A three-year-old in China is creating a vigorous, virtual public square, and it’s making a government used to controlling the message scramble to keep up. Weibo, which is the closest thing China has to Twitter, was launched three years ago Tuesday, August 14th, by the Chinese internet company Sina.
It now boasts some 350 million users, who sound off and share information in a way that’s changing the relationship between the Chinese people and their government.
To get a sense of the power of Weibo, consider the experience of a Shanghai graduate student named Wu Heng. Fed up with food safety scandals in China, he created a food safety blog out of his dorm room in January.
In April, he got 10,000 hits. In May, he got 5 million because word of it spread on Weibo.
“These days, a lot of people use Weibo as their main source of information, and information on Weibo can pass very fast, so I update my Weibo account every day, with the latest news on food safety,” he said.
Weibo is like Twitter, in that anyone can post public thoughts of 140 characters or fewer. In China, each character is like a full word, so a posting can be more like a paragraph than Twitters’s pithy sentence or two.
The power of Weibo was made clear last summer, when a high-speed train crash killed 40 people, just days after the expensive high-profile project was rushed into service. Word of the crash first came when someone on the train posted on Weibo. As officials tried to cover up, comments on Weibo were scathing, leading to a safety review and a rethinking of the whole Chinese high-speed train program.
“This is unprecedented,” said Kaiser Kuo, director of corporate communications at Baidu.com, the leading Chinese search engine. “There’s never been a time in Chinese history when there’s been a comparably large and impactful public sphere. It is now driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue.”
China’s leaders seem not quite sure how they feel about that. On the one hand, Weibo gives them a window into public opinion they never really had before, and lets 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.
Perhaps no coincidence, then, that Weibo became mysteriously unavailable last week during the murder trial of Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, the disgraced and deposed Communist Party official who was at one time a contender for one of the top nine slots in the leadership transition this autumn.
The government’s attempts to control Weibo include making Weibo providers delete sensitive comments, and sometimes entire accounts. But prominent blogger Isaac Mao says none of this is changing the fact that government officials must now deal with an increasingly vocal, informed and demanding public.
“They try any way to slow down people’s voices spreading,” he said.
Mao’s own Weibo account was deleted recently after he used it to criticize China’s space program as a waste of money. He’s still posting on Twitter – an international site that Chinese censors can’t touch. Chinese Weibo users can still repost his Twitter comments on Weibo, and they do. Mao says Weibo has become the battlefield between official voices and the voices of civil society.
If that’s true, “You don’t need to bomb the battlefield, you should occupy it,” according to Chinese blogger Michael Anti. By that he means, the government wants to use Weibo to leak information, control discussion and monitor potential troublemakers. Anti says that monitoring makes it unlikely that a mass movement – like what Egypt had – could spread through Weibo.
“You can’t from the very beginning,” Anti said, “because as soon as you use the word ‘gather,’ the keywords will get picked up and the warning will be sent to the local police station. So even before you gather at the restaurant, you’ll already find the police there.”
Still, he says, Weibo users are creative about making end runs around controls, using homonyms and obscure literary references as code.
“If you’re a journalist covering China, you really have to read some novels, otherwise you can’t decode … the culture of Weibo. I don’t think you can understand, even if you have a Ph.D in Chinese language,” Anti said.
But interestingly, even a fair number of uncoded criticisms get through on Weibo.
A Harvard study in June found that while censors delete about 13 percent of China’s social media content, they allow many negative comments — as long as they don’t spur social mobilization. Baidu’s Kaiser Kuo says social media companies, which are required to do their own censoring, have to balance between following the law and building their customer base.
“None of these internet companies labor under the illusion that people prefer censored search result, but at the same time, they are obliged to obey the law in China,” he said. “We are also compelled to explore the elasticity of our boundaries.”
Many a Chinese Weibo user is doing the same — pushing out the boundaries, and in so doing, transforming the relationship between Chinese citizens and their government.