A tale of two microblogs in China Jonathan Sullivan, University of Nottingham. This is a pre-publication draft of a paper forthcoming in Media, Culture & Society. Comments welcome at [email protected]
This version, February 2012.
Twitter has become a byword for the potential of new and social media to affect political change, among other things (see Dann, 2011 for a review). The microblogging platform has been cited in popular commentaries (Barry et al. 2009; Last, 2009) and some academic research (e.g. Mungiu-Pippidi and Munteanu, 2009) as having empowered activists and dissidents in less free societies from Moldova to Iran to Tunisia, although the phenomenon of ‘Twitter revolution’ has been debunked as a largely media-driven manifestation of cyber utopianism (Morozov, 2009a, 2009b). Despite agreement that China is in the midst of a ‘microblogging revolution’ (Canaves, 2011; Hu 2010; Yang 2011), Twitter is far from being the dominant market-leading microblog that it is globally. Indeed, Twitter has been blocked and unavailable behind the Great Firewall since mid-2009. Alongside Facebook, YouTube and other familiar US-based social media services, Twitter is essentially cut-off from the Chinese internet, accessible only by the virtual private network (VPN) software that a small number of dedicated netizens (and expats) use to ‘scale the wall’. By contrast, the leading Chinese microblog service, Sina Weibo, had around 150 million users in August 2011 and is growing at a rate of almost 10 million per month (Bishop, 2011). The number of people using Twitter in China is estimated to be a fraction of one per cent of those using domestic microblogs (Zuckerman, 2011). But what separates Chinese microblogs from Twitter is censorship and freedom from it. Mainstream microblogs (weibo), by definition state tolerated, and specially tailored for the local market (Economist, 2011), have been allowed to grow their user-bases and add billions of dollars in value to their parent companies at a price: multiple layers of self-censorship (Mackinnon 2008; Weber and Lu 2007). Jiang (2010a)
characterizes these domestic services as ‘government-regulated commercial spaces,’ privately owned platforms that are subject to (stringent) government regulation and censorship requirements. These requirements have not detered the majority of Chinese netizens, who, like their counterparts in other countries, want access to entertainment news, games, shopping and chat (Guo, 2005). By virtue of being inaccessible behind the firewall, Twitter is, paradoxically, a much freer space and what appears to unite its users is a desire to read and write what they want: freedoms that do not exist on domestic weibo. Choosing Twitter is often a conscious and explicitly ‘political’ act and the composition of China’s small Twitter community is generally progressive, critical and activist. But it is also insular and elite—better connected to western intellectuals (particularly in the media and NGO sectors) than to grassroots ‘masses’ within China. The Twitter community in China represents an ‘international deliberative space’ (Jiang, 2010a). It also resembles a virtual underground church, with its own high priest: the artist activist Ai Weiwei, or Ai Shen (shen meaning ‘god’) as he is known to many of his followers. Just as Ai’s blog (closed down in 2009) became a public space ‘as vibrant as any church or grand piazza in Renaissance Italy’ (Karen Smith cited by Osnos 2010a), his prolific Twitter feed (more than 60000 tweets in two years) has become the focal point for a community of dissidents, rights lawyers, citizen journalists, and some ninety thousand supporters, including a significant number of bridge-Tweeters, western intellectuals and journalists. China scholars cautiously maintain that new and social media can contribute to the emergence of civil society, protest movements and political change (Benney 2011; Herold 2011; Herold and Maroldt, 2011; Li 2010). This interest is driven by the contradiction of official rhetoric about the pursuit of a ‘harmonious society’ and the rapidly increasing number of protests and other ‘collective incidents,’ which now exceeds one hundred thousand
annually and are increasingly violent, varied in their causes and large scale (Cai, 2010). Combined with the rapid expansion of the internet population, the proliferation and uptake of social media and the observation that, despite restrictions, Chinese cyberspace is full of contention (Sullivan and Xie, 2009; Yang, 2009). This essay surveys the development of microblogging in China and discusses how the unusual characteristics of the Chinese internet have given rise to a highly politicized Twitter community alongside a vibrant but constrained domestic microblogging scene.
The development of microblogging in China By summer 2011 there were reportedly 485 million internet users in China (Reuters, 2011). At the same time there were an estimated 100 million bloggers and around 200 million microbloggers (Chan, 2011), the vast majority active on domestic Weibo (meaning microblog). China’s netizens are comparatively young, predominantly male and are exceptionally active and social (Netpop Research, 2011; Ogilvy, 2010; Yang, 2009). They are also more politically opinionated, critical of the state and supportive of democratic norms, than users of traditional media alone (Lei 2011). An increasingly large (and politically significant) proportion of netizens are accessing the internet solely on their mobile phones, reducing the inequalities in access that characterized the earlier phase of internet adoption (Qiu, 2009). Reliable survey research indicates that, on average, broadband users in China are heavier contributors to social media than their counterparts in the US (Netpop Research, 2011). Compared with other markets, a majority of Chinese social media users are active ‘initiators’ and ‘commenters,’ regularly making their view known and reacting to other people (Ogilvy, 2010). Although Chinese cyberspace is subject to strong and multiple levels of control (Chase and Mulvenon, 2002; Hughes and Wacker, 2003; Kalathil and Boas, 2003; Mackinnon, 2011), many boundaries, rules and norms are still being negotiated (Rosen,
2010), which presents openings for Chinese netizens to express themselves relatively freely (Zhou, 2009). In consequence, Chinese cyberspace is a ‘cacophony of voices’ (Herold and Marolt, 2011), many of them critical, resentful or giving vent to material and other grievances suffered at the hands of the rich and powerful, corrupt officials, or any number of other gripes caused by dramatic socio-economic changes (Yang, 2009). There are few calls for radical political change, but just as the number of riots, strikes, road blocks etc. has increased exponentially in recent years (Cai, 2010), so dissatisfaction with government performance or the consequences of government policy is prevalent online, in both explicit, and particularly, oblique forms (Tang and Bhattacharya, 2011; Tang and Yang, 2011). Given the unusual contradiction of the Chinese government’s simultaneous strong encouragement (Mackinnon, 2011) and equally vigorous control of the internet (Lagerkvist, 2010; Zhang and Zheng, 2009; Zheng, 2007), it is not surprising to learn that the social media ecology that dominates globally does not pertain in China. Instead, the Chinese market is dominated by domestic services, which, though often reported in western media to be ‘clones’ of well-known western brands, frequently contain more features and have been adapted to local conditions and tastes (Economist, 2011; Sam, 2010). The earliest Chinese microblogs (TaoTao, Jiwai, Zuosa and Fanfou) were established in 2007 and did indeed start life as poorly disguised Twitter clones. Fanfou was the most successful, but at its height claimed only a few million users. Microblogging in China had its breakthrough moment in February 2009. When traditional news outlets responded with usual caution to a sensitive story (a suspicious fire near the new headquarters of state broadcaster CCTV), they were outflanked by witnesses on the streets of Beijing who broke the story by sharing their observations, photos and video via Twitter (at the time operating freely) and local microblogs (Ramzy, 2011). This success for citizen journalism was especially resonant and significant in a country where dissemination of reliable information is frequently subordinated to the
political sensitivities of the government. Experience of the SARS outbreak, natural disasters like the Wenchuan earthquake and numerous food security scandals, where crucial information was deliberately withheld from them, has encouraged netizens to invest greater trust in blogs and other online communications than in countries with freer media systems (Ambrozy, 2011). However, the microblogging experiment lasted only a few more months, when the government blamed ethnic riots that killed nearly 200 people in Urumqi on the free flow of online information and rumours, and put a definitive stop to Twitter and the local microblogs. Despite this setback, and at a time when Chinese authorities were concerned by the ‘Twitter revolution’ rhetoric surrounding protests in Iran, microblogging had proven sufficiently popular that local companies willingly entered the vacuum with guarantees to keep information flows under control. The first company to present a plan was the search and news portal Sina.com, who’s government-trusted CEO offered strong assurances to keep content under control. Sina Weibo became the first microblog platform to be authorised after the clampdown (Ramzy, 2011) and immediately set about recruiting entertainers, CEOs and sports stars, just as it had done previously with its market-leading blog platform (Jing, 2011). Like Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to share short messages of up to 140 characters and can follow the messages of other people with accounts that they are interested in. Despite starting life as a Twitter clone, Sina Weibo has added a number of distinct features to appeal to Chinese tastes. With message threading and the ability to comment directly, and publicly, on another person’s post, Weibo currently resembles a more sophisticated, second generation Bulletin Board System (BBS), a medium which proved extremely popular with Chinese netizens (Mackinnon, 2008). Beijing University media scholar, Hu Yong, notes that this function suits Chinese netizens, ‘who like to chat in groups […and explains…] why you see a lot of bickering and fighting on Weibo’ (cited in Jing, 2011). Unlike in English, where the
character limit demands terseness, Chinese users can write nuanced messages and include other contributors’ thoughts in their own messages. This makes it much easier to follow and participate in online conversations (see Sam, 2010). As Ai Weiwei notes, ‘in the Chinese language, 140 characters is a novella’ (quoted in Ambrozy, 2011: 241). Use of Weibo reflects trends in the broader Chinese internet, which is dominated by entertainment (Guo, 2005; Li 2010). The most popular daily trends on Sina Weibo are generally entertainment news, gossip, commercial information and sports.1 The most popular Weibo users, judged by their number of ‘fans’ (the equivalent terminology of Twitter ‘followers’), are actresses and TV personalities.2 This is consistent with Twitter in the US, where research shows that uptake among various user demographics is significantly affected by levels of interest in celebrity and entertainment news (Hargittai and Litt, 2011). However, academics, journalists and prominent business people have also attracted substantial followings on Chinese microblogs and popular Weibo celebrities like Yao Chen occasionally speak out on non-entertainment, issues. Sina Weibo has clearly learned from the experiences of pre-crackdown Twitter and the ill-fated Fanfou, implementing comprehensive and proactive censorship. To track and block content, Weibo employs thousands of human censors and uses sophisticated software to monitor frequently updated lists of ‘sensitive words’ (China Digital Times, 2011). Chen Tong, Head Editor at Sina Weibo, has described the ‘real headache’ for his staff created by the required level of censorship (Chow, 2010), which necessitates constant policing of the ever-changing list of sensitive topics and keywords to be blocked or deleted (Mackinnon, 2011). The censorship regime has given rise to a subversive vocabulary (the ‘Grass-mud-horse lexicon’; see Tang and Yang, 2011 and below) and attracted criticism from its users. Song Shinan (2011) for example, describes how his Weibo account was systematically controlled after he had re-posted official news agency 1
Most popular daily trends in May 2011 based on data supplied by Sina. Retrieved from http://www.theworldofchinese.com/culture/daily-trending-topics.html. 2 See http://weibo.com/.
accounts of Ai Weiwei’s return from detention. Detailing the different types of censorship used against his account, Song calls Weibo ‘the least principled and most thug-like’ microblogging service in China. For the majority of users however, it seems that “censorship and other forms of manipulation [are seen] as a necessary trade-off required to obtain the right to interact online” (Marolt 2011: 58). The microblogging market in China is highly competitive, but while Sina Weibo and the Tencent-owned QQ Weibo dominate, numerous smaller platforms have been able to establish a niche audience (Lukoff, 2011). The fragmentation of the microblog market has given rise to relatively distinct user profiles and demographics for different platforms. For instance, Tencent’s QQ Weibo takes a greater proportion of its user base from those with lower incomes who tend to access the web from their mobile phones. Although increasingly difficult to distinguish its primary audience, Sina Weibo initially attracted a heavier concentration of users among urban professionals (Lukoff, 2011). Although work on Twitter in China is extremely limited, one survey conducted in 2010 sought to illuminate the profile of Chinese Twitter users and understand why netizens were willing to undertake the hassle of going over the wall (Global Voices Online, 2010). Based on a non-random sample of around 1000 respondents, responses suggest that Chinese Twitter users appear disproportionately male (87%), young (70% of respondents were 20-29 years old), well educated (more than one third have a university degree, and 10% a higher degree), professional (28% worked in Information Technology industries) and coastal-metropolitan (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian residents accounted for two thirds of respondents). Although these findings are somewhat consistent with figures for broader internet-usage profiles in China (Netpop Research, 2011), Twitter users appear to be more elite than the average netizen. This interpretation is supported by the obviously intellectual motivations that respondents to the same survey cited as their reason for using Twitter; primarily the desire to
receive information freely without censorship and to project one’s own views without censorship (often about explicitly political matters). Although we should be cautious about over-interpreting a non-systematic survey, Chinese Twitter users appear to be attracted to the service for reasons other than the entertainment and celebrities that are ably provided by local microblogs.
Twitter in China: Resistance and symbolic politics? In an article on the BBS forums that once enjoyed huge popularity in China, internet scholar Guobin Yang described them as ‘useful spaces for information, discussion and solidarity’ (Yang, 2005: p. 59). The same description appears to go for Twitter in China, where it has been used a platform for activists of various stripes (Benney, 2011) and to build a sense of community among previously isolated individuals. Indeed, if we accept the argument that the most important function of social media is network building rather than information diffusion, Twitter has been crucial in linking up activists with disparate interests spread out all over the country (and overseas). What unites Twitter users in China is their desire to freely discuss what they want; which is frequently political, critical of the state and pro-democracy. Twitter initially attracted an audience among bloggers, especially those whose content was often censored (by legally obliged blog service providers like Sina Blog). As the well-known blogger (under the pen name) Michael Anti recalls, ‘in China we live in a society without freedom of speech, without a free press. With Twitter, for the first time you could freely explore your feelings without fear of your words being deleted by others’ (quoted in Ramzy, 2011). This was a significant motivation for prominent Tweeters like lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and artist-activist Ai Weiwei, who had multiple blogs closed down after making posts deemed to be controversial (Ambrozy 2011; Li, 2010). Freedom to discuss ideas that have been deemed off limits by the authorities is an important issue in a country where ‘sensitive’ information is
routinely withheld from citizens and punishments given to those who dare to disseminate it. Consider that when Liu Xiabo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, there was a total media blackout in China, in both mainstream traditional media and online behind the firewall. Twitter was the only place where Chinese activists could discuss Liu’s victory relatively freely, and the exuberance of tweets from the Chinese Twitter community was evidence of the significant (if temporary) psychological boost that Liu’s victory (and the freedom to talk about it) gave them. Though thoroughly ebullient, the tone of Twitter conversations relating to Liu Xiaobo’s award could not mask the depth and sophistication of the discussion. As Ai Weiwei notes in interview, most active Twitter users in China use the service for ‘political and philosophical discussions’ (Lardinois, 2010). According to my analysis of thousands of tweets by China’s Twitterati (self-cite omitted), they are also using the service to share information about experiences with the authorities, discuss the fates of other activists, and give moral support to those recently released from jail or those still in absentia. Although discussion of political topics can elicit disagreements, the predominant orientation of the Chinese Twitter community is pro-democracy, liberal and activist and includes high profile artists, bloggers, rights lawyers, advocates, democracy activists, and other intellectuals. Many prominent Chinese Twitter users (most obviously Ai Weiwei) have many thousand western followers, particularly journalists and intellectuals. As in other online and offline contexts (Yardi and Boyd, 2010), the core Chinese Twitter community is made up of clusters of likeminded individuals who form a sub-culture of netizens who have rejected the circumscribed Chinese internet. For some users, identity issues appear to be a strong motivation for using Twitter (rather than Sina Weibo with its more sophisticated features and Chinese user interface). Whether it is ‘internationally-minded’ Chinese, journalists, NGOs, activists, and their supporters or supplicants (Benney, 2011; Jiang, 2010b), Twitter ‘still plays
a vital role in Chinese internet life because of its ability to connect different news sources and social activists’ (Hu, 2010). While Twitter can sometimes appear to be an enclave of the engaged and committed, with few connections to the masses, Hu (2011) argues that it has the potential to build bridges between politically aware elites and apathetic citizens, an age-old problem in China. Twitter is a subversive and elite space, but as Mackinnon argues, ‘without the existence of a viable offline movement, the likelihood of the internet being used successfully as a tool for political change is even lower’ (2008: 34). The bottom line is that the Twitter community has been tolerated (much as troublesome, but isolated, intellectuals have been throughout Chinese history) because they do not represent a credible threat or coherent alternative. As soon as it seemed as though there was a hint of trouble coming from Twitter (i.e. the Jasmine ‘revolution’), 3 the government launched a severe crackdown on major figures in the Twitter community. Not even Ai Weiwei’s guanxi (i.e. personal connections), celebrity or supporters abroad could save him from being detained for two months, charged with tax evasion and banned from using Twitter (Osnos 2011). To underline the previous point about intellectuals on Twitter being left alone, note that Twitter has been relatively free from interference by Party-paid internet commentators and opinion guiders (known as the ‘50 cent party’), with the exception of extraordinary events, such as Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel award, the Jasmine revolution and following Ai Weiwei’s detention. In general, the Chinese Twitter community is left alone because the authorities have little to fear from a community that has been marginalized by years of offline and online control. This is not to imply though that China’s Twitter community can say what they like with guaranteed impunity. They certainly cannot, in a country described as ‘the world’s biggest prison for netizens’, where bloggers 3
China’s mis-titled ‘Jasmine revolution’ was nothing more than anonymous calls for protest left by US-based Chinese students on the message board boxun.com following uprisings in Egypt in February 2011 (Goodman, 2011). Activists on Twitter were highly ambiguous about the anonymous calls, but minor gatherings in Beijing and other cities were met with a heavy handed reaction from the state (Bequelin, 2011). This included the detention of around 100 government critics, many of whom were active in the Twitter community.
and citizen journalists are periodically arrested and charged with inciting subversion or dissemination of state secrets (Reporters Without Borders, 2011). As Osnos notes (2010b), Twitter can be dangerous for activists because the state can follow what’s going on and ‘anyone who might seek to punish people for the kinds of activism and dissent that Ai advocates can use Twitter as a phone book for the ranks of Chinese liberalism’ (cf. Morozov, 2011: 143-178). It is no coincidence that many of the people arrested following the Jasmine revolution scare were active on Twitter (Economist, 2010). In the months that followed, it became a dreary ritual for activists to report and offer commiserations on the latest ‘disappearance,’ and later on, for those released to recount their experiences. In China there is still “considerable risk to voicing dissent as an individual” (Esarey and Xiao, 2008: 755), which is perhaps why the greater volume of users using Sina Weibo, despite working within more strongly circumscribed parameters, find that safety (like power) comes in greater numbers. In itself, the microblog medium is insufficient for China’s Twitter community to overcome the on-going context of control and isolation from the mainstream. In the fundamental ‘battle over the minds of the people’ (Castells, 2007: 238), a microphone with few listeners is an ineffective tool, even if you can say what you like (Murthy 2011).
Conclusion Twitter has become one of the rubrics though which cyber-utopians and realists have debated the political effects of the internet. Despite research findings that show that internet use and effects tend to be context-specific rather than universal (Lee, 2009), microblogging is frequently reduced to Twitter and some commentators appear untroubled in transposing their arguments from one context to another. Yet, as the case of microblogging in China outlined in this article demonstrates, different media and tools take on different forms according to the social and political contexts in which they are adopted. In China, the strong regulatory
environment and growth of mainstream alternatives ready to accept required censorship, has resulted in a highly unusual microblogging environment. Although Twitter is blocked, being banned has made it a much freer space than the mainstream services that have adopted strong self-censorship regimes. Twitter has become a subversive space and tweeting a consciously political decision, attracting a congregation of like-minded activists, bloggers, lawyers and other people critical of the state (or sympathetic to such claims, including many western intellectuals). The sense of community and solidarity building is evident on Twitter, but it is restricted to this space, being literally and metaphorically cut off from the rest of Chinese cyberspace. By contrast, despite heavy self-censorship enforced by Sina Weibo, this mainstream platform has developed into a kind of tabloid press, raising scandals, mobilizing capricious online public opinion and in some cases effecting ‘virtual mob justice’. The size of their number, the unusually social and active personality of Chinese netizens and the mistrust of official information sources has helped Sina Weibo become a contested force in Chinese politics. Sina Weibo may be a ‘rambunctious sandbox’, but we must not forget that it comes with ‘walls and adult supervision’ (Epstein, 2011).
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