China's take on Twitter, Sina Weibo, plans Wall Street IPO

The Chinese app Weibo's logo.

In China, where the Internet landscape is enclosed by the Great Firewall, Sina’s Weibo service was the closest thing to a free flow of information.

"It attracted celebrities, business people, political activists, dissidents, lawyers, ordinary people," says Chinese social media critic Jeremy Goldkorn. "It achieved much more mainstream popularity than Twitter ever did in the United States."

More than sixty million users sharing information about what mattered to them.

Not surprisingly, it quickly became political. "Tweeting something controversial or critical of the government would lead people to repost it and you’d get a popular bump by posting something that would attract eyeballs and something people would repost," says Goldkorn.

China’s authoritarian government was not thrilled. It censored Weibo, going so far as to threaten users with prison time if they spread what the Communist Party considered rumors, and that’s been bad for Sina's business.

But as the company prepares for Wall Street, China’s government may be the least of its problems. "Weibo has been a race car which has been driven by amateurs," says Michael Clendenin, Managing Director of the Shanghai-based RedTech Advisors. 

Bad management, says Clendenin, has meant Weibo has lost customers to WeChat, a widly popular instant messaging service hosted by the company Tencent.

"If you look at Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, the big three internet companies in China, there’s only one of those three that is in total attack mode on every front – and that is Tencent," says Clendenin.

Clendenin says Sina Corporation should be able to raise a half a billion dollars for its IPO, but he says the company’s slowdown and meager profits mean its Wall Street effort may prove to be too little, too late.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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