You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Chinese Microbloggers Fill Vacuum Left By State Media in Coverage of Popular Protests

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, July 18 2012

As analysts and observers release their studies of protests in Shifang, a city in China's Sichuan province, their work indicates that social-media-savvy Chinese officials are giving space online to some dissenting views at a sensitive time of transition for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Earlier this month officials in Shifang, a city in China's Sichuan province, announced that in response to public concerns it had cancelled plans to build a copper alloy plant. The official announcement was published on Sina Weibo, a popular social media platform for microblogging. The "public concerns" were actually street protests that were met with riot police and tear gas, but there were no reports of the clashes in the state-run media. Instead, local citizens transmitted information about the clashes via Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, another popular microblogging platform. Both platforms function similarly to Twitter.

While the government censored reporting of the protests in state-run media, it did not filter "Shifang" or other relevant keywords on social media platforms. This means that despite a media blackout, the news had a broad audience: Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo each report having about 300 million registered users.

After the official announcement was made and the street unrest had cooled down, newspapers reported that plans to build the copper alloy plant had been cancelled, but none specified why. In a detailed and fascinating report for China Media Project (under the auspices of the University of Hong Kong's Media and Journalism Center), analyst Qian Gang lays out the numbers and explains how microbloggers filled the vacuum created by the state media.

According to my own searches, between July 1 and July 4 (at around 8pm), there were around 5.25 million posts on Sina Weibo containing "Shifang". Of these about 400,000 included images and close to 10,000 included video. The vast majority of these had to do directly with the Shifang protests. Searching the exact same period last year, I found that there were only 300 posts in total containing "Shifang" on Sina Weibo.

Later, the analyst continues:

Original materials provided by people on the scene sketched out the general picture of what was happening in Shifang. The millions of reposts and comments on Sina Weibo from across the country were based on these materials. And many of the pictures and video on Weibo were picked up and used by Hong Kong and international media.

The official handling of the Shifang protests raises two salient questions: Why did local officials accede to protesters' demands, scrapping plans for a new factory? And why did the central government, perfectly capable of censoring some if not all dissenting opinions on social media, not hinder access to information about the unrest on social media platforms?

Rachel Lu, editor of e-magazine Tea Leaf Nation, offers some insight. In an email exchange, she notes that the protesters appear to be young — from the "1990s generation," she said — and non-violent, meaning the government would be less likely to crack down hard on them. She also points out that there are precedents of the government acceding to popular protests concerning NIMBY, or "not in my backyard," issues. This is also a leadership transition year in China and as such is not a time to court controversy.

Qian Gang's post contains some interesting observations on the relevance of the upcoming political transition:

Some have suggested that this more "open" approach to social media was quite intentional. In the run-up to the 18th National Congress it is critical for the leadership to be on guard against popular animosity toward the government. On the other hand, they must ensure tensions have an outlet lest they erupt into more destabilizing conflict.

Others have read Shifang differently. They say that what we see in the case of Shifang are different political factions struggling behind the scenes, with different ideas about how incidents like this should be handled.

While keywords were not filtered on local social media platforms, Qian Gang reports that individual posts expressing criticism of the central government were deleted — but often only after they had been shared dozens or even thousands of times. On the other hand, police posted details from the scenes of the protests and local Party officials published official statements on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.

So it seems that Chinese officials are unable to ignore the power of social media platforms, even as they censor state-run newspapers and television, and despite having the technological means to filter Internet content. But even with all that centralized power, they are sensitive to international opinion and aware that shutting down social media might result in more action, not less. As deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak discovered in the winter of 2011, when people cannot follow the action on the Internet, they tend to go down to the streets to see what is going on. Google spokesperson Eric Schmidt predicted last week that China's policy of internet censorship would inevitably fail. It will probably be some time before the the Great Wall of Censorship crumbles, but the Shifang events might be a hint that Schmidt was right.