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How Weibo Is Changing China
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.” This is reprinted with permission from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization)