For a few hours it seemed as though progress was being made in penetrating the wall of censorship that the Chinese authorities had built around the country’s Internet services. Yet barely 24 hours after it was registered, The New York Times’ Sina Weibo account was suspended, before being mysteriously reinstated early this afternoon. The Times had joined Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-equivalent, at the same time as it launched its Chinese language site, http://cn.nytimes.com, and within a few hours the NYT account had been "liked" by 3,300 people.
No reason was given for the suspension, though it is possible that in the process of linking to posts on its Chinese site the NYT account used terms deemed by Sina Weibo to be too subversive. The Chinese micro-blogging site has been known to remove politically sensitive content, and recently inaugurated a new regulatory system intended to manage users’ posts. Sina’s “user contract” works according to a credit-based system, whereby an account can have points deducted for posting comments deemed to be “untrue information” or “Harms the unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of the nation”. According to Sina’s rules the most serious punishment, reserved for those who communicate “false information that it retweeted/reposted more than 1,000 times”, is the deduction of 10 points, leaving one to wonders what The New York Times could possibly have published via its account that would merit an immediate and complete suspension.
Other Western media organisations, notably the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal have already established Chinese-language websites that have so far encountered very few problems. However, the fact that authorities have seemingly acted so quickly and severely in response to the NYTimes’ Weibo content raises doubts about the future of the paper’s newly launched news site, which has nonetheless remained active since its launch.
In “A Note to Readers”, published on Wednesday, The New York Times revealed that its China project was conceived as a move aimed at giving China’s growing middle-class access to “high-quality coverage of world affairs, business and culture”. The paper was adamant that its journalistic standards would not be compromised by pressure from the famously censorious Chinese authorities, with the Times’ foreign Editor Joseph Kahn stating in an interview for Media Decoder: “We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company. China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.” Two thirds of the Chinese edition's content is made up of articles translated from English to Chinese, with the remaining third original pieces written by contributors based in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Representatives from The New York Times had held a number of meetings with officials in China before the launch, making today’s developments all the more surprising. The fact that the servers for the paper’s Chinese website are located outside China does however point to the fact that the company had expected that its China launch would not be without its difficulties. In the next few days we can hope that events around the situation will become clearer, but for now we should perhaps just take heart from the reprieve granted to the NYTimes’ Weibo account, which at the time of writing had 15,311 followers. The Chinese market is undoubtedly one that could provide lucrative returns for businesses that learn how to interact with it, but the problem of launching a news website in the country is that any problem, whether technical or political, will lead commentators to automatically suspect the influence of interfering authorities.