Jie Chen giggles as she picks her way through Sina Weibo, China’s immensely popular microblogging site. The 25-year-old office worker from Shantou city in Guangdong province has revelled in her Weibo account for more than two years: it provides her with endless amusement and, sometimes, with useful information. Her long hair swings forward as she leans in to the computer screen, squinting a little as she scrolls at speed through the exploding digital consciousness of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. The screen is ablaze with photos, Chinese characters, pictograms and photos: this is China speaking. Carefully.
Like most users of the Chinese internet, Jie enjoys dodging the censors and working out the riddles and allusions that help Chinese bloggers to say what they really want to say. Ducking round and through and under the ever-shifting blocks and closures and deletions and the official army of censors has almost become a national pastime, and these microblog sites may well provide China with the nation’s first open, public and loosely democratic forum.
Jie follows the Japanese former porn star Sola Aoi, who has a following of more than 13 million on Weibo, many of them ardent fans. When an explosion of anti-Japanese Chinese nationalist wrath erupted in August and ran through September, Sola Aoi attempted some social media diplomacy against this bizarre wall of violence. The fury saw Chinese citizens demonstrate in their thousands, wreck Japanese shops, spurn Japanese goods, attack Japanese cars (and even brutally bash one Chinese driver of a Japanese car who wound up in hospital neurologically damaged and barely able to talk after he tried to protect his Toyota). She posted some hand-drawn Chinese characters plaintively hoping the Japanese and the Chinese people could be friends.
Sola Aoi’s olive branch was hacksawed by many Weibo account holders, but others have been less hostile (“not all of them are violent”, Jie says, a little wistfully). The more affectionate Weibo users noted that although the islands were indubitably Chinese, Sola Aoi belonged to the world. But she remains silent: her last post was in early September, a forlorn “How is everyone?”.
Weibo is different things to different people, Jie says. “It’s not like a newspaper, where everything is presented to you. You choose who you follow, and read what they have to say.” But news that Chinese citizens may not otherwise see is there on Weibo – the alarming and hot-headed anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots hardly made the nation’s newspapers, but there was was running commentary and daily updates on Weibo. Many posts have been deleted, but word continues to circulate.
A bit like an amalgam of Facebook and Twitter, Weibo, along with other Chinese blogging sites, has become a defacto sounding board in a nation where freedom of the press has long been an ephemeral western dream. 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.
Still, regardless of official intervention, news and ideas continue to explode onto Weibo, the most popular of the Chinese microblogging sites with more than 300 million account-holders. Most Weibo bloggers are Chinese, for obvious reasons, but there are a sprinkling of westerners, including the famously Mandarin-speaking former prime minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd mostly posts about his family and his daily round, Jie says, and not about the internal ructions in the Australian Labor party. Sometimes Rudd gets a Chinese character wrong, which some of his followers – he has nearly 330,000 on Sina Weibo — think is “cute”. He signs off with the Chinese characters that can be interpreted as “Old Rudd”.
Popular Weibo posts can spread like wildfire, picked up and reposted ad infinitum, and the constantly patrolling censors can have a hard time keeping a lid on the explosion of feelings, emotions, ideas, complaints and calls to action. Certain references are just asking for trouble: Tibet, Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong and Taiwan. But China’s deft Weibo users have any number of ways to get round the censors: they use puns; nicknames; photos of text, punctuation dodges, wordplays, sly allusions, pictograms.
Hence, says Jie, the new term for one-time police chief Wang Lijun, the former right-hand man of detained princeling Bo Xilai and the now convicted absconder. Inexorably caught up in the murder of a British businessman earlier this year, Wang was convicted and sentenced in September. His name was blocked on Weibo: a query brings up a message saying in effect – “Sorry, this is in violation of the Sina Weibo regulations”. In Chinese Wang Lijun means Standing Soldier, so now he is sometimes obliquely referred to as Gentle Beauty – the Soldier’s polar opposite. One creative user posted a string of pictograms which could be interpreted as time line illustrating the fall of Wang.
And when China’s next president dropped off the radar for a couple of weeks in September, he also inspired wordplays. His name, Xi Jinping, and other potential references, such as Crown Prince, were automatically blocked on Weibo, as was the simple term “back injury” when it was rumoured he had gone into hiding following a back injury he might have sustained playing soccer with his staff. But “Heir Apparent” worked, and “Where is She (in English)” a reference to the pronunciation of his name, racked up thousands of hits. “That’s why we come up with ridiculous names for our leaders,” Jie says, half resigned, half amused. “Because they can’t let us talk about it.”
If any particular post is overtly critical of China’s leaders or policies, and especially if the author has a lot of followers, and if the post is picked up and reposted a lot, it will probably be deleted by the army of censors who patrol the net in China. Worst case, the author could get pulled in to “drink tea” with the authorities, a popular term for interrogation, and that tea could be a dangerous beverage.
Some analysts believe the authorities in Beijing use Sina Weibo and its counterparts as a sort of electronic steam vent of sorts: citizens are allowed to blow off steam on their microblogs, which lets some of the heat out of difficult issues and also provides an early warning system before matters get out of hand. Rampant criticism, they note, is largely confined to provincial government projects, where it has been permitted to run on mostly unchecked (the posts which exploded after the high speed train crash in Wenzhou last year, killing 39, for instance, or when the bridge collapsed in Harbin earlier this year, killing three). Others, though, think microblogging has simply grown too much and too fast for the authorities to handle effectively.
Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tealeaf Nation ( HYPERLINK “http://www.tealeafnation.com” www.tealeafnation.com) an English-language website that uses Sina Weibo to refract the issues that are on the move in China. A 30-something lawyer from south-west China with a very gentle way of speaking, Lu is now based in Hong Kong, where she keeps an eye on Sina Weibo and writes for Tealeaf Nation. She doesn’t really agree with the steam-vent theory, arguing that some people might blow off steam but others might be further angered by posts they read on Weibo; posts that reinforce their own fury. And anyway, half the censors’ job is already done for them, she says. The Chinese people have learned to self-censor.
“Most people don’t talk about politics, they don’t talk about sensitive subjects,” she says, as she works hard to be heard in a busy Hong Kong Starbucks outlet. “The train crash, that was a big event in social media development. People, especially in the cities, are likely to take these trains.” The crash last year unleashed a purposeful Weibo user who was prepared to try and find out what was happening in his world and let his compatriots know about it. More recently, Weibo was brimming with unofficial news flashes on the bridge collapse long before there was any official recognition of the disaster.
“Celebrities are using their real names and putting out what they really think,” Rachel says. “People don’t trust the mainstream media. Social media, everyone can say what they want, and then they (the censors) catch up.” The Chinese government employs squads of official censors and also forces organisations like Sina to employ censors (popularly known as “Weibo’s little secretaries”). On the other side of the coin, the government also apparently pays account-holders to endorse a particular line, or run a particular argument. These bloggers are known as the communist party’s 50 Cent army from the fee they’re allegedly paid (.5 of a yuan, or about 7c) for each pro-government post.
The censors’ interest in any given account is relative to the amount of influence the account-holder has. “If you have no followers, it’s a drop in the ocean,” Rachel says. “If you’re known to be able to reach people, if you have more than one thousand followers, then you’re scrutinised and censored. And sometimes your account simply disappears.”
One of Rachel’s posts was deleted once: not because her account has thousands of followers, but because she mentioned Fang Binxing, the architect of China’s Great Fire Wall, the electronic blockade which prevents internet access to the west. When China’s citizens try to access a proscribed site they often simply get the message: “Error 404”. Fang apparently once opened an account on Weibo, but he was so savagely flamed and so quickly (“Fuck You 404 Times”) that his account was rapidly shut down. He’s back, but the comment function has been disabled.
On the whole, Sina Weibo users comprise a fairly wealthy, fairly educated subset in China. If they flock to a cause, they can make their weight felt (as long as it isn’t a politically sensitive cause; at least not sensitive in Beijing). One maladroit official, Yang Dacai, from the Shaanxi provincial road safety bureau, was photographed smiling at the site of a horrendous road accident in August that left 36 people dead. The photo prompted a hunt for his identity by Weibo users, who eventually came up with several photos of Yang wearing different, and extremely expensive, watches (this collaborative hunt is sometimes called a “human flesh search engine” in China and the authorities tend to look on it dimly). By this stage Yang had been nicknamed “Brother Watch” on Weibo, and before long his finances were being officially investigated. By late September he had been sacked.
Yanshuang Zhang, a student at the University of Queensland, is researching a doctoral thesis on the power of Weibo. Originally from a small town in Shandong province, Yanshuang lived in Beijing for ten years before arriving in Brisbane. “I would like to contend that Sina Weibo is facilitating a new public sphere in urban China,” she says. “It’s a relatively freer forum for public opinions. The internet itself cannot be controlled totally, and the government cannot control what people say on Sina Weibo.”
Certainly there is censorship in China, she concedes, but its grip is slackening and Chinese people are stretching the bounds of their communication limits. Social media such as Weibo are slowly increasing people’s awareness of the intricacies of democracy, freedom of speech, and civil rights. At the same time, she says, it should be remembered that many nations, including Australia, already have, or are considering introducing, internet censorship.
China’s censors, though, are in the vanguard. The internationally acclaimed and domestically hounded artist Ai Weiwei has been ducking them for years, and routinely disappearing from Weibo. Known affectionately as Fatty Ai or Brother Fat, his account gets shut down and sooner or later he reappears with another one, a dodge called reincarnation. But it’s getting harder for him, and harder for people to follow him, because they don’t know where he is, or where he might emerge.
A torrent of posts on Ai did get published mid-year, when he got stuck into a physical fight in a Beijing park. In a hostile meeting arranged on Weibo, a vehemently pro-government blogger Wu Danhong (rudely and routinely nicknamed “the head of the 50 Cent Party”) took on a female television presenter Zhou Yan. She apparently belted him with her umbrella, he took a swing at her, and after a lot of shouting and finger-pointing from their various supporters, Ai leapt into the picture and, it seems, grabbed Wu by the ear, an action which prompted widespread comment on Weibo (a lot of it applauding Ai). But Ai’s name is generally blocked, and posts about him are often deleted.
Ai is “really dangerous even to the central government”, says Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger who lives in Beijing and who chooses not to use his real name. “He is challenging the basics of the Chinese regime.”
Anti, who has been writing about social media in China for years, loses between one quarter and one third of his posts on Weibo to the censors. He says ordinary people once went to Beijing to petition the government. Now that has morphed into Weibo bloggers posting and reposting to make their feelings felt, while the usually opaque position of the Chinese government on various issues can be understood by virtue of what is permitted and what is blocked on social media.
In the last day of September, for instance, immediately after the fallen princeling Bo Xilai had been expelled from the Communist party, suddenly it was possible to search for his name on Weibo: the authorities wanted people to criticise the fallen leader.
At the same time, Anti doesn’t believe the bloggers’ clever word games delude censors: often, he believes, the censorship window has been deliberately left “half-open” and, in the slowly evolving liberalisation of modern China, the authorities are permitting a certain amount to be said.
“For millions of people,” he says, “Weibo is a training place to produce freedom of speech, think about human rights, and to share the mindset of a generation.”
Pollsters might consider that Kevin Rudd has a substantial following on the Chinese internet. His followers on two Weibo microblogging sites don’t compare in numbers with those following actor Tom Cruise (more than 4.7 million) or billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates (more than 3.2 million), but a staggering total of 700,000 Weibo account-holders have decided to tag along with the former prime minister.
Rudd posts in Mandarin, covering both his family life (his newly arrived half-Chinese granddaughter has featured prominently) and his daily round of visits and speeches. He tells QMagazine of the “winds of change” blowing through China, and he thinks Weibo and its like are providing evidence of tectonic shifts in Chinese society. As a Weibo user, he is often surprised by what can be said on the internet in China. “As I tap out my own messages, the responses are often pretty unvarnished and they cover the full spectrum,” he says.
Rejecting the suggestion that he hasn’t used his Weibo posts to buy into the knotty subject of Chinese politics, Rudd points out that two Weibo firms interviewed him online for about an hour each, covering a range of subjects, including potentially controversial topics such as the real estate bubble in China’s cities. “I cover the full spectrum”, he says, shortly after returning to Australia from a visit to China in late September. “It depends on the day, the issue, whether I’ve been making a speech or not.”
Perhaps mindful of delicate Australia-China relations, the former foreign minister declines to discuss censorship on the Weibo network: “that’s a matter for the Chinese”, but he will say that Weibo and its kind appear to be a new frontier of Chinese liberalisation. “This is something relatively new,” Rudd says. “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.”
Always the old China hand, Rudd notes that he has lived and worked in China and he has had a continuing interest in the country for about 35 years, and, via Weibo, he is now “learning something new every day”. “I think people are enjoying the opportunity to speak out and be very direct about things.”
On Sina Weibo, Rudd has more than 320,000 followers, but follows just five. He argues he already has plenty to chew over and he spends about 45 minutes a day writing posts and reading the deluge of reactions – some positive, some negative. “People on Weibo will often raise highly sensitive questions and they will make very direct political observations,” he says.
A Twitter user for five or so years, Rudd wasn’t invited to joined Weibo by Sina – as have a number of celebrities, both Chinese and western. He simply joined up, and he now has Weibo accounts with two firms. “I think one of the great gaps in any western analysis about what’s going on in China is what’s happening in Chinese society. So with the information revolution suddenly you have a door into that, through Weibo, so I decided to walk through. And six months later, and seven hundred thousand people who follow me one way or another, it’s quite interesting.”
Rudd believes engaging with the Chinese in their own language is a mark of respect due to an ancient civilisation, and a way to avoid nuance being lost in translation. “I’m probably only the western political leader, former prime minister or foreign minister, who is engaging with the Chinese in their own language. Overall it’s a good thing.”