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China's Netizens Challenge Speech Limits

The Microblog Revolution

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The Microblog Revolution

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Half a billion Netizens active on microblogs in China have far more influence than any media outlet. This "virtual China" is on a collision course with all sorts of boundaries.

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The Microblog Revolution

By Sara Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 481 )

"Chinese are all on microblogs. You've got your scuba diving voyeurs as well as your exhibitionist surface swimmers," Caixin Media editor-in-chief Hu Shuli says. "Using a microblog is like standing in the middle of a packed city square shouting through a bullhorn. Everybody is listening."

And lots of them are parked in front of their computers or staring at their cell phones every day, intently monitoring their "Weibo," the Chinese word for microblogs.

Many in the West consider Hu to be the most influential managing editor in Chinese media, and she's also a light microblog user, posting about 10 times per week.

Microblogging was launched in China about two years ago, but the number of users in the country is already tops in the world. Sina Corporation's Weibo.com and Tencent Inc.'s QQ Weibo both boast over 200 million users each. The services are similar to the U.S.-based Twitter service, but with more powerful features. New users, for example, can immediately upload videos and images. And features have been developed catering to the Chinese's affinity for criticizing, as forwarders can attach their own critique to posts they forward to others.

"The significance of microblogging for China is in creating nothing less than a revolutionary impact on public opinion; covering up the facts [now] is very hard," the tiny Hu says, her voice rising in pitch as she offers her assessment.

The central propaganda authorities of China's Communist Party are able to control the dissemination of national public opinion in the brick-and-mortar, real-world China so that all appears in good order. But virtual China has had a big impact on individuals, corporations, media and the general public and has proven to be difficult to control. 

"As seen on the Internet, it looks like China is ready to erupt in revolt tomorrow. On the streets, however, it looks like there couldn't be a revolt for a hundred years," is how writer Yu Hua puts it.

Ordinarily, microblogging is just a platform for venting personal opinions and sharing vignettes from everyday life.

"With microblogs, everybody has become their own personal paparazzi pack," pop star Faye Wong has said.

But when a major incident occurs, it can become the sounding board for astounding rage, and critics of the status quo are in no short supply.

A Gathering Political Storm

In a China that has always emphasized "maintaining stability," microblogging has become a challenge to government control.

The first news of a horrific high-speed train collision in Wenzhou on July 23 came not from official media but from a post on Sina Weibo.

Within four minutes of the crash, Sina Weibo user Yuan Xiaoyuan sent out a post: "Something has happened with the D301 [train] at Wenzhou and we've come to a sudden emergency stop. There was a powerful jolt. Make that two jolts! The power is completely out. I'm in car No. 1, praying that all will be well! This is terrifying!"

Nine minutes later a plea for help came from female student Yang Mi: "Help! … the carriage is full of crying children! Not one rail worker has come to help! Please hurry and rescue us!"

Within two short days, nearly 5.4 million messages regarding the Wenzhou train disaster were posted on Sina Weibo. Netizens reported events as they unfolded, providing real-time reporting from the disaster scene and furiously emotional commentary.

Anyone who forwards a message can add their own comments, which lead to further comments, ultimately cascading into an outpouring of public fury. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao quickly came forward to severely and publicly castigate the nation's Ministry of Railways.

The power of this "bullhorn" is not lost on Sina Corporation president and CEO Charles Chao. "From the perspective of numbers of people, reach and influential power, microblogging is undoubtedly the most influential media outlet in China," he says.

Consequently, Chao has become more cautious and protective of Sina Weibo.

"[The question is] How can we better manage it, especially when hot button incidents occur, we don't want to lose control," Chao says. "As administrator of a media platform, there's a certain responsibility to maintain order and to a certain extent there are rules to maintain order."

Double-Edged Sword – Free Speech vs. Rumor-Mongering

Like a flowing rapid, microblogs can either carry a canoe or capsize it. They offer informational transparency for a more open society. But they can also serve as rumor mills for those with ill intent seeking to foment upheaval.

The biggest negative microblogging service providers face is being denounced for rumor-mongering, as if it is they themselves that are letting the cat out of the bag. It's gotten to the point where even Liu Yunshan, head of what is now known as the Central Publicity Department, formerly known as the Chinese Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department and still often referred to among locals as the "Ministry of Truth," acknowledges that it's impossible for his agency to completely control the actions of half a billion Netizens.

"It's been said that China maintains strict control over the Internet, but it's actually quite difficult," Liu has acknowledged. "China is faced with an Internet management crisis."

China's government authorities have recently begun strengthening their supervision of microblogging outlets. And various "new media" outlets have also begun self-censorship. Sina Weibo already has a staff of 15 tasked specifically with quashing rumors and verifying the veracity of microblog posts. Where "falsehoods" are found, the relevant posts are immediately deleted. The problem, of course, is that traditional news media reports are vetted before broadcast while Sina Weibo can only verify the assertions of its Netizens after they have been posted.

In late August, Sina alerted its 200 million users that any accounts found to be spreading unfounded rumors would be suspended for one month, and its management is increasingly feeling the heat.

Among those active on Sina Weibo is Shenan Chuang, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Greater China, who has 1.2 million followers on the site. Her biggest question for Charles Chao is: "When will Sina Weibo be shut down?"

Chao remains cautiously optimistic.

"To date, China is a world leader in Internet development, whether in terms of user coverage, growth or dependency," he asserts. "This would not be possible without major government liberalization and support.

"The most important thing at this stage is how to gradually arrive at a set of rules of the game or regulations that are acceptable to all parties involved," the pragmatic Chao says.

Microblogs reflect the caliber of people in Chinese society. To many outsiders, the overall legal system in Chinese society remains in its embryonic stages, and the people are still learning how to be responsible for their speech.

In an analysis published in CommonWealth Magazine, Chou Ting-jui, a professor at Renmin University of China's School of Business, asserted that China's microblog providers have adopted a user authentication system that makes each individual responsible for their own speech. Statistics show that 80 percent of messages on microblogs that get scattered around through cross-posting are the result of decisions made by more than 200,000 verifiable users, so in essence the rumors can be nipped at their source.

Navigating through the Storm – Charles Chao

Sina Weibo's editorial power prompted the American Time magazine in April of this year to name Chao one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Entering Chao's office amid the gathering storm, one notices it is ordinary, if not spartan. Following a lengthy two-hour interview, the deepest impressions one is left with are of a low-key composure coupled with highly capable expediency.

He graduated with a degree in journalism from China's Fudan University and went on to acquire graduate degrees in journalism and finance in the United States. He joined Sina Corp. in 1999.

Ten years later, Chao and a group of employees acquired a more than 10 percent share in the company, effectively seizing managerial control. Once he became CEO, Sina's share of advertising revenue grew steadily, and the Weibo microblogging services he pioneered there began to take off.

Chao predicts that the biggest change in China's future Internet usage will be the rapid growth in mobile Internet users, which will surpass PC users in two years. Mobile users already account for more than 40 percent of total Sina Weibo users, and Chao expects that figure to top 80 percent within two years.

The epochal change wrought through China's social media will not be limited to toppling the traditional legacy media. It will also change the way corporate branding operates. It will be able to usher in success for an entirely new brand while also being capable of destroying a century old standard, as some entertainers are finding out.

Celebrities can use their smartphones to communicate with fans through microblogs in their spare time. The Sina Weibo users with the most followers are Chinese actress Yao Chen, Taiwanese celebrity Dee Hsu and Taiwanese writer and TV host Kevin Tsai, respectively. The former two each have more than 10 million followers, thus clearly forming an economy based on their fans.

"In the China-Taiwan-Hong Kong area, Taiwan's entertainment industry is a highly competitive export. Dee Hsu and Kevin Tsai can directly expand their influence in China's market through Weibo," says Sina Taiwan Vice President Michelle Bey-fen Lee.

But the downside of that is the Internet can also easily send companies skating onto thin ice.

"With the spread of new technologies, consumers can now openly criticize companies through the Internet or social media and even mobilize a gang of followers,'" says Ogilvy's Chuang. "Companies and brands are now facing scrutiny on a scale they've never seen before."

The vigorous development of social media, not just in China but worldwide, presents a challenge for business executives, who continue to feel their way forward in this new environment.

Chinese users of microblogs now enjoy a previously unknown level of expressive freedom. With the advent of this social networking service, China itself continues to inch forward.

Transalted from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Keywords:

好友人數