By Didi Tang ,AP
BEIJING — The number of online microblog users in China dropped by more than 27.8 million last year, marking the first major decline in popularity of a social media genre that has offered a way to share unfiltered information in a country with strict controls.
The drop comes amid a crackdown on microblogs deemed sensitive by government authorities and new controls on what can be posted and reposted, and has reflected an overall decline in use of traditional social media in China. At the same time, there has been a huge increase in users of cellphone-based instant messaging services that have increasingly incorporated social media functions, including microblog-like features.
China Internet Network Information Center said in an annual report Thursday that there were 281 million users of Twitter-like microblogs such as Sina Weibo at the end of 2013, down 9 percent the previous year. It also reported an overall decline in users of social media as a percentage of the entire population of Internet users.
But instant-messaging services experienced rapid growth in 2013, CNNIC said.
Mobile instant-messaging services such as the popular application WeChat added more than 78.6 million users in 2013, or 22.3 percent, CNNIC said.
Observers believe Chinese Web users are migrating to mobile services, especially WeChat, for an alternate platform to share information. WeChat, for example, allows users to share information with circles of friends or open a public account that others can subscribe to, similar to the Twitter feature of having followers but without any word limit.
The decline in online social media, especially in microblogging, was palpable last year, following a heavy-handed government campaign against what it considered rumors, negativity and unruliness in online discourse. A new legal interpretation allows the government to jail microbloggers who post false information that has been reposted 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.
“I think there are several reasons, with the crackdown being one,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the City University of Hong Kong, “People don’t want to get into trouble, and they have found other means of communications.”
The government shut down numerous microblogging accounts and arrested dozens of microbloggers on the charge of spreading rumors or unrelated charges, in a campaign observers said was aimed at stifling criticism of the government and ruling Communist Party.
In November, a top propaganda official declared a victory when asked to comment on the hum-ho state of China’s formerly vibrant microblog-sphere.
“If we should describe the online environment in the past as good mingling with the bad, the sky of the cyberspace has cleared up now because we have cracked down on online rumors,” said Ren Xianliang, vice minister of the State Internet Information Office.
The CNNIC report noted that one fifth of China’s social media users became less active in 2013, especially those with better education and higher incomes.