The rise of social media in China

China has long fought to manage the amount of communication published online. The recent Wenzhoubar train crash, which saw 39 people lose their lives, is being been cited as a landmark in the changing face of the Chinese web which is seeing government officials battling to control the message amongst social media platforms – with the near 200 million microblog users forming the biggest challenge.

Initially, after the crash took place, government officials fought hard to maintain control of the message and updates from the crash site only to see the story retold to the country through social media. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao suffered criticism after citing ill-health as the reason for his late reaction, despite looking healthy to many microbloggers.

Discussion of the implications of the event and the manner in which online word of mouth overpowered China’s censorship bureau is being picked up in a number of noteworthy articles.

Key discussion points are excerpted below:

From The New York Times:

The swift and comprehensive blogs on the train accident stood this week in stark contrast to the stonewalling of the Railways Ministry, already stained by a bribery scandal. And they are a humbling example for the Communist Party news outlets and state television, whose blinkered coverage of rescued babies only belatedly gave way to careful reports on the public’s discontent.

While the blogs have exposed wrongdoers and broken news before, this week’s performance may signal the arrival of weibos as a social force to be reckoned with, even in the face of government efforts to rein in the Internet’s influence.

The government censors assigned to monitor public opinion have let most, though hardly all of the weibo posts, stream onto the Web unimpeded. But many experts say they are riding a tiger. For the very nature of weibo posts, which spread faster than censors can react, makes weibos beyond easy control. And their mushrooming popularity makes controlling them a delicate matter.

Malcolm Moore in the Daily Telegraph looks specifically at the role microblogging is playing in challenging the government’s control of information:

The emergence of Sina Weibo, a clone of the Western website Twitter that allows 200 million Chinese to post their thoughts in real time, has resulted in a deluge of information the government is finding difficult to control.

“Thousands of web users were posting real eye-witness accounts, photos, videos. Traditional media, including solid professional outfits as well as the party media, have been using Weibo to aggregate and share information,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project in Hong Kong. “Ordinary users, journalists, writers, lawyers, academics, intellectuals, a broad swathe of people, have been digging out old media coverage that illuminates these recent events.”

Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the availability of information on Weibo had helped mainstream media to push the boundaries and caused the public to lose confidence in the government.

Weibo is amplifying information the government does not announce. There is pressure from these grassroots [for the media to be more critical]. CCTV has heard the message. I think the leadership has acknowledged it too,” he said.

The NYT provides further details on microblogs, looking at how those in China provide greater challenge to censors.

In some ways, the Chinese weibos replicate their Western counterparts: they limit posts to 140 characters (though in Chinese, where many characters are words by themselves, much more can be said). Posts can be re-tweeted, too, although in China, tweeting is called knitting, because the word “weibo” sounds like the word for scarf.

There are also differences. Bloggers can comment on others’ posts, turning a message into a conversation. Users also can include photographs and other files with their posts, to telling effect: on Thursday, fact-checking bloggers posted photos of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s recent official activities to counter his assertion at a Wenzhou news conference that illness had kept him from visiting the disaster site earlier.

While Western social networks like Twitter and Facebook are blocked here, their Chinese counterparts thrive, largely because their owners consent to government monitoring and censorship — and perhaps because the government fears the reaction should it shut them down. The outpouring over the rail tragedy appears to have enjoyed at least some official approval; many analysts believe the government sees microblogs as a virtual steam valve through which citizens can safely vent complaints.

If needed, the weibos have literally dozens of electronic levers they can press to dilute, hide or delete offending posts, according to one Tencent Web editor who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of dismissal in disclosing that information. Yet the weibos also play cat and mouse with the censors.

“If we did not have any free speech then this company would not have any influence, so the company must act proactively to safeguard our space,” he said. “So that’s why they must go through this process of bargaining with the government departments.”

And even dedicated censors find the weibos hard to restrain. Government minders can electronically delete posts with offending keywords like “human rights” and “protest.” But like Twitter, the ability to instantly forward posts to dozens of fellow users means that messages can spread, well before censorship orders can be implemented.

Finally, Channel 4 news provides thoughts on the significance of new media and how events were reported online:

Not ‘Tiananmen 2.0’

But former CNN China Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon, who is also a co-founder of the international blogging community Global Voices, cautioned against seeing this as “the next step towards Tiananmen 2.0” – partly because the social media sites are still controlled by the state.

She said the government allows debate to go only so far, before it clamps down. For example, while criticism of individual incidents or officials can go through, this is halted when there is any wider call for political change or democracy.

“For instance, people tried to use the same tools to organise protests to echo the revolutions in the Middle East. That failed miserably,” she told Channel 4 News.

In fact, the central government can in a way pander to its population by acting on some of their lesser, local demands – while maintaining its national political grip.

“The situation is the internet enables a lot more public debate without the government having to change the fundamental political or legal structure. So you could make the argument that this will enable the Communist Party to stay in longer,” she said.

She concluded: “One of the things we jump to assume is because local officials are having their heads handed to them as a result of microblogging is that this is the next step towards Tiananmen 2.0. I would caution against making that assumption.”

It is clear that there is an uneasy relationship between allowing microbloggers to ‘vent’ and allowing the platform to be used to undercut messages and statistics from the state.

The train crash tragedy is just another event which has provided to be an example of the ways in which social media is battling China’s rigid control of information.

While there was much talk of the Jasmine Revolution last year, the event never took place – down media hype, a lack of popularity, timing or government intervention perhaps – but clearly the government is more than aware of the potential that microblogging and internet reporting has, and it will be interested to see how future events and communication is affected by the knowledge that the truth really is out there, in real-time, in China.