Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Comments on Weibo

At the weekend I was asked by contacts at China's English language newspaper, The Global Times, to comment on the way The People's Daily and Xinhua now use Weibo (China's major social networking site). The final report can be found here:


However, my more provocative and critical comments were exorcised and so I publish my brief reply to the journalist here.

The fact that official newspapers like the People's Daily and government institutions like Xinhua have opened Weibo accounts is very interesting, exciting and reveals a lot about what is happening in Chinese attitudes towards the information space. We have a saying in English: 'If you can't beat them, jon them,' and governments all over the world - including authoritarian governments like China - are quickly learning that it is preferable to engage with the information space rather than remain outside or try to control it. They are also learning that today politics is about the competition of narratives, and so by launching Weibo accounts the Chinese government understands that it must try to spin the narrative. While controls still exist - the Great Firewall is still an important method for the Chinese state to manage the internet and its use (and remember that the media in China have been subject to far greater and tighter controls under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao) - thinking about, shaping and managing the story and its interpretation is far more effective. Weibo and other social media allow for genuine dialogue, and it will be interesting to see whether the People's Daily and Xinhua (ie the Chinese state) uses Weibo as a genuine platform for more discussion with Chinese civil society, or whether Weibo becomes simply another vehicle of Communist propaganda. Weibo is a wonderful site for creative subversion by the Chinese people and is fast becoming a space where criticism of the government is voiced and civil society is mobilised. What will happen if this voice becomes too loud or the users are mobilised in a political way that reminds us of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011? At that time we saw that the government will still use old-fashioned methods of coercion and control to close Weibo and manage discussion on it. There is no reason why the state would not use its authority in the same way in the future.

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