run, but the account also has retweeted The Associated Press, The New York Times and other western media, such as this choice story from The Washington Post:
Obama's former transgender Indonesian nanny overwhelmed by sudden celebrity, job offer wapo.st/yOf9WR— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) March 8, 2012
Madeline Earp, a senior Asia researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists, says Xinhua’s experiment with Twitter is an extension of China’s reported $7 billion effort to boost its media presence around the world, including CCTV outlets in the United States and Africa. And that, she says, could help the Chinese media masters better understand how news outlets in other countries are operating.
“I’d say the global media expansion could be a good thing if it results in a loosening of restrictions on the domestic press in line with international norms,” she says.
Until restrictions are eased, however, Earp says “it’s definitely a concern that the Chinese model of information control is expanding its reach.”
China has a kind of “block and clone” approach to the Internet, as described in a TED Talk by the prominent Chinese blogger Michael Anti, known as Jing Zhao. Like Twitter, the government blocks Facebook and other social networks, but offers Chinese netizens domestic versions, including Sina Weibo and renren.
The blogger has described Weibo as “the media,” saying if something’s not on Weibo, it’s not known to the public. But Earp says despite Weibo's hundreds of millions of users, Chinese netizens often still turn to Twitter because it’s a connection to the world.
“Rather than asking whether [Twitter is] needed or not, it’s enough to point out that there is clearly demand,” she says. “If Xinhua can use it to promote content, other businesses and individuals should be encouraged to do the same, and China as a whole would benefit.”
This week, another social media experiment seemed to be taking place. Users of China's version of Twitter, Sina Weibo, were allowed to search for words normally blocked by the Great Firewall, according to The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore. And not only could they search for President Hu Jintao and his successor Xi Jinping, they could criticize them too.