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How Weibo Is Changing China

Weibo, China’s microblog that’s celebrating its third anniversary this month, offers a national platform for ordinary citizens to hold the powerful to account. In an instant, an ordinary citizen can launch a public debate or shame government and corporate officials by posting photos, videos, comments and messages. Weibo has some 350 million users, and China's leaders are torn between appreciating Weibo’s capability to gauge public opinion and resisting public scrutiny, reports Beijing-based journalist Mary Kay Magistad. The microblog tool has opened a new battleground among Chinese authorities, internet companies and citizens – all testing the other’s boundaries and resolve to criticize, censor and self-censor. Weibo has become the voice of millions of Chinese, stepping up to offer suggestions, some impulsive and others more organized, on their society’s many challenges. Government officials are finding that rapid, reasonable response to valid criticisms is better received than censorship. – YaleGlobal

How Weibo Is Changing China

Weibo is just 3 years old, but its posters are fierce in tackling China’s challenges
Mary Kay Magistad
YaleGlobal, 9 August 2012
Ready, aim, text: With Weibo, China has a new army of microbloggers, some 350 million in all, ready to offer ideas for improving every aspect of their society

BEIJING: It was the last straw for Shanghai graduate student Wu Heng, when he heard that restaurants near him were using toxic chemicals to make pork taste like beef. He started a food-safety blog out of his dorm room in January. In April, he got 10,000 hits. In May, he got 5 million.

“Word spread on Weibo,” he says with a grin. 

Weibo – China’s version of Twitter – has created a vigorous virtual public square since it was launched by the Chinese internet company Sina three years ago this month. The site, which allows users to post photos, videos, comments and messages, has since expanded with scorching speed. It now boasts some 350 million users.

“These days, a lot of people use Weibo as their main source of information, and information on Weibo can pass very fast,” says Wu. “So I update my Weibo account every day, with the latest news on food safety.”

Food safety is but one of the hot-button issues that have raised a public outcry on Weibo, providing a new source of public pressure on the government. A similar outcry came last summer after a high-speed train crash killed 40 people, just days after the expensive and high-profile project was rushed into service.  Weibo comments mocked official excuses and attempts to cover up bad management.

Weibo is now driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue in China.

“This is unprecedented in Chinese history,” says Kaiser Kuo, the director of Corporate Communications at Baidu.com, the leading Chinese search engine. “There’s never been a time when there’s been a comparably large and impactful public sphere. It’s now driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue.”

So far, China’s leaders are ambivalent. On the one hand, Weibo gives them a window into public opinion they never really had before, letting at least some people blow off steam online rather than on the street. On the other hand, China’s leaders are neither used to nor comfortable with public scrutiny, much less public ridicule.  

Wang Chen, who heads China's State Internet Information Office, has said that Weibo and other microblogs should "serve society," and not threaten public security.

Exactly what does threaten public security is open to interpretation, and Sina and other microblog providers are expected to interpret broadly as they exercise censorship on behalf of the government. Critical comments are wiped away; entire Weibo accounts are sometimes deleted. Popular blogger Isaac Mao had 30,000 followers when his account was closed in June. He’d written a comment criticizing China’s space program as a waste of money.  

A couple of months earlier, Chinese microbloggers woke up on a Saturday morning to find the message: “Recently, comments left by microbloggers have started to contain much illegal and detrimental information, including rumors.” To clean up these rumors, the message continued, Weibo would suspend its comments section – the function that allows lively, often irreverent discussion – for three days.

If Weibo is a battlefield between authorities and civil society, the government seeks to occupy it.

“People who didn’t say something before, they start to realize there’s something wrong with this system,” Mao said at the time. “I think they [censors] fear if they shut down Weibo totally, it will backfire. But they’re testing to see how people respond to more restrictions. Because Weibo is now a battleground between the official voices and the voices of civil society.”

Not necessarily, says Chinese blogger and journalist Michael Anti. He says Weibo has its uses for official circles, too. “Now, when someone in the central governments wants to take action against a local government or some princelings [children of senior party leaders], they put the news directly on Weibo or Twitter,” he says. “Microblogging is really changing the pattern of how we follow news, and how news is leaked.” If Weibo is a battlefield, he says, the government seeks to occupy it, not destroy it.

And lest ordinary citizens think they can get creative in their own political uses of Weibo – Anti has his doubts.

“You can’t use Weibo to organize a social movement,” he says. “Because as soon as you use the word ‘gather,’ the keyword would get picked up, and the warning would be sent to the local police station. So even before you gather at the restaurant, you’ll already have the police there. I call it Censorship 2.0.”

The government’s current squeeze on Weibo includes requiring users to use real names when they register –inconsistently enforced – and, especially in the run-up to this autumn’s leadership transition, to keep comments “harmonious.” A Harvard study released in June, led by social science professor Gary King, found that about 13 percent of China’s social media content is deleted by censors, though, curiously, many negative comments are allowed to stay.

Weibo is transforming the relationship between Chinese citizens and their government.

“Posts with negative, even vitriolic criticism of the state, its leaders and its policies are not more likely to be censored,” said the study report, adding that China’s online censorship program focuses on “curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce or spur social mobilization.”

Not surprising, then, that news of Hong Kong’s mass demonstrations in recent weeks, against increasing Mainland Chinese government control, made only the most fleeting of appearances on Weibo.

Still, Chinese Weibo users are using what Baidu’s Kaiser Kuo calls “delightful creativity” in using homonyms, puns and wordplay to get messages across.  Those who want to post longer, edgier messages often post them as photos, to get around both censors and the word limit.  Kuo says social media companies are left to balance between following the law and letting the virtual public square that’s their customer base thrive. 

“Internet companies in China serve two masters,” he says. “They need to keep users happy, and none of them labor under the illusion that people prefer censored search results…. We are obliged to obey the law in China. And we are also compelled to explore the elasticity of our boundaries.”

Many a Chinese Weibo user is doing exactly that, transforming the relationship between Chinese citizens and their government.

“Before, it was very much one-way communication; the government disseminated information to the public” says environmentalist Ma Jun, whose Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs runs a popular website that maps, names and shames polluting factories around China. “But Weibo is different. It’s created, for the first time, a sort of equal two-way communication.”

Ma says Weibo has been a godsend for his website, both in spreading the word  and collecting information about polluters, with people who see pollution sending details and photos to add to his map. He says the central government has been fairly supportive, even when local government officials have come to his office to try convincing him to remove embarrassing data.

That doesn’t mean democracy is about to break out. Ma says, for all the heady change Weibo has brought in its first three years, civil society in China is still in its infancy.

“For thousands of years, this country was ruled top down, and it doesn’t have a long tradition of transparency or public participation in decision making,” he says. “Now, it’s quite a critical moment, because the country is facing all these challenges. The environmental challenge is just one of them. There are many other social challenges. If we want to go through these smoothly, there’s an increasing understanding that the government alone cannot fully micromanage all these challenges. It needs the society to help.”

An increasingly vocal and growing Chinese middle-class is proving itself willing, even insistent, on playing that role – and a 3-year-old called Weibo is making it ever harder for the government to ignore those voices. 

 

Mary Kay Magistad is East Asia correspondent for PRI/BBC's "The World. The author will field readers' questions for a week after the publication date.

Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

3 September 2012
note that in america, twitter has almost no comparable effect on society ... co-opted by "freedom"
-gregorylent , shanghai
20 August 2012
Interestingly if it had been not your article, I almost forgot the incident that they blocked the comments section for three days just a few months ago. Things are happening too fast on Weibo. Such kind of short lifespan discussion can launch small waves, but easily get sidetracked after a day or two. It's questionable how much Weibo can do to promote rational and critical thinking on social issues. Nevertheless, it is changing people's life in a most significant way.
PS, it will be another interesting study topic to compare Tencent Weibo and Sina Weibo, and how their competition may create room for censorship.
-MK , Hongkong
18 August 2012
hai dear, thank you for posting such a wonderfull paper, i watched the presentation of michael anti in ted.com and he explained all the things that written in your articel, sooner or later, i believe that there will be big movement to change the political system. i used to learned about the china culture about the forbiden kingdom, where the emperor has totall power over his kingdom and citizen and the citizen mustn't argue about any of emperor policy. i think such a system that the government trying to maintain. what do you think?
-zera , rochester NY
16 August 2012
With more than 300 million users, Weibo is many things to many people -- including, as you say Pirugenia, a way to follow celebrities, gossip and trivia. But it also empowers ordinary citizens who want to publicly share information that matters to them and sound off on things that irk them -- in a way they never could before in China. When hundreds of millions of people are given this capability at once, there is something of a multiplier effect, one that the government continues to try to keep in check -- by censoring heavily and requiring real name registration -- even as it is becoming more responsive to discontent expressed on Weibo.
So in answer to your question, G, my take is while that civil society in China is still nascent and limited in its impact, Weibo is helping it grow stronger and more sophisticated, far more quickly than it otherwise would have.
-Mary Kay Magistad , Beijing, China
12 August 2012
Interesting potential, but, under the right marketing, Weibo might become just a venue for freaky car accidents or momentary scandals over bad pork dumplings in some small café, or titillating "news" about thong panty sales and sexy government employees, instead of a lens over the men who buy them these panties and party with them, discarding one girl after the other once she reaches her 27th birthday, the the dreaded age of sheng nu (left-over). The alternative of WeiBo as a venue not for distraction but for real communication of the corrupt going ons if Party members is what will never be allowed: it is bad for money, and for politics. The mob, the masses, have to be controlled, by the "superior" minds of the market place (Bernays). A new era of capitalist propaganda in an ex-Maoist regime is what will be ushered after the October Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
-Pirugenia , Barbados
12 August 2012
Hi, thanks for the article!
I was just wondering, in your opinion, how far has Weibo revolutionized the way Chinese civil society operates. As opposed to what Malcolm Gladwell argues on how twitter has merely augmented the transmission of information during the Arab Spring.
Furthermore, what do you think is the particular characteristic of Weibo that has given it the ability to change the relationship between the government and civil society? Is it because of the critical mass it is able to achieve? A certain level of anonymity? (i.e. compared to approaching an official physically and risking arrest?)
Apologies for the long question! I'm really interested to hear your opinion on this!
-G , Hong Kong
11 August 2012
Thanks for the comments. Yes, it's true that the 140 character limit in Chinese allows something more like a paragraph, while the 140 letter limit on Twitter allows just a pithy sentence or two. Still, many Chinese find that 140 characters aren't enough for what they'd like to say, so they take photos of longer blocks of text and post the photos.
Weibo is commonly called China's version of Twitter, Michelle because, like Twitter, it allows someone to post short public messages and musings, and allows anyone to 'follow' that person. Weibo expands on Twitter's capacities by attaching a comments section to each posting, allowing threads to be followed more easily. It also allows the posting of embedded photos within the message, allowing for some creative ways of getting around both character limits and censors. In these ways, many Weibo users would argue that Weibo bests Twitter.
Weibo falls short, of course, because subscribers risk having their accounts cancelled if they say the wrong thing. I know several Chinese users of both Weibo and Twitter, who use the Weibo account to get messages out to bigger audiences, even if only for a few minutes until it's deleted, and the Twitter account to save the posting in a place where it can't be deleted. Creativity in getting around censorship seems to be growing, even as the censorship itself becomes both more sophisticated and more heavy-handed.
-Mary Kay Magistad , Beijing, China
10 August 2012
Meanwhile on twitter....
http://www.japanprobe.com/2012/08/10/racist-tweets-after-u-s-soccer-vict...
-Scott , Seattle
10 August 2012
Nice to hear about a wind of freedom in "people" republic of China.
-pascal , France
10 August 2012
Its time to learn Chinese so I can post larger tweets.
-CE , Charlotte, NC