Charles Chao is one of the most powerful men in China.
His Internet empire, Sina.com, hosts hundreds of millions of Net users and online expression that is unprecedented in both scale and intensity.
The mind-boggling statistic is well known – China is home to nearly half a billion Internet users. And Sina's Weibo, or microblog, rules the roost. It's the country's biggest social media site, with sleek functionality compared to both Twitter and Facebook.
Unlike other high-profile China dotcom CEOs, Chao is not a technocrat with an engineering degree. He's a former TV reporter from Shanghai who pursued further studies in the United States. (It's safe to say he's probably the most influential alumnus of the University of Oklahoma School of Journalism.)
I interviewed Chao at Sina.com headquarters in Beijing in mid-June, before the July 23rd Wenzhou train tragedy which has been called a "watershed moment" for the site.
The high-speed train collision killed 39 people and sparked a massive outpouring of anger directed at officials for their handling of the crash. Much of that outrage played out on Sina Weibo. But even before then, Weibo actively played host to fierce online debates about corruption and social injustice in China.
Chao is well aware of the power his Website has in advancing freedom of expression in China. He says: "China has become much more open and much more transparent. People have a lot of freedom to express themselves and Weibo can bring that freedom to a next level. Not only can they express, they can distribute that content and opinions with their Weibo account."
But the Sina chief is also acutely aware of the delicate balancing act he must strike - in growing the Sina Weibo user base in a hyper-competitive environment, meeting the expectations of a Web audience accustomed to speaking their minds, and not offending the Chinese government to the point of a shut-down.
And to strike that balance, Chao must harness the delicate art of self-censorship.
Chao declines to offer specific numbers about how many Sina.com employees are managing and censorsing Weibo content, but concedes that "there are people working in terms of looking at the content itself and the message itself. There are a lot of rumors on the microblog itself, a lot of fraud on the microblog. There are a lot of things we need to take care of."
Chao says his content management is akin to a Japanese social networking company monitoring its site for fraud. But in China, it's much more than that.
The laws and regulations on Chinese Internet content are broad and vague in wording. Banned words and phrases are not specified. But there is a blanket ban on anything that would harm state security and social stability...
Charles Chao knows where the line is, and doesn't need to be told.
Part 1 of the interview
Part 2 of the interview
Part 3 of the interview
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