The weibo generation can reboot China

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Microblogs were almost nonexistent 10 years ago but have exploded since 2009. Although Weibo remains a public sphere full of restrictions, the weibo generation’s movers and shakers have swelled, creating a battle for public opinion in China.  

China’s fifth generation leader, Xi Jinping, has inherited economic power and prestige for the country from Hu Jintao. Mr Xi also inherited an awakened Chinese opinion. The generation of microbloggers can no longer be seduced by traditional propaganda, as the spat over censorship in the newspaper Southern Weekend demonstrated.

This generation compels Chinese leaders to govern with more transparency but it also secures them tools for authoritarian spin-doctoring to sustain their rule.

A legacy of the Hu-Wen decade is social media, in Chinese called weibo. Microblogs were almost nonexistent in 2003 but have exploded since 2009, totalling 300m people in instant and constant communication.

Even the seasoned China follower Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, was surprised by this strong undercurrent in Chinese society as he joined Weibo.com and 700,000 Chinese attached themselves to him. He now calls it “one of the great gaps in any western analysis about what’s going on in China”.

Weibo remains a public sphere full of restrictions. There are forbidden search words (yes, dissidents Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo fall into that category but also top leaders’ names) yet these are often circumvented by nimble “netizens” using wordplays.

On weibo, popular individuals can muster followers the size of a country. The social critic Li Chenping gets more than 6m to read along, roughly the population of Denmark. Popular actress Yao Chen boasts more than 30m followers. She normally posts innocuous tweets on daily life as a star.

Recently she added her voice to the quarrel over censorship at the Southern Weekend, when she posted a Solzhenitsyn quote on the intrinsic value of truth. That resonated around China even though searching and posting on Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) was blocked by Chinese cybercrats.

Truth-searching Chinese netizens render classic propaganda more difficult. Beijing’s excessive pollution is another example too dirty to hide with the usual government denial strategies. During recent years, the US embassy in Beijing has kept independent measurements of air quality that have filtered out to the Chinese public, providing alternative information circuits.

Thus, the authorities after the recent “black Saturday” had to admit that pollution was indeed worse than it should be. The new propaganda line was subtler and orchestrated by state television that ran programmes on the London smog of 1952 and compared it to China today. The message for viewers was that it takes a long time to repair environmental damage from industrialisation and the Chinese public had to be patient.

Conversely, the central leadership also needs social media to govern. It is a means to take the temperature of social moods in the absence of elections, and as a frustration index that can be monitored.

Mr Xi’s anti-corruption drive will use social media extensively. Weibo is the bane of local officials since corruption is unearthed by netizens. And local government does not have the capacity to pull the plug on posts. Thus, wearing an expensive watch not commensurate with your public earnings leaves officials in the weibo danger zone.

Although this development is positive for transparency, it remains a proxy for a genuine system of rule of law and accountability. The blog-lynching of officials also has echoes of the destructive big character posters of the Cultural Revolution.

Consequently, the Chinese government is adapting to this social media reality. It marks a new forum for public debate that can be distilled through using updated tools of authoritarian propaganda.

“Wei-governance” is a recent buzzword with government agencies as well as Chinese deputies communicating on weibo. At a recent meeting in Beijing, the exhortation was for all propaganda workers to join weibo and post on it. Cai Qi, local Communist party grandee in Zheijiang, has laid out the government’s strategy as “controlling weibo while using it, and facilitating control by using it”.

China proclaims what one observer calls “internet with Chinese characteristics”. But inside the Great Firewall, even with restrictions on social media, the weibo generation’s movers and shakers have swelled, creating a battle for public opinion.

The article first appeared in the Financial Times

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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