Nov 14, 2012

When social media meets socialism: China challenged

As China prepares to anoint its leaders for the next decade, freelance journalist Monica Tan assesses the impact of runaway social media on the government of the Middle Kingdom.

Before the US election, Chinese television host Li Jiajia took to Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging site, to tweet: "Only two days before November 6, and Americans still don’t know who their next president will be. So weak!" In contrast to the American elections, the key results of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th Communist Party Congress were orchestrated long ago (the big announcement is due in the next two days). According to blog Tea Leaf Nation, "news outlets have known for months that Xi Jinping is to succeed Hu Jintao as president of China, while Li Keqiang will be taking the reins from Wen Jiabao as premier. The predetermined outcome has become something of a joke on Chinese social media." The process may not be different to China's previous leadership transitions, but one thing is: social media. This is the first Congress that has been accompanied by Weibo, which only launched in the country three years ago. With over 300 million users, the micro-blogging site has become a platform and amplifier of the opinions of an all-too-often disgruntled public, eager to see political reform. Weibo is the Chinese word for "microblog" and with Twitter blocked in China, Weibo (a generic term for microblog) is provided by several large internet companies, including Tencent and Sina. These companies often cooperate with the government over matters of censorship. Chinese internet users, dubbed "netizens", showed characteristic cynicism as they drew out key differences between the US and Chinese leadership changes. When Chinese newspaper Global Times posted a story titled "A Seven-Hour Wait to Vote; This Election Is Shameful" in regards to long lines at Florida polls, netizens were incensed. "The vast majority of Chinese people would say they should try waiting for over 5000 years," tweeted one Weibo user. Another Weibo user called "Pretending to be in New York" went so far as to create a map of China with simulated "red states, blue states", and the inevitable swing states. With over 9000 reposts, users were delighted by the prospects of an election that pitted the current Chinese Communist Party against the Kuomintang, who fled the mainland in 1949 and are currently the elected party of Taiwan. Last week, Financial Times editor-in-chief Zhang Lifen took to Weibo to gather questions users would like presented at the Congress press conference to be held the following day (see his tweet below). With almost 900 replies, key issues raised were government corruption, media censorship, political reform, the growing gap between rich and poor, education and healthcare. But user "hongliholly" posted: "There's nothing to be asked, because the answer will be fake anyway."

Weibo tweets from Zhang Lifen (top) and Xu Xiaonian (bottom)

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2 thoughts on “When social media meets socialism: China challenged

  1. Mike Smith

    It must be nice to know who your next president will be, without even having to vote! Well done, China.

  2. Kevin Rennie

    Good stuff. Tea Leaf and Tofu are very useful sites, especially for those of us whose Mandarin is non-existent. The other place I recommend for lots of netizen input is Global Voices Online. Everyone should follow them on Twitter: @globalvoices Our North East Asia editor, Oiwan Lam, has her finger on the mainland pulse.

    Weibo is almost too big to control bar shutting it down, which China seems to have done to Google during the congress.

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