China’s online revolution

SUNDAYTELElogoThe mayor from impoverished Gansu province, in China’s remote north, should have kept his hands in his pockets. In late November Yuan Zhanting, mayor of Lanzhou, became the latest senior official accused of corruption by ever-vigilant Chinese microbloggers. Photos of Yuan wearing a succession of luxury watches were posted on China’s Twitter equivalent, the popular micro-blogging site Sina Weibo. According to the photos, posted by one disgruntled microblogger, Yuan appears to be the unlikely owner of an array of watches more than $30,000, including a Rolex, what appears to be a Vacheron-Constantin and a diamond-studded Omega – all worth far more than the average Chinese official can afford.

Now China is watching. By the first week in December, the original post had generated nearly 6.5 million microblogger discussions on Sina Weibo. China’s Commission of Discipline Inspection investigated and eventually decided that a black Rado, a Citizen and a fake Omega were bought with Yuan’s own money – the other watches were not mentioned.

China’s microbloggers have mocked this finding mercilessly, sarcastically suggesting that individuals should donate one or two yuan each so “our officials can own a real Omega”. But it seems Yuan slid through the opprobrium safely. By December 31 he was giving a formal New Year’s speech in Lanzhou; his wrists well-covered by his jacket sleeves.

Expensive watches are a dead giveaway in corruption-conscious China, and Yuan isn’t the first official betrayed by his love of bling.

One maladroit official, Yang Dacai, from the Shaanxi province road safety bureau, was photographed smiling at the site of a horrendous road accident in August that left 36 people dead. The smile irritated microbloggers and prompted a nation-wide internet hunt – first for his identity and then for any evidence of wrong-doing. The microbloggers came up with photos of Yang wearing a series of different, and extremely expensive, watches. This type of collaborative hunt is sometimes called a “human flesh search engine” in China, and the authorities don’t like it. Soon Yang had been nicknamed “Brother Watch” on weibo, and before long his finances were being officially investigated. By late September he had been sacked.

These days Chinese officials try to avoid the pitfalls of an ostentatious display of wealth, and bureaucrats have been spied taking off their watches before going into television studios for interviews. They don’t want to grapple with the might of millions of Chinese voices united in condemnation.

More than 300 million microbloggers use Sina Weibo, and a single post – picked up and reposted, and reposted and reposted – can be seen by hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of weibo users.
Ducking round and through and under the ever-shifting blocks and closures and deletions of the Chinese internet is a way for to be heard in a nation where people can’t vote and where the mainstream press mostly has to toe the party line.

The Chinese authorities do their best to keep this people power in check. According to the independent watchdog Freedom House, China has the most censored internet users in the world, crushed by “political blocking”, content manipulation, and physical attacks and arrests.

An internet blockade known as the Great Firewall of China prevents ordinary Chinese citizens from ranging too far on to the worldwide web. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are blocked. When China’s citizens try to access a proscribed site they often simply get the message: “Error 404”.

So when Fang Binxing, the architect of the Great Fire Wall, opened an account on Sina Weibo he was so savagely flamed and so quickly (“Fuck You 404 Times”) that his account was rapidly shut down. He’s back now, but the comment function has been disabled.

Government censors patrol the Chinese internet, routinely deleting weibo posts, and the government forces the weibo firms, like Sina, to employ censors as well (known on the net as “Weibo’s little secretaries”). And, in a hamfisted attempt to influence debate, the authorities also use paid bloggers to push the government line. These are widely referred to as the “Fifty Cent Army” because it’s thought these microbloggers get paid fifty Chinese cents per post (8c).

Yet nothing stops the bloggers, who have outed corrupt officials, weighed into exposes and scandals and rained criticism on various official policies. Although seemingly ordinary words and phrases are often blocked, microbloggers generally manage to express themselves and they have immense power, especially when they’re on a roll. The weibos, along with other Chinese blogging sites, have become a defacto sounding board in an often restricted nation.

Microbloggers use allusions, pictograms, word-plays and nicknames to get round the internet blocks and to evade the censors. They have helped push China to dump unpopular construction projects, to start paying real attention to concerns about pollution and environmental degradation and come down harder on obvious corruption. Hundreds of millions of Chinese voices clamouring for change are hard to ignore, even for hardened Chinese government officials. Brother Watch learned the hard way.

Elain (subs correct) Sui, a 25-year-old university student from the southern city of Guangzhou, checks her weibo account before she even gets out of bed every morning. A slim young woman with a winning smile and immense enthusiasm, she says microblogger power has changed her homeland: “China has changed a lot because of Sina Weibo. Sina Weibo is one of the most important platforms for Chinese people.”

Elain has a degree in anthropology, so she is interested in the way people adapt to different situations. “There might be too much censorship,” she says,  “but I think it’s changing because the government doesn’t have the energy any more. I think Weibo is really a good platform for people to express themselves. The Chinese government is changing now. Communication with citizens is more important than censorship.”

But there are still pitfalls for the brave. The authorities are watching and reading, and Chinese citizens have been interrogated about their weibo posts. So Elain doesn’t want her photo taken and doesn’t want to provide her full Chinese name.

Yet despite the restrictions and potential penalties, many in the west believe the weibos – Sina Weibo, Tencent weibo and others – provide China’s first semi-open and loosely democratic public forum.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd speaks and writes Mandarin and he has accounts on both Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo. “People on Weibo will often raise highly sensitive questions and they will make very direct political observations,” he says. “This is something relatively new. I think what people often miss in their analysis of contemporary China is what’s happening in the grassroots of society, (where) more and more space is both demanded and in a large part given to people to express their points of view.”

Rudd posts on Weibo on speeches he has given, his daily round of politics and his family.
In Australia, he has more than a million followers on Twitter, while on Sina Weibo, he has more than 343,000 followers, and even more on Tencent Weibo – a total of about 700,000 weibo followers in China.

Refusing to comment on China’s strong-arm censorship of the internet, he says his Weibo accounts provide him with a window on the shifts now underway in Chinese society. These shifts may even accelerate now China has changed its line-up of top-level leaders for the first time in ten years.

China’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, was anointed at the Chinese communist party’s 18th congress last November. Searches for his name were long blocked on Sina Weibo, bringing up a frustratingly common notice: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies the results for the search for Xi Jinping cannot be displayed”. Then, in early December, suddenly a search on Xi’s name was possible.

Microbloggers have tried to slip round the blocks using terms such as “the emperor”, “Xi cannot-comment”, and “crown prince”, until these terms were blocked as well. Posts referring to the Chinese leaders are routinely deleted, even if they are positive.

Academics in the US and in Hong Kong crunch certain types of Weibo posts to look at shifts underway in China. Professor Fu King-wa, from the University of Hong analyses the “Weiboscope”, published by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, to see what’s ticking over on the mainland. The Weiboscope, founded by Professor Fu, tracks the most widely-reposted and deleted Sina Weibo posts from about 350,000 users, each with 1,000 or more followers.

Professor Fu notes that by and large, Weibo posts are not contentious and concerned mainly with entertainment. Only a small fraction of posts refer to current affairs or politics. But that could be because Chinese microbloggers self-censor. Knowing that a post on a sensitive issue will be deleted, they don’t bother posting it in the first place.

“After the Congress we’ve seen a series of moves,” Fu says. “Some of the government officers, pretty senior, are under investigation. A lot of people online try to link to the new leaders. But their posts are deleted, even if they say good things.”

He points out that short of being shut down entirely, the weibos are virtually uncontrollable. There are simply too many ways for inventive microbloggers to communicate and too many ways for them to circumvent efforts to keep them quiet.

He cites one Sina Weibo post that went viral, despite a concerted effort to get rid of it. When the blind Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, famously escaped from custody last year and finally fled to the US embassy in Beijing, one microblog seemed to catch the mood. Within two hours it had been reposted 20,000 times, then, after that, close to a million times.

The post’s author, a famous scholar in China, twanged a nerve when he wrote: “How can you not be ashamed that a dignified citizen has to flee inside his own country? You must live up to the sun that shines every day across this land. Sixty years and what this country needs is to settle its soul.”

Censors soon deleted the original post, but it was already radiating outwards across the Chinese internet – and a screen capture of his message turned into a jpeg image was also posted onwards. Both were censored.

“The number of followers is not the most important thing (that catches the censors’ attention),” Fu says. “It’s when people started to repost it, then it reaches their radar. Western political culture is very mild. But to stimulate the censors in China you don’t need to mention June 4 (the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre) or the Dalai Lama. Anything, at the right time, the right moment, will get censored.”

Even ordinary anatomical terms can get the chop. Xi ducked under the radar for a week or so before the Congress, missing important official appointments and fuelling fevered speculation about the state of his health. It was thought he had damaged his back playing soccer with his staff, or swimming, or perhaps it was something even worse. Finally, even the term “back injury” was blocked on Sina Weibo.

Dela Yuan, a 23-year-old university student from Chongqing in south-west China, says she doesn’t really want to discuss Chinese leaders or Chinese censorship, and like Elain, she doesn’t want her full Chinese name to be used, nor does she want her photograph taken. An economics graduate, she says she doesn’t want to be blacklisted by potential employers. “I really don’t want to talk about politics in China. It’s so dangerous to talk about politics.”

Nevertheless, she hopes Xi will bring a new age to her homeland. “I think we hope he can bring more change to China, more freedom.”

And like Elain, Dela is in tune with social media. Fresh-faced, with a ready smile, she too has an account on Sina Weibo. “Weibo is the main news source of mine. I don’t read Chinese media so much. I haven’t found a serious online portal yet. I would rather read western reports on China. Too many things are blocked in Chinese media.”

But most Chinese readers can’t simply hop onto the internet and find a newspaper website in the west, or information in, say, the US or Australia. The Fire Wall mostly keeps them penned in.

But if the majority of Chinese internet users can’t venture far on the web, foreigners can easily open a weibo account and get going in the world’s largest market. The sheer size of China’s microblogging sites can be very attractive. Take Wang Leehom, the American-born singer of Taiwanese descent, now based in Taiwan. He’s not a big name in Australia. But he has a staggering total of more than 27 million followers on Sina Weibo.

Sometimes it doesn’t take long to win a vast following. The film star Brad Pitt signed on to Sina Weibo at noon on Monday (subs Jan 7) and by just after 3pm he had attracted more than 90,000 followers. But by Tuesday his rather smug opening message: “It is the truth. Yup, I’m coming…” had been deleted, probably by government censors. Pitt was apparently in the black books for his role in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet” and it seems China has yet to forgive him.

Victorian premier Ted Baillieu has an account on Sina Weibo, and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, was very chatty on his account until after the Olympics in London, when he fell unaccountably silent. His last post was a call to arms: “Come on Team GB”.

Other political heavy-weights on Sina Weibo include Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time president of the European Council. Both were immediately popular with Chinese microbloggers.

Even Paris Hilton, whose fame far eclipses her talents, has a dedicated weibo following. The self-described “Model, Actress, Singer, Brand, Business Woman, Fashion Designer, Author, Philanthropist and Empire” passed the million-mark on her Weibo fanbase in October, prompting a gushing post studded with exclamation marks: “China! Oh my God! I’m so excited! My Weibo just reached 1 million followers! Thank you! Xo xo”.

Hilton can’t speak Mandarin, so she has made use of a facilitator to communicate with the vast China market – the Shanghai-based Fanstang. Launched last September, “FansTang”, according to its own publicity, “provides international celebrities and athletes a space to grow and develop their China fan base with a moderated, secure and professional platform.”

FansTang’s official Weibo page claims more than 80 celebrities are already on the books.
A number of American National Basketball Association players post on Sina Weibo regularly via FansTang, especially those contracted to Chinese brands. Dywane Wade, the Miami Heat guard who signed up with Chinese sportswear maker Li Ning in October and released his personally-branded sneakers under the brand, claims he was simply “loving my fans in China”.

Tennis stars, too, now blog on China’s sites. Maria Sharapova is a regular poster. She was last seen in Beijing last October posing for a photo for her Sina Weibo account. Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki can all be found on Sina Weibo, and their pages have been overwhelmed with compliments: “I love you Serena” and  “Baby, why are you not coming to Beijing? I am so sad”.

It remains to be seen whether the west’s increasing interest in the Chinese internet and the increasing power of weibo microbloggers will help push any kind of fundamental social change in China. Celebrities rarely post anything contentious on their Weibo sites, but there was some anticipation the iconic British band Radiohead might try and test the limits with pro-Tibet posts.

The band has been critical of China’s human rights record in the past and they have performed at Free Tibet concerts. In 2011, a note was posted on the band’s website inviting fans to campaign for the release of Chinese dissident (and Nobel peace prize winner) Liu Xiaobo.

But, so far at least, Radiohead’s Sina Weibo page has had little other than a message stating “testing the Weibo”, and occasional captionless sketches. More recently there has been nothing but silence, frustrating their Chinese fans, who have responded with “where the (obscenity) are you guys?”

And pushing too hard would likely lead to the weibo account simply vanishing, a problem often encountered by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who regularly and courageously barrels up against the Chinese authorities.

But little by little, the power of the net and China’s millions-strong bands of microbloggers are making a difference.