BEIJING – The sudden appearance and rapid disappearance of dissident artist Ai Weiwei on China’s version of Twitter has provided a window into the zany, fast-paced and utterly incomprehensible world of social media censorship in the communist state.
Ai told NBC News that he had been told that -- since new rules were introduced over the weekend on the mandatory real-name registration of every account on the Twitter-style Sina Weibo website -- his name was no longer being blocked on the site.
“Before if you looked up my name on Sina Weibo you got a message that said that it was a ‘sensitive or illegal word being used,’” Ai told NBC News Monday. “Yesterday a friend told me that my name was no longer being blocked, so we thought we’d give it a try.”
Ai, whose outspoken criticism of China’ ruling Communist Party and alleged tax-evasion led to his detention for 81 days last year, has had his name censored by China’s “Great Firewall” and his physical travel has also been restricted.
So the sudden discovery that his name was suddenly viewable and searchable on Weibo spurred him to experiment.
“I just wanted to see if this policy really applies. They [new internet rules] said if you use your real name and identity, you can open your own Weibo account,” Ai said, “so we tried and found that it worked.”
"Ai Weiwei testing, 3/19/2012" would be Ai’s first and last post under his Weibo account.
In a little under two hours, 10,680 people flocked to follow him online before censors deleted his account.
Though unsurprised by the number of followers he attracted in such a short time, he still can’t explain why he was suddenly able to open an account.
“I have no idea. Some people said it may just be a mistake, I have no idea,” he said.
Curiously, the introduction of the new rules was followed shortly afterward by the banning of the Chinese term for “real-name registration.”
Weibo users had been comparing notes regarding whose accounts had or hadn’t been suspended for not providing their real names. The blocking of “real-name registration” appeared to happen because the discussion of the topic became so widespread.
Sina has provided some information about how many of its users have opted to register their Weibo accounts with their real identities. The last official statistic released was a week ago when the company announced that it anticipated 60% of its users would be registered by last Friday’s deadline.
Earlier Monday, NBC News attempted to create a new Weibo account using an anonymous identity. While the site seemed to accept the information filled in, no confirming email required to start using the account ever showed up in our inbox.
However, some users who say they have not submitted any identification to Sina claim they have the ‘V’ badge that all users who verify their identity have on the site.
China’s government is sensitive about the destabilizing potential of social media sites as seen in places like Egypt, Libya and most recently Syria.
An anonymous call for a “Jasmine Revolution” early last year sparked a tightening of restrictions on such sites and increased calls by Chinese regulators and officials for real name registration.
Another newly banned word was “Ferrari,” amid intense gossiping over the potential identity of the owner of a Ferrari who crashed their car early Sunday morning in Beijing, killing one and injuring two others.
The topic that was quickly censored after users speculated that the victim could have been the child of a high-level Communist official.
NBC News’ Bo Gu contributed research to this report.
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