Chinese microblog operator Sina Corp. already has what seems an unassailable lead over Twitter in China, thanks to the fact that Chinese government blocks access to the U.S. website for fear it could be used to spread political dissent. Now, as Sina aims to recharge its business growth by investing heavily in its microblog site, Weibo, some are speculating that the company intends eventually to take on Twitter overseas—where China’s censorship rules could flip things around and put Sina at a disadvantage. Sina is developing an English-language version of Weibo, which had over 140 million registered users at the end of April, a company spokesman said Wednesday. Sina doesn’t have a public timeline for its release and it’s still in the “first stage” of development, he said. He dismissed as speculation the possibility that Weibo could compete with Twitter. The spokesman couldn’t immediately confirm whether the English version will be a separate service or a new user interface for the current Weibo. A separate service would be a more aggressive move suggesting Sina might intend to compete globally with Twitter. The English version of Weibo will target the platform’s overseas users, who currently account for more than 10% of the total and many of whom may be overseas Chinese, the spokesman said. English-speaking foreigners in China could also use the service, he said. Just as Sina is working on new features like online games and e-commerce services to add to Weibo in Chinese, in the longer term Sina is also likely to add functions to its English version, the spokesman said. Sina already recently added an English-language user interface to its Sina Weibo iPhone app . Weibo users conduct most of the their activity on the service via mobile devices, rather than personal computers. Whether by design or not, an English Weibo would compete with Twitter for certain users. Twitter was gaining a following in China before it was blocked, along with Facebook, following deadly ethnic riots in China’s western Xinjiang region in 2009 . (Some dedicated Chinese users continue to use Twitter by using a tool like a virtual private network to run around China’s Internet censors .) Sina appears likely to police user posts on the English version of Weibo just as it does on the Chinese version, where it filters messages for sensitive content to comply with Chinese regulations . When asked if Sina will filter content on an English Weibo, the company spokesman said Sina will continue to comply with Chinese regulations. Sina Chief Executive Charles Chao in April said Sina will likely seek overseas partners for the development of Weibo. “It doesn’t compete in a foreign language and I think it’s a long shot. It’s not our top priority, but we probably will seek partners in other countries to develop our product,” he said. An English Weibo could appeal to overseas users particularly interested in China, and in the longer term Sina could aim to attract users based on Weibo’s unique features, said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing. Weibo has in some cases added features unavailable on Twitter, such as a section for comments on other users’ posts, he said. But China’s censorship rules could be a major hurdle for Sina overseas, and its services will need to meet a substantial demand not already met by Twitter or other websites, analysts said. “Really for Weibo, it’s what do you do that nobody else does? … And aren’t you affiliated with the Chinese government? Those are the two questions that are really going to damage Weibo the most,” said David Wolf, chief executive of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based marketing strategy firm. –Owen Fletcher
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Sina Weibo: Competition for Twitter?