Since its inception in China about three years ago, Weibo (Twitter-like microblogging in Chinese) has been hugely popular and has become the most influential media outlet in China. User of Weibo have exceeded 100 million. More significantly, the majority of users are educated youth. Despite China’s tight media surveillance and control, Weibo users have begun to pose serious challenges to the Communist Party.
Back in late 2010, when Weibo became available to China’s netizens, many of my friends speculated that the CCP would make things easier for them by simply killing the newborn media. Now almost two years have passed and Weibo is not just carrying along, but also increasing its influence and reach daily, which makes veteran China watchers wonder: why does the CCP still tolerate such a politically inflammatory and potentially subversive media channel?
While no outsider can really grasp the mindset of the Politburo and the CCP Central Propaganda Department, plausible explanations can be explored to understand why the CCP has continued to be “tolerant”:
First, Weibo has become a tool for the CCP’s central leadership. With the influence of traditional Party mouthpieces such as the People’s Daily almost becoming negligible among the general populace, the CCP’s top leaders are increasingly turning to new media to supervise and expose the exorbitant corruption, cheating, misrepresentation, and other misdeeds among local bureaucrats. Reining in the local bureaucracy and ensuring their allegiance is of paramount political significance in China’s polity. The usual focus of Chinese Weibo users on exposing the malpractice of local bureaucrats undoubtedly endows itself with the function of supervising the vast local bureaucracy.
Second, Weibo is an important information gathering channel for the Party. As China’s political system does not allow for the citizenry to speak their minds and local bureaucrats always try to deceive their superiors, China’s top leaders can only understand the mentality of their people through the spontaneous expressions of misgivings, aspirations, needs, and passions found online. In the absence of an effective system to collect and respond to popular opinion and demands, Weibo stands out as an alternative.
Third, the Communist Party can easily manipulate Weibo to serve its own purposes. It is widely known that the Party has always rigged the traditional media. Aided by the Party’s powerful and resourceful apparatus, manipulation of such internet-age communications such as Weibo is very much within the Party’s capability. For example, the recent anti-Japan movement has been used to distract public attention away from the Party’s succession problems, as well as deepening economic and social problems. At the outset of the anti-Japan street marches directed by the Communist government, Weibo users faced almost no restrictions over their discussions about the movement. As a result, everybody was preoccupied with the news related to the Sino-Japanese dispute. The whole episode demonstrates the Party’s mastery of online media rigging.
Fourth, it is in the interest of the CCP Central Propaganda Department to control a powerful media tool. As the Chinese saying goes, raising a tiger produces the benefit of enhancing one’s status (养虎自重). Weibo is widely viewed as a huge tiger with sharp teeth and large muscles in China’s political and bureaucratic landscape. This tiger is often at the disposal of the Central Propaganda Department. It is not hard to see that the Central Propaganda Department can derive enormous political, bureaucratic, and financial benefits from its role in media control and surveillance. The stronger the tiger, the more influence the central Propaganda Department will exert. Thus, claiming that it has become the largest public relations firm in China and in the world is no exaggeration.
Fifth, personal stakes of politically well-connected people in the Weibo business is also helpful to its survival in China’s politically charged media. The most popular microblogging service in China is part of the internet portal Sina. Sina’s investor, Mr. Daolin Mao, was one of its senior executives when he married CCP General Secretary Jintao Hu’s daughter, Haiqing Hu. Not long after their marriage, Daolin Mao was promoted to chairman of the board. In China’s murky business world, it is no secret that successful businessmen seek political support and protection through various financial dealings. Mr. Daolin Mao just exemplifies the potential of such collusion. One of the unintended consequences of this close relationship is that Weibo survives as a viable business in China.
To sum up, Weibo’s case shows that many puzzling questions and problems related to China can be answered or explained. The caveat is, unique Chinese characteristics, which are prevalent in almost all political, social and economic situations, need to be accounted for in any reasonable answer or explanation.