WEIBOS, CHINA’S TWITTER-LIKE MICROBLOGS
China’s Twitter-like microblogs are called weibos. Microblogs have grown spectacularly, quadrupling the number of users in 2011. China’s two major Twitter-like microblogs Sina and Tencent have more than 200 million registered users each. The true number of users is hard to calculate because many people have more than one account under different names.
Michael Wines and Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Even the Communist Party organ People’s Daily maintains a weibo. But the field is dominated by two players. Sina Holdings Ltd.’s Sina Weibo (pronounced SEE-nah WAY-bo) counts 140 million users, generally better-educated and more interested in current events than those at competitors. Tencent Inc.’s weibo hosts 200 million generally younger users who are more interested in socializing.” [Source: Michael Wines and Sharon Lafraniere , New York Times, July 28, 2011]
In some ways, the Chinese weibos replicate their Western counterparts: they limit posts to 140 characters (though in Chinese, where many characters are words by themselves, much more can be said). Posts can be re-tweeted, too, although in China, tweeting is called knitting, because the word “weibo” sounds like the word for scarf. There are also differences. Bloggers can comment on others’ posts, turning a message into a conversation. Users also can include photographs and other files with their posts, to telling effect: on Thursday, fact-checking bloggers posted photos of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s recent official activities to counter his assertion at a Wenzhou news conference that illness had kept him from visiting the disaster site earlier.
While Western social networks like Twitter and Facebook are blocked here, their Chinese counterparts thrive, largely because their owners consent to government monitoring and censorship “and perhaps because the government fears the reaction should it shut them down. The outpouring over the rail tragedy appears to have enjoyed at least some official approval; many analysts believe the government sees microblogs as a virtual steam valve through which citizens can safely vent complaints.
If needed, the weibos have literally dozens of electronic levers they can press to dilute, hide or delete offending posts, according to one Tencent Web editor who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of dismissal in disclosing that information. Yet the weibos also play cat and mouse with the censors. “If we did not have any free speech then this company would not have any influence, so the company must act proactively to safeguard our space,” he said. “So that’s why they must go through this process of bargaining with the government departments.”
And even dedicated censors find the weibos hard to restrain. Government minders can electronically delete posts with offending keywords like “human rights” and “protest.” But like Twitter, the ability to instantly forward posts to dozens of fellow users means that messages can spread, well before censorship orders can be implemented.
And there are always screenshots to preserve posts that are deleted, such as this one by Ge You, one of China’s most distinguished actors: “If a higher-level leader died,” he wrote, “there would be countless wreaths; however, when many ordinary people died, there was only “endless harmony” — “a euphemism for censorship. “If a higher-level leader died, there would be nationwide mourning; however, when many ordinary people died, there was not a single word of apology. If a higher-level leader died, there would be high-end funerals; however, when many ordinary people died, there were only cold numbers.”
Weibo (Microblog) Users in China
Weibo users more than tripled in the first half of 2011, official data showed. Internet giant Sina.com said in August 2011 that its weibo, by far the most popular, had over 200 million users. At this rate, Sina estimates that the microblogging market in China will be mature within two years.
Weibo users can post commentary on others' messages, videos and images - including pictures of sensitive documents that might otherwise be censored - allowing information to spread rapidly in a country of 1.3 billion people. Twitter does not allow users to post photographs and video, but Sina Weibo does. Sina also allows users to more effectively repost or comment on and share other people’s posts, creating bigger microblog communities.
Wang Yin, a 24-year-old graduate student at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, constantly uses Sina Weibo. “On Weibo, I’m mostly interested in current events, what my friends are saying, and some information related to health and psychology,” Wang told the New York Times, “Every day I log in over five times, using either my computer or mobile phone. And I stay on for two or three hours.” [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]
Microblog Power in China
David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Now, as microblogs have a powerful effect on public discourse and advertisers start to create campaigns aimed at microblog users, other Chinese Internet companies are scrambling to develop and promote their own microblog services.” “This is a big, big category,” Zhao Chunming, an Internet analyst at the Susquehanna International Group, told the New York Times. “The news media and celebrities are tweeting; so are C.E.O.’s. This is changing the way people receive their news and information.” [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]
What is striking is that microblog services are booming here despite a recent Chinese government crackdown on social networking sites in the wake of democracy demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East. The restrictions, which typically involve deleting or censoring politically charged content, seem to be aimed at preventing microblogs and other sites from being used to foster dissent or organize antigovernment protests.
Still, young Internet users in China seem unfazed by the restrictions, in part because microblog services are a compelling alternative to this country’s more heavily censored state-run media and, perhaps more important, because microblogs are a powerful tool for self-expression.
“There are just so many talkative people on Weibo,” said Guobin Yang, an associate professor at Barnard College in New York and the author of “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.” He said, “They talk about anything, from Marx and McLuhan to personal relationships and love affairs. So the real success of Weibo is that it offers a place for this kind of chitchat.”
Twitter, Microblogs and Twitter-Like Services in China
Twitter was launched in China in 2006 but was later closed down. Similar service offered in Chinese include Fanfou, Jiwai and Digu. Fanfou was founded by 27-year-old Wang Xing in 2007. It had 1 million users by 2009. Wang runs two other social networking sites Xiaoney for university students and Hainei for white-collar workers.
Sina Weibo is a Twitter-like service launched by Sina.com. It allows users to post short messages of less than 140 Chinese characters via websites, SMS or MMS. These can be shared or forwarded immediately and read on computers, cell phones or other devices with Internet access.
QQ and Sina are home to China’s most popular microblog platforms and Twitter-style services. Sina claimed to have amassed 20 million users in its first year of operation after it began in August 2009.
Sina.com and Tencent: China’s Main Microblog Companies
Sina.com, the online portal founded in 1998, has reinvented itself with Sina Weibo. Shares of Sina listed on the Nasdaq exchange have jumped about 250 percent between May 2010 and May 20111, year, and some analysts estimate that the company’s microblog unit could alone be worth $5 billion. [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]
When Sina Weibo was introduced in 2009, the company built its microblog service by moving its most popular Internet bloggers — movie stars, real estate tycoons, athletes and writers — onto the microblog platform. Millions of young people soon followed. With Twitter blocked in China, Sina Weibo was poised and ready when microblogging exploded in 2010. By February 2011 it had more than 80 million users and was adding 10 million new users per month. In the meantime Facebook-like social networking sites, like Renren, are struggling to keep pace, according to iResearch, an analytics firm based in Shanghai.
Executives at Sina face intense competition from Tencent, Baidu and other microblog service providers. But for now, the company’s microblog service is the undisputed champion, partly because it got an early start but also because it combines features of both Twitter and Facebook, with some local elements thrown in.
Microblogging and Making Money in China
Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post,” China’s creative entrepreneurs have also been busy. Around Valentine’s Day, bloggers — inspired by the campaign to rescue beggars — started a site to help singles find mates, They called their microblog “Taking snapshots to rescue bachelors and spinsters.” Within two weeks after it opened the dating microblog had it has attracted more than 31,000 followers and has become such a sensation that a Shenzhen jewelry store has offered three free rings to the first three women successfully "rescued." [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]
David Barboza wrote in the New York Times , “Advertisers are flocking to microblogs, asking celebrities to promote their products or distributing coupons or promotions. “My clients are saying, “Everybody’s on Weibo, so what do we do?” said Peony Wu, chief digital officer at Ogilvy & Mather China. “So many big companies are now testing the waters.” [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]
Microblogging and Free-Speech in China
More and more Chinese people are turning to weibos to vent their anger over government corruption, scandals and disasters in a country where authorities maintain a tight grip on the media. "This is where public opinion is being formed," said Peking University journalism professor Hu Yong. Xiao Qiang, media scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, said the weibos made it easier for individuals to speak out, and harder for censors to pinpoint troublemakers."Weibo is a social media platform particularly effective at aggregating micro-opinions into a collective voice," he told AFP. [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]
Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times “Microblogs revealed their power to drive public opinion in July 2011, after a high-speed rail crash in Zhejiang Province prompted tens of millions of online comments, many condemning the government’s stewardship of the rail system and its response to the accident. The government soon stepped up its efforts to monitor and censor online dialogue on sensitive topics, with senior Communist Party officials visiting major Internet companies to underscore their concern. "
Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “In a country where most media are controlled by the state, information is heavily censored and free-flowing opinions are sharply constricted, Chinese have turned to microblogging “to openly exchange unfettered news and views.” Weibos “seem to be one step ahead of China’s notoriously efficient censors, with a dozen microblogging sites... and a million posts every hour.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]
“Weibo users are regularly engaged in a virtual debating free-for-all, touching on some of the most off-limits or politically touchy topics. There are microblog comments on the uprisings in the Middle East — including questions on whether the popular unrest might spread to China. There is talk of political reform, including users posting and re-posting remarks by Premier Wen Jiabao calling for more openness. Even discussion of Tibet and the Dalai Lama are allowed.”
“Weibo has become the public hall for people to discuss public affairs and formulate opinions,” Hu Yong, associate professor of journalism at Peking University, told the Washington Post. “Weibo has become the most prominent place for free speech in China.” In democratic countries, “people have various channels to express their opinions, like through the media, the judicial system, in general elections and even through the petition process,” Hu said. “But in China, since all the other channels of free expression are blocked, the opinion function of weibo has become more important and prominent.”
It isn’t that the authorities have suddenly discovered a new tolerance for free speech, Hu said. The weibo-using community is growing so fast, the 140-character posts go out so quickly and the technology is so new that they have been unable to keep up.
Microblogging and the News in China
Microblogs highlight the contrast between the official version of events and how people actually see them, Hu told Bllomberg. "They make public opinion more visible, and that means pressure on the ruler," Hu says. [Source: Bloomberg News, September 18, 2011]
Xie Gengyun, a professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University, recently completed a report on microblogging and said weibo is the most popular choice for trustworthy information, ahead of newspapers, online forums and blogs. “Weibo is changing the structure of the public opinions in China,” Xie said. “In the past, the public agenda or hot topics were decided by the elite and by the journalists. The public cared about what they cared about. But right now, the situation is changing. Weibo has conquered the dominant position in shaping public opinion.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]
The train crash in Wenzhou that killed 40 people in July 2011 sparked an outpouring of public fury on the weibos, where thousands demanded to know why more care had not been taken over safety on China's flagship high-speed rail network. The scale of the response appeared to take authorities by surprise. Shortly after the accident, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of China's Communist Party, urged officials to use the weibos more to communicate with the public. [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]
See Wenzhou Train Crash
Microblogging Sites, Bigamy, Kidnapping and Social Causes in China
Microblogging campaigns have targeted corruption, suspicious lawsuits, kidnapped children and the plight of activist lawyers. Police have solved some cases with the help of microblogs, and citizens have exposed instances of official corruption or foul play. Weibo has also been used to mobilize Chinese to donate money to people in need. “In civil society, in community involvement, weibo is playing a role like no other organization can play,” Xu Xiaoping, a businessman and avid microblogger with 1.5 million followers, told the Washington Post . “Weibo gives people power.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]
Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “The power of microblogging was dramatically illustrated last month by Peng Gaofeng, whose 3-year-old son was abducted in March 2008 in Shenzhen. Peng, 32, spent three years searching for the boy and was told by police to give up. But after a friend posted the boy’s picture on his microblog, Peng got a tip on Feb. 1 from Jiangsu province about a boy there who resembled his son. Soon, the father and son were reunited.”
Peter Shadbolt of CNN reported: “High-profile microblogging campaigns have included a site dedicated to reuniting street children with their parents. Called "Take a snapshot and save the child beggars," it calls on the public to post photos of street children to help reunite them with their families and raise awareness about the problem of kidnapping in China. Within a few months this campaign had attracted 240,000 followers.[Source: Peter Shadbolt, CNN, February 20 2011]
“Other sites have given people an unprecedented voice on local issues such as petty corruption. In February 2011, 23-year-old Li Qiming — a Chinese man who killed a college student while drink driving and then tried to use his father's name as a police official to escape punishment — was sentenced to six years' in jail, sparking a furious reaction on microblogs where the verdict was condemned as too lenient.
“Bigamy — condemned by the Chinese Communist Party but unofficially practiced by the wealthy and powerful in China — has become the latest microblog hot topic, along with other previously uncanvassed social issues. Qiu Xiaohua, a former chief of China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) who was sentenced to a one-year term of imprisonment in 2007 for bigamy, opened a microblog account this month which attracted 37,300 followers within days despite the fact that he posted just two messages online. Most Chinese Web users, however, are relatively unconcerned about government censors and use microblogs to catch up on entertainment and gossip.”
“Famous microblogs no sooner emerge than parody sites are set up. A mirror site of the child anti-kidnapping campaign called "Take a snapshot and save an 'over aged' single woman or bachelor" is the latest microblog parody to go viral, making fun of the pressure young people come under from their families to bring home a marriageable candidate for the Chinese Lunar New Year.”
Microblogging, Weibos and Protests in China
Weibo’s power in shaping public opinion and its potential for social organizing have attracted a lot of attention. “Weibo is not only the place for people to express themselves, but also the place where people organize together,” Hu said. [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]
Hu said the decision by authorities in the booming east coast city of Dalian to relocate a controversial chemical plant owed much to a largely middle class public protest one Sunday in August that had its origins in weibo posts. "The Dalian party secretary came out and gave a speech promising to shut the chemical plant," he said. "We seldom see this. This is significant."
See Dalian Protest and Train Accidents
Microblog Whistleblowing in China
Information can be spread on microblogs with remarkable speed and reach. In 2011, several episodes highlighted the reach of microblogs, including posts that ignited mass anger over both the Wenzhou high-speed train crash and the hit-and-run death of a 2-year-old toddler, Yueyue.
In October 2011, the New York Times reported: Microblogs have mushroomed in less than two years into a major — and difficult to control — source of whistle-blowing. Microbloggers, some of whom have attracted millions of followers, have been exposing scandals and official malfeasance, including an attempted cover-up of a recent high-speed rail accident, with astonishing speed and popularity. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, Michael Wines and Edward Wong, New York Times, October 26, 2011]
Weibos have become the forum of choice for Chinese to pass on news and gossip about scandals involving government and the elite. Sina and Tencent weibos are filled with salacious tales of official malfeasance, such as a July frenzy — photographs included — over a Yunnan Province city official’s sex orgy. Industry insiders say the principal weibo (pronounced way-bwah) regulators, based in Beijing and the Shenzhen Communist Party Internet offices, have been assailed by government leaders elsewhere for allowing the scandals to spread online unchecked.
Foreign Companies and the Microblogging Phenomena in China
David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, the success of Sina Weibo and the high number of Weibo users are big reasons “American Internet companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube want to get into China. It has the world’s biggest Internet population, about 457 million users, and they are mostly young people who spend long periods engaged in social networking, online games and electronic commerce. [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]
But for now, they cannot enter China. Although there are no regulations that prevent American companies from operating here, the three popular American Web sites have been blocked in China for several years. Analysts say this is probably because the Chinese government wants to prevent the services from distributing uncensored information and allow Chinese companies to grab large market shares.
American companies have not given up. Groupon, the online coupon giant, recently formed an alliance with Tencent, China’s biggest Internet company. In December 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, visited Beijing and toured the offices of Sina and Baidu, China’s huge online search engine. Facebook has dismissed rumors that it plans to enter China by teaming up with Baidu. Company executives have said only that they are exploring a way to enter China.
Text Messages in China
The Chinese do more text messaging than anyone else. This is thought to be partly because it is such a cheap way to communicate and because a lot of information can be packed into a few characters.
A total of 429 billion text messages were sent by cell phones used in 2006, an equivalent of 927 per user, or 33 billion a month, more than any other country. A total of 217.8 billion text messages were sent used in 2004, a 58.8 percent increase from 2003 and as many as the rest of the world combined. Text messaging is popular because it is cheap and most Chinese don’t have the money to make calls.
Chinese vastly prefer text messaging to e-mail. They prefer the immediacy and convenience of text messaging. Plus almost everybody has a cell phone while a computer is still out of reach for many people. Chinese chat, exchange greetings, pass on jokes and flirt with text messages. During the mid-autumn festival in 2007, 2 billion messages were sent in a single day, most greetings and well wishes.
Advanced cell phones with a stylus allow users to draw the characters they want on the screen. Many older people prefer this method. Younger people prefer using the Romanized sound system with a lot of abbreviations .
Nine out of ten cell phone users in China send text messages, compared to only 49 percent of cell phone users in the United States.
There are text message services that provide weather reports, novels, advice for the heartbroken, digital “pets,” music and pornography. People can vote for their favorite idol on television games shows with messages. Mobile gaming is big and lucrative. Among the games that have done well are trivia quizzes, adventure games and adaptions of rock, scissors, paper. There are also a number of schemes that offer fake cash prizes and illegal services such as gambling and prostitution.
Text Messages and the Government in China
The government has clamped down on text messaging service that offer pornography and some forms of entertainment and installed technology that allows them to snoop on users. The effort was ostensibly set up to cut down on text pornography but can also be used for surveillance of any user. The technology is similar to what is used to monitor the Internet and block websites and find key words.
The government routinely monitors private e-mail, telephone calls text messages and electronic communications with 2,800 surveillance centers..A campaign in 2005, found 107,000 illegal short messages and shut down 9,700 cell phone accounts. Banking scams, illegal lotteries, prostitution and pornography services made up the majority of the shut down sites, The Venus Inor Tech surveillance system filters messages deemed to be “false political rumors.”
Text messaging has been used to organize protests and social disturbances. It is more dispersed and difficult to control than the Internet See Politics
In 2006, Qin Zhongfei a mild-manner bureaucrat, spent a month in jail after he wrote a poem on a lark that poked fun at a local official accused of corruption, using puns based on the similarity of the official’s name to the Chinese words for “Viagra” and “incompetent." He sent the poem as text message to some friends and they sent it their friends and before long it was sent to officials in the local government.
The officials were outraged, They tracked down some of the messages and eventually tracked Qin down. He was confronted at his work and detained on charges of criminal libel, which carries a sentence of three years. His case widely publicized in the press, even the official government-sanctioned press.
Protests in Xiamen
Text Messages Shut Down a $1.4 Billion Chemical Plant
The construction of a $1.4 billion chemical factory in Xiamen was halted after citizens there launched a successful text messaging campaign. Widely-distributed messages used inflammatory language comparing the chemicals produced at the plant to nuclear bomb material and warned of leukemia and birth defects. The messages reached more than 1 million cell phones and reached nearly all of Xiamen’s 1.5 million residents through cell phone, word of mouth or messages painted on building walls.
Environmentalist posted the first messages on the Internet. In addition to raising fears about the chemicals themselves they also pointed out that the plant was built near a densely populated area and could damage the city’s tourism industry. As Internet sites were closed down, reports started showing up newspapers outside of Xiamen.
Angry messages about the chemical factory were removed from the Internet but the text messages were so widely disseminated using the short message system (SMS) from so many sources at so many different times the government was helpless to do anything about it. One blogger wrote “SMS is a widely used communications method, more than the Internet. Only a certain amount of people use the Internet, but almost everyone has a cell phone.”
Chinese authorities have technology to monitor cell phone messages and track their sources. They they tried to block message in Xiamen but when people send out messages to their friends and family members and they in turn send messages to more people information spreads in exponential fashion and is difficult to stop.
Once the text message campaign gained momentum it took on a life of its own. In early June 2007, demonstrations with 10,000 participants were held and Xiamen began getting nationwide coverage. Everyone was caught by surprise when the city announced construction of the chemical factory would be stopped. Many felt that was perhaps most significant about the protest was that people were not afraid to speak out even though they knew their messages could tracked.
In December 2007, a public hearing on the plant was held and public opinion was almost unanimously against it. The plant has not been officially canceled but there are no plans to resume construction anytime soon.
Impact of the Internet and Microblogging on China
George Yeo and Eric X. Li wrote in Global Viewpoint: More than a decade ago, when China’s Internet was in its infancy with a few million users, the government made it clear that it would exercise political oversight on the nascent cyberspace while allowing it to grow. Many experts then predicted that such efforts were doomed to fail. The Internet, they said, was to be a brave new world that could not be controlled. There were only two possible outcomes: A freely expanding Internet beyond the reach of political authority and subverting it, or an Internet stifled by government control and unable to realize its social and economic benefits. Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” [Source: George Yeo and Eric X. Li, Global Viewpoint, January 20, 2012. George Yeo is a former Foreign Minister of Singapore and Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai]
Confounding these experts, neither has happened in China. By any standard, the Chinese Internet is one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world. Four hundred fifty million users communicate, transact, and entertain in it. Entrepreneurial companies have created tens of billions of dollars in economic value. China’s search engine, e-commerce and online video businesses are among the world’s leading companies. On Taobao, China’s eBay, millions of mom-and-pop shops are conducting billions of dollars of transactions per month. On QQ and Sina, the two largest Weibo services, 200 million users are active — expressing their views on anything and everything from sex to official corruption.
Concurrently, a massive government-directed monitoring system combined with self-regulation by hosting companies makes China’s Internet highly controlled by political authority. Facebook and Twitter are banned while their domestic versions flourish. In a well-publicized spat with the government, Google’s search presence was curtailed while its other businesses have continued. When social crises occur, key-word barriers are erected to prevent amplifications that threaten stability.
China’s size and its centralized governance have enabled the creation of a parallel Internet universe connected to and separate from the one outside. There are leaks and many VPNs are available. Minor leaks are ignored. When leaks become important, they are plugged and sometimes bluntly. When the Jasmine Revolution became an issue, search engines simply blanked out the word 'jasmine'. However, it is a mistake to think that all the regulators do is censor.
China is pursuing a distinctive response to the Internet. More than half a century ago, at the onset of the information revolution, a pioneering thinker on the cyberspace Norbert Wiener authored an influential book entitled Cybernetics. Wiener separated human responses to new challenges into two types: ontogenetic and phylogenetic. Ontogenetic activities are organized and carried out through centrally designed institutions to shape the development of society. The phylogenetic response, on the other hand, is evolutionary. It is analogous to the way bacteria behave in mutual interaction without organizational oversight. The development of human civilization has always been characterized by the constant struggle between these two opposites - the ontogenetic attempts to control the phylogenetic and the latter’s undermining of the former. The relationship is both adversarial and symbiotic, much like yin and yang. In today’s context, political authority is ontogenetic while the cyberspace is phylogenetic. The health of human society depends on the balance between the two. When they are out of balance, the body politic falls sick with catastrophic consequences.
The easy scalability of the Internet makes it perhaps the most powerful phylogenetic invasion of the body politic in recent times. Bill Davidow, in his book, Overconnected: the Promise and Threat of the Internet, talks about how the Internet’s “hyper-connection” can spread “contagions” like pandemics. The Internet is not an unmitigated force for good. It can also do harm to human society.
The approach of the Chinese government is similar to that of Chinese medicine. The emphasis is on the Internet being an organic part of the body politic. Too much intervention is as bad as too little. Constant monitoring is necessary so that one knows when and how much to intervene. The word in Chinese is tiao, which means continuous tuning of a complex system.
Social media has enabled the Chinese government to overcome an age-old problem of poor feedback of ground problems to the centre because of too many layers in between risking explosions due to over-suppression. Social media brings such problems to the attention of China’s leaders. The train accident in Wenzhou last year was a good example. Like a Chinese physician feeling the pulse of a patient, China’s leaders were alerted to a serious imbalance and reacted comprehensively. The result will be a better and safer high-speed rail.
The current health of China’s cyber universe is not bad. Economically and socially the Internet is flourishing. Politically it is being used to help maintain social stability despite rapid change. Never before in history have such a large number of people undergone such rapid change. Old values have been undermined before new values develop, leading to crass materialism. Regulations have not kept up with the new realities, causing frequent problems of public safety. Social and economic divisions have widened considerably.
Social media provides a safety valve alerting the government to problems that can get out of control. Both the over-amplification and over-suppression of these problems can make them explode and destabilize the country, which is the last thing China needs after finally leaving behind two centuries of war and revolution.
While China’s parallel universe is inevitably being influenced by the outside, the reverse is also happening. India now demands that Facebook and Google remove derogatory materials. Other countries will follow. Eventually, as in the real world, cyberspace will not be flat but will have interconnected mountains and valleys.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated March 2012