HONG KONG—Chinese authorities have ordered companies that provide microblogging services such as Twitter to step up online monitoring of content, as the major Internet service providers close their popular update services for "maintenance" or testing.
Netease, a leading Chinese portal, was unavailable Wednesday, displaying a notice saying the site was "under maintenance."
Sohu's homegrown version of Twitter was also down over the weekend, while Sina, the People's Daily online edition, and Tencent all switched to "testing" versions of their microblogging services, netizens said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Sohu customer service helpline said the closure of the microblogging service was temporary.
"The reason for the closure is that the relevant employees are working on adjusting the system," she said.
"If you try again in a little while, it will be back."
Veteran Internet user and prolific microblogger Ye Du said the authorities are feeling pressure from the sheer volume of re-tweets of news items on microblogging services.
"It has been very hard for the authorities to keep track of this, with such a huge volume of updates and such a huge capacity for the dissemination of information," Ye said.
"It takes a considerable amount of resources to ensure that undesirable news isn't being disseminated [on these services]," he added.
He said the authorities were probably using the systems' down-time to boost surveillance mechanisms to slow the flow of information via such services.
Online writer and cyber-dissident Liu Di, known by her online nickname Stainless Steel Mouse, said the impact of the closures is hard to gauge.
"Some people will be affected, but others will just move over to Twitter," Liu said.
Microblogging, or Twitter-like, services were described by a recent official report on Chinese Internet use patterns as the main carrier of public opinion.
The prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) said in a report released last December that microblogging services had become very powerful as a tool for the exchange of information.
"Microblogging has successfully broken certain information filtering mechanisms, and publishes a large quantity of first-hand information before traditional media and government news publishing."
"It has become the most powerful public opinion carrier," the report said.
Meanwhile, authorities in Shanghai removed dozens of articles posted to a blog by rights lawyer Li Tiantian, who wrote about it on Twitter.
Li said she was likely to be fired if the boss of her current law firm was called in to "drink tea" with police over her writings on her blog and on Twitter.
"This time it was because he was getting pressure from higher up, and he was finding it hard to eat or sleep," Li said.
"They said that I had posted photos online of the [military crackdown on] June 4, 1989. Why can't I post those?"
Rights lawyers silenced
In Beijing, authorities also moved in on the blogs of two prominent rights lawyers: Liu Xiaoyuan's blog was closed, with 250 articles removed overnight, while Teng Biao's blogs were also closed down.
"My Sina.com blog has been closed," Teng said.
"The first one lasted a total of 12 hours, while the second, which was titled 'Teng Biao the Second,' was allowed to exist for a month and a half."
"It had more than 2,300 fans. It died after I made two or three posts on the subject of citizens' rights and social transformation," he added.
"I had posted the text of my speech on citizens' rights and social change in several sections, and that did it," Teng said.
"They didn't inform me or anything. They just closed down the entire blog."
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all blocked in China, unless netizens use circumvention tools to gain access.
According to China's Online Public Opinion Monitoring & Measuring Department of the People's Daily online edition, 23 out of 77 key news stories during 2009 were broken by netizens.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Nan and in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.