Microblogging has contributed to toppling oppressive regimes across the world. Governments from all regions of the planet are beginning to recognize that Microblogs’ tweets are swift, spontaneous, and are increasingly difficult for governments to regulate and monitor. Microblogs have been utilized to rally people from different parts of a country to form a coherent group; they can express strong opinions in an instant that would be quickly erased on other heavily, monitored websites; and most importantly, they can critically critique public officials in a brief and concise manner.
The Chinese government recognized the Microblogging’s power a long time ago. On June 24th 2009, right before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, links were being posted revealing information about the Tiananmen Square massacre which brought about enlightenment to Chinese bloggers, who never knew exactly what happened that day. A campaign began to form on Twitter by rapid back-to-back tweets encouraging Chinese people to wear the color white on June 24, in the middle of Tiananmen Square, to indicate to the government that they still mourn for the students who were killed that day. Within just a few days, Twitter was blocked in China.
The leaders in the Communist Party were never clear about why Twitter was censored. The most people were told was that the government leaders have already decided that there is no need to lament over this non-event. In June, 2009, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Qing Gang, told a news conference, “The Party and the government long ago reached a conclusion about the political incident that took place at the end of the 1980s and related issues.”
But people have speculated that the Chinese government has seen how Microblogging has assisted people in rebelling against other authoritarian governments, and that they will do anything it takes to ensure that other governments mistakes are not repeated in China. But The Chinese government has had their own problems aided partly by Microblogging. Prior to the ban of Twitter and Facebook, Iran and Western China had their own social unrest which were fueled and organized by exchanges of Twitter, Weibo, and other social networking sites.
The 2009 protest in Xinjiang, a province in Western China dominated by Muslim ethnic minorities, caused the Chinese state to aggressively block and censure news on Microblogs and other social-networking sites. Following in the footsteps of the Iranian protest, the Uyghurs rioted because of an ethnic clash that happened in May 2009. During the height of the protest, more than 10,000 people were on the streets making their voices heard. 260 vehicles were destroyed, and according to Dolkun Isa, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, 600 people were killed.
During the protest, a high volume of tweets about the protest were being posted. These tweets consisted of police shooting students, and why the government would not clearly discuss the event in the news. Students were outraged yet confused about the protest. Twitter was blocked, following a number of websites and even mobile phone services. The authorities said they were securing order across Xinjiang and would arrest and punish anyone who disrupted its task. It is my sense, amongst others, that the people of Xinjiang lacked ability to use Twitter to publicize the government oppression rattled and tested the Party’s ability to govern.
These two events demonstrated to the Chinese government that Microblogging can pose a direct threat to the Chinese government’s agenda. The Chinese government blocked Twitter because it was too difficult to control. But there are now other Microblogging sites in China that can pose the same kind of threats, if not larger and more powerful, than Twitter.
Despite the fact that Twitter is now a thing of the past in China, Microblogging is still thriving through other Chinese Micoblogging websites. Sina Weibo is now China’s largest Microblogging site. It has been said to be a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and it maintains more than 140 million users. More than 5,000 companies and 2,400 media organizations in China use Weibo. Weibo has dominated the Microblogging industry. Baidu just recently retreated from the social networking business to allow Weibo to run the industry.
Internet users are able to blog so quickly on Weibo that local and government officials do not have enough time to react. Weibo is constantly struggling with simultaneously pleasing government officials and netizens. Michael Clendenin, managing director of tech consultant of RedTech Advisors said, "The trick for Sina will always be keeping the platform lively enough and genuine enough so that it remains relevant, while also keeping it tame enough to satisfy any government concerns”.
Bloggers on Weibo are becoming more active, and striving to force government officials to be accountable for their actions via Microblogging. Within hours of the train crash near Wenzhou on June 23, 2011, some people demanded a public investigation of the accident that would include the reasons behind the crash, which was accountable for the incident, and the correct number of causalities. Within five days, Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minster of China, who is known as the human rights advocator in the Communist Party, bowed in front of people and promised that there would be a clean investigation into the crash.
Although it is a well known fact that organized protests are quickly quelled throughout China, Weibo users are still using it to organize and protest against private businesses that will negatively affect their lives. On August 14, 2011, people in Dalian, a city in Northeast China, used Weibo to help coordinate a mass demonstration against the placing of a factory next to a residential area. Postings on Weibo were swiftly “harmonized” and any news related to the subject was eliminated. But it is my guess that Weibo played a key role in formulating this protest. Users were able to get their important messages read by the masses before they disappeared.
It appears that the Chinese government has not figured out what to do with Weibo. The government still sticks to its status quo of maintaining social harmony by editing postings which threaten its definition of stability, as we have seen with the Jasmine revolution that almost happened in Beijing in March 2011.
However, we are also seeing government officials embracing Microblogging. A piece written in the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, are changing the way government officials interact with bloggers. The author, Tang Weihong (唐维红) noted that government officials at all levels use Weibo. Many of these officials are attempting to be transparent by using their real names. More than 3,000 government agencies have accounts, and also about 3,000 Party members have opened Microblogs since the end of March.
Weibo could possibly become another propaganda tool for the Communist Party. President Hu Jintao recently said that the “virtual world” is his next battleground, and the Party, has begun to talk about how to win and even control the country’s bloggers. He called for new ways to “guide online public opinion” and to begin more communication between government officials and the public.
Although there may be a small trend towards the Chinese government embracing Microblogging, censorship is still heavily prevalent. As we have seen from the past, the government has an agenda that it will protect regardless if it feels compelled to silence opinions online. Perhaps the near future may bring about change. But the 2012 government transition does not appear to bring about any new ideas or manage the country much differently than the current administration.
Chinese bloggers are continuing to use Weibo and other Microblogging websites to fight government corruption and expose the truth. Weibo is now possibly becoming the best venue to get honest opinions from normal Chinese citizens, celebrities, political activist, and even certain government officials. As long as Weibo is not blocked, it may be the only way to get authentic news and to see unedited opinions from the masses. Just find it before it is gone.