Mary Kay Magistad of Yale Global on how Chinese Twitter is changing the rules of the game:
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.