Weibo, the Chinese Twitter
The Chinese government keeps a watchful eye on its citizens’ Internet use, but it can’t get rid of the critical voices of half a billion surfers.
“It’s quite strange”, says German university lecturer Florian Schneider, who is doing research into Chinese media, information technology and culture in Leiden. “Usually, the government press agency issues updates on the activities of important people.”
But it has issued absolutely nothing on Vice President Xi Jinping who seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Nothing has been heard of this bigwig in more than a week though he is the most likely candidate for the nation’s new leader. “Immediately, rumours abounded on all sorts of blogs and on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. Is there some power struggle in the Communist Party? Actually, I doubt that - he’s probably ill. But this “silence” tactic is certainly remarkable; it just encourages speculation. I really wonder who decided to follow this course.”
The Communist Party’s propaganda machine has changed considerably over that past decades, according to Schneider.
“Previously, it was: this is the story and you better believe it. Now it is more of a PR operation. The country’s leaders have to steer public opinion in the right direction.”
Schneider has been awarded a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to conduct research into Chinese Internet culture. “I’ll mainly be focussing on nationalism: what do the Chinese think about their country and their identity?”
At the moment, Japan and China are arguing about a few uninhabited islands. “They are the Diaoyu islands (Japanese name: Senkaku). The private owner has sold them to Japan, but China is claiming them on historical grounds. The debate is in full swing online and you can see the discussion evolving into an identity issue: who are we and what’s our status in the world? It’s interesting to follow the discussion on the Internet between nationalist hard-liners and cosmopolitan Chinese. I’d like to know whether it is very arbitrary or whether there is a clear system to the debate.
“China has half a billion Internet users but the government interferes intensively and censures its use. However, it’s impossible to monitor on all the critical blogs; there just isn’t the manpower to do that.
“Moreover, I can’t see any one particular policy. The authorities hound artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, but not the writer, pop star and rally driver Han Han, whose hugely popular blog is full of criticism of the Party.”
Bloggers who express their opinions of the party are not often taken offline “because that generates bad publicity. But they have to deal with ‘commenters’ in the government’s pay, who try to disprove what is said in the blog and torpedo the blog that way.”
Weibo-users also have to submit their personal details if they want to register. “They are watched, but that doesn’t mean that everyone with an opinion immediately attracts the interest of the police.”
However, perhaps the government is deliberately choosing not to address certain blogs. “They’re allowing people to vent their frustration. I suppose they prefer them to be angry at their desks than causing havoc in the streets.”