WEIBOS, CHINA’S TWITTER-LIKE MICROBLOGS
China’s Twitter-like microblogs are called weibos. Microblogs grew spectacularly in the late 2000s and early 2010s, quadrupling the number of users in 2011 alone. At that time China’s had two major microblog companies Sina Holdings Ltd. and Tencent Inc. They had more than 200 million registered users each. The true number of users was s hard to calculate because many people have more than one account under different names.Today, Sina Weibo is far and away China's most popular microblogging site. It amassed around 307.6 million monthly active app users as of December 2021.
Weibo means "micro blog" in Chinese. A microblog is a social media site to which a user makes short, frequent posts. After Twitter was banned in China in 2009, the Chinese internet company Sina launched(Sina Weibo (pronounced SEE-nah WAY-bo), or Weibo for short. Sina Weibo 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.
It soon established itself as China’s microblogging site — so much so that weibo became the word for microblogging the same way twitter and tweet are. Other large Chinese technology companies — Tencent, NetEase, and Sohu — also developed blogging platforms later. However, none of them could compete against entrenched Sina Weibo, and over time closed down [Source: Lai Lin Thomala, Statista, May 11, 2022]
Sina Weibo for a while was the world’s most popular microblogging site. In 2017 it surpassed Twitter for the global title. According to the Sina Weibo's first quarter 2017 results, it has 340 million active monthly users, 30 percent more than previous year. By comparison, Twitter, which is blocked in China, has around 328 million active monthly users. At that time bout 154 million people used the site daily, 91 percent of whom accessed it via mobile phones. Sina Weibo has since been surpassed by Twitter and other microblogging sites based on global users. [Source: BBC]
Using Weibos in China
Michael Wines and Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “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. [Source: Michael Wines and Sharon Lafraniere , New York Times, July 28, 2011]
For a time microblogs in China have a powerful effect on public discourse and advertisers created campaigns aimed at microblog users, Weibo users could 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 1.4 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.
Wines and Lafraniere wrote: 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 Wenzhou rail tragedy in 2011 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.”
Weibo Users in China
In 2011 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's Holdings Ltd.’s Sina Weibo 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]
Weibo users more than tripled in the first half of 2011, official data showed. Sina.com said in August 2011 that its weibo, by far the most popular, had over 200 million users. At this rate, Sina estimated that the microblogging market in China would mature within two years. Wang Yin, a 24-year-old graduate student at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, constantly used Sina Weibo in 2011. “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]
According to the New York Times 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. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, Michael Wines and Edward Wong, New York Times, October 26, 2011]
In 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]
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]
Twitter, Sina.com and Tencent
Twitter was launched in China in 2006 but was closed down in 2009 before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.. Similar Twitter-like services offered in China in the late 2000s included 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.com, the online portal founded in 1998, launched Sina Weibo in 2009 after Twitter was shut down. After that Sina.com reinvented itself and became a major Internet player in China. Shares of Sina listed on the Nasdaq exchange have jumped about 250 percent between May 2010 and May 2011. Then some analysts estimated 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 August 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. Sina claimed to have amassed 20 million users in its first year of operation. 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, were struggling to keep pace and eventually fell off the map.
Sina’s most intense competition came from Tencent, creator of the QQ microblog service. In the early 2010s QQ and Sina were home to China’s most popular microblog platforms and Twitter-style services. Baidu and other Chinese Internet companies developed microblog service providers but none of them really took off like Weibo and QQ. Weibo succeeded partly because it got off to an early start but also because it combines features of both Twitter and Facebook, with some local elements thrown in. As time it was ultimtaely eclipsed b Tencent sites that offered more useful stuff to users.
Microblogging and Free-Speech in China
Many Chinese people turned to weibos to vent their anger over government corruption, scandals and disasters. This was unusual in a country where authorities have maintained 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 Wenzhou that killed 40 people “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, 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. “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.” [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]
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. 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 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]
Microblogging Activism in China
Microblogging campaigns targeted corruption, suspicious lawsuits, kidnapped children and the plight of activist lawyers. Police solved some cases with the help of microblogs, and citizens 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.”
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. 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." [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]
Chinese Government and Microblogging
The government could easily shut down microblogs. Officials disconnected the entire Internet in Xinjiang for 10 months after the ethnic riots there in 2009. But their popularity makes has made that highly unlikely. David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “Analysts warn that the growth of Chinese microblogs could be curtailed if the government decided they have become too powerful a force in public opinion. But for the time being, microblog services are complying with censors and winning over new users. Some experts say the government may try to turn microblogs to its benefit, monitoring comments and traffic to take the pulse of the nation, and perhaps even anticipate and respond to signs of social discontent. [Source: David Barboza New York Times, May 15, 2011]
Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: The sites allow people to vent anger, and officials can track posts to see the direction of public opinion. More and more officials are also being encouraged to use microblogs for propaganda and to mold discussions. Talk within the party about controlling the Internet accelerated after a policy meeting of the party’s Central Committee in October 2011 that focused on culture and ideology. Song Jianwu, dean of the school of journalism and communication at China University of Political Science and Law, told the New York Times that Chinese leaders accepted the need for such outlets for expression. But in the case of weibos, he added, “they are also concerned that this safety valve could turn into an explosive device.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, January 18, 2012]
“It’s a real-time polling system to find out what’s going on in China,” said Bill Bishop, an independent Internet analyst in Beijing. “And it’s also a steam valve, since China’s a pressure cooker.” He says that if people get upset, “they can just say things on Weibo.” Besides, analysts say, using Weibo — the Chinese word for microblog — is not about activism; it’s about free expression, sharing information and connecting with people in the know.
The government has tried to stay ahead of curve by opening their own microblogs. . Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “ Local Communist Party bosses, propaganda department officials, municipal police departments and the provincial party chief in Xinjiang have launched microblogs.Chen Tong, executive vice president and editor in chief of Sina.com, said he persuaded 100 members of China’s parliament to open microblogging accounts during their annual March meeting in Beijing. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, March 27, 2011]
Government Control of Microblogging Sites in China
Beijing has tried to stem the flow of online criticism it doesn’t like by tightening its grip on microblogs, mainly blocking content it deems politically sensitive using its all-encompassing censorship system. But weibos present many challenges. According to Reuters: “Censors have a hard time monitoring the tens of millions of messages sent everyday and users have become expert at using clever, nuanced language to discuss sensitive topics such as human rights and the foibles of the top leadership. [Source: Reuters, December 19, 2011]
There is some control. Posts involving the jailed dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo or the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement may be deleted or blocked from re-posting. Senior Communist Party official, Liu Qi, visited the offices of Sina and Youku, a Chinese site similar to YouTube, to urge them to stop the spread of "false and harmful information". [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]
David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong said attempts to censor the weibos were having an impact. References to the mass protest in Dalian, for example, have been removed. "Censorship of overt references and images of the protests themselves is plainly dampening the social media impact," he said. But he said Beijing would not be able to "put the genie back in the bottle", after web users' appetite for independently sourced information had been whetted.
Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times: Besides the in-house monitors who already scan posts for forbidden topics, operators in recent months have bolstered “rumor refutal” departments, staffed by editors, to investigate and knock down information deemed false. Top officials, including Liu Qi, have held publicized visits to microblog companies, sometimes accompanied by popular microbloggers, in which he urged people to uphold social order and the proper ideology — and implying that their own status in official eyes would depend on their cooperation. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, January 18, 2012]
Tightening Controls on Microblog: Demanding Users Their Real Names
In December 2011, the Beijing city government said it would tighten control over microblogs, giving users three months to register with their real names or face legal consequences. In January 2012, the rules were expanded at all five major eastern Chinese cities and later expanded further so that all users of microblogs would have to register, beginning first with new users.[Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, January 18, 2012]
Reuters reported: “In rules unveiled by the Chinese capital’s government and carried by state media, individual and company users must register with their real identification information. Users have three months to register with “responsible departments for Internet content” or will face legal consequences, state media cited the rules as saying. However, people will be able to choose their own user names, state-run Xinhua news agency cited an unidentified government spokesman with the Beijing Internet Information Office as saying. Hong Kong media said the cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou were likely to follow suit. “Not only will this not affect the development of microblogs, it will help such sites build their brands and improve their service,” the government spokesman told Xinhua. [Source: Reuters, December 19, 2011]
Wang Junxiu, an Internet commentator and investor in Beijing, said the new policy would be difficult to implement — the rules give no details on how they will be enforced — but nonetheless would have a chilling effect. “I don’t know how they’re going to implement this because there are already hundreds of millions of users on microblogs,” said Mr. Wang, who studies microblog developments. “How do you go about checking them one by one? It will be very hard to enforce, but it still means that the intensity of controls will grow.”
Peng Shaobin, general manager of Sina’s microblog service department, told Xinhua that the company had been trying hard to “stop the spread of false information” on microblogs. “We support the regulations,” Mr. Peng said.China already blocks foreign social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, fearing the uncensored sharing of images and information could cause instability and harm national security.
Chinese microbloggers were quick to share their dismay at the new rules. “This is a covert way of monitoring what people say and to control public opinion!” complained a user with the screen name of “huitailang.” “But think about it another way — if the subjects of heaven are full of complaints, that’s bad for social harmony and for our emperors.”
Woman Sent to Labor Camp for Microblog Message
In November 2010, A Chinese woman was sentenced to one year in a labor camp after she forwarded a satirical microblog message that urged recipients to attack the Japanese Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “The woman, Cheng Jianping, 46, was accused of “disturbing social order” for resending a Twitter message from her fiancé that mocked young nationalists who held anti-Japanese rallies in several cities in October 2010. The original message sarcastically goaded protesters to go beyond the smashing of Japanese products and express their fury at the heavily policed expo site. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Timesm November 18, 2010]
Ms. Cheng added the words: “Charge, angry youth.” Ms. Cheng was seized in October 2011 in the southeastern city of Wuxi on the same day as her fiancé, Hua Chunhui. Mr. Hua, who was released five days later, told reporters the two had planned to marry on the day of their detention.
Under China’s legal system, the police can send people to so-called re-education through labor for up to four years without trial. The system, thought to accommodate as many as 300,000 detainees, has been criticized by legal reformers who say it is easily abused. Such labor centers are largely populated by pickpockets, drug users and prostitutes, but are also used as a punishment for those guilty of political offenses. Once sentenced, people have little chance of appeal.
In 2013, Reuters reported: In a modern office building on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo. The people behind the censorship of China's most popular microblogging site are not ageing Communist Party apparatchiks. Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay. "People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job," one former censor, who left job because he felt the career prospects were poor, told Reuters. "One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little." [Source: Li Hui and Megha Rajagopalan, Reuters, September 11, 2013]
“Reuters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin one recent weekend morning. A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors from a publicly accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors. They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother. "Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It's not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent," said a second former censor.
“The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about 150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material. The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and on the Internet.
“Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many took the job after graduating from local universities. "People leave because it's a stressful dead-end job for most of us," said a third former censor.
“Sina's computer system scans each microblog before they are published. Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average 24-hour period, censors process about 3 million posts. A small number of posts with so-called "must kill" words such as references to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong are first blocked and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers use to evade scrutiny. “If a sensitive post gets missed and spreads widely, government agencies can put pressure on Sina Corp to remove the post and occasionally punish the censor responsible with fines or dismissal, the former censors said.
“For most posts deemed sensitive, censors often use a subtle tactic in which a published comment remains visible to its author but is blocked for others, leaving the blogger unaware his post has effectively been taken down, the former censors said. Censors can also punish users by temporarily blocking their ability to make comments or shutting their accounts in extreme cases. "We saw a fairly sophisticated system, where human power is amplified by computer automation, that is capable of removing sensitive posts within minutes," said Jedidiah Crandall of the University of New Mexico, part of a team which did recent research on the speed of Weibo censorship.
“On an average day, about 40 censors work 12-hour shifts. Each worker must sift through at least 3,000 posts an hour, the former censors said. The busiest times are during sensitive anniversaries such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters which took place on June 4, 1989, and major political events. The censors shifted into high gear during the downfall in 2012 of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai. “"It was really stressful, about 100 people worked non-stop for 24 hours," the first censor said, referring to when Bo was stripped of his posts and later expelled from the Party.
Evading Weibo Censors
Michael Wines and Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “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. [Source: Michael Wines and Sharon Lafraniere , New York Times, July 28, 2011]
“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.”
Peter Shadbolt of CNN reported: Type the words "Egypt," "Tiananmen" or "June 4th, 1989" into any of China's microblogging sites and the search will return this message: "According to relevant law and regulations, the results are not displayed." But type in "8x8" — shorthand for 64, in turn shorthand for 6/4 or June 4th; the date of the Tiananmen crackdown — and you may catch some lively and surprisingly open exchanges on the social networking sites. [Source: Peter Shadbolt, CNN, February 20 2011]
References to "the Pharaoh nation" instead of Egypt, misspelling democracy as "democrasy" or "democrazy" or even scanning written comment and posting it as an image are just some of the ways microbloggers cheat the bots that seize on keywords and bring them to the attention of censors employed at social networking sites such as Renren and Sina Weibo.
Others use a mixture of street slang or dip in and out of one or more of China's 45 regional dialects to disguise comment. Others still are either past caring whether their comments are detected or like to test their nerves and those of the censors.
"We could have done it [overthrown the government] 22 years ago, but in the end we failed," laments one microblogger from Guangzhou on Sina Weibo, comparing Egypt with the Tiananmen protests of 1989. "Now we can only dryly witness another's happiness and project our dreams on it, imagining it." Later the microblogger retweets. "Even though he [former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak] was forced to resign, he still deserves some respect. Here [China], nothing ends without the use of force or bloodshed." Microblogging has exploded in China, presenting a serious pressure point to a government that has built an industry around restricting comment.
Decline of Weibos
From 2009 to 2013, Weibo was the most popular forum in China. But in 2013 in an attempt to quiet public debate, the government cracked down on some of the forum’s most prominent verified commentators, nicknamed the Big Vs, accusing microbloggers of spreading false statements and detaining them.“This prompted some Weibo users to leave the site. At the same time, Weixin was quickly gaining popularity as free alternative to text messaging. [Source: Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, December 21, 2014]
Statistics from January, 2014, showed that the number of Weibo users in 2013 declined by 27,830,000 in 2013 compared to the number of users at the end of 2012, and the level of activity had also plummeted. It is reported that 80 percent of the 500 million Weibo users have hardly ever logged in. The number of daily active users has fallen from 60 million in mid-2013 to 25 million in the beginning of June, 2014. While we cannot verify these numbers for the time being, published statistics have sufficiently shown that the popularity of Weibo has been declining since 2013. [Source: Long Cheng, pao-pao.net]
“Some people think the fall of Weibo is due to companies failing to find the right business model, and others believe that the rise of WeChat drew users away from Weibo. Still others are of the opinion that excessive advertisements, marketing accounts and “chicken-soup” postings diluted valuable information.
On why are users abandoned Weibo in 2013 and 2014, Matt Schiavenza wrote in The Daily Beast: “In 2013, the first year of Xi Jinping’s administration, the Communist Partyengineered a crackdown on SinaWeibo’s “Big V” users — those with “verified” accounts and millions of followers. And as Weibo’s membership exceeded 500 million, hundreds of popular users were detained on account of “spreading rumors.” One, an investor and U.S. citizen named Charles Xue who had achieved a wide following on Weibo, was accused of soliciting prostitution. His forced confession http://www.techinasia.com/charles-xues-confession-disaster-chinas-web/, televised throughout China, sent a chilling message: Become popular online at your own risk. Some users got the message. One, nicknamed smallspearv, told the BBC [Source: Matt Schiavenza, The Daily Beast, January 25, 2014]
Decline of Weibos and the Rise of WeChat
By 2014, Weixin (WeChat) was the most popular forum in China. When the Chinese government cracked down on Weibos, Tencent upped the ante on Weixin so did a lot of things that Weibos did plus a lot more, and it took up the slack and more after Weibo declined. In 2014, China-based Weixin and its international version WeChat together had 468 million active users. Weibo had 167 million active users. “I’ve been here four years. In that time I’m now on the third dominant social network — first it was Renren, then Weibo and now it’s WeChat,” Chris Jones, the executive creative director at the ad agency Wunderman in China, told the New York Times.
Matt Schiavenza wrote in The Daily Beast:“Since its creation in 2011, WeChat, an application developed by Sina’s rival Tencent, has replaced Weibo as China’s go-to web service , and has — if the China Internet Network Information Center’s numbers are accurate — siphoned off 34 percent of Weibo’slost users. The two services are not identical: Weibo essentially functions like Twitter, while WeChat is like a combination of What’sApp, Instagram, and Skype. Nevertheless, WeChat has emerged as the hotter product in a China where obtaining a wide following online has lost much of its appeal. As Charlie Custer, a journalist who writes about Chinese technology at Games in Asia http://www.gamesinasia.com/ writes, “Weibo is a publishing platform, in essence, and WeChat is a chat platform. One is for talking to the world, the other is for talking to your friends." [Source: Matt Schiavenza, The Daily Beast, January 25, 2014]
“WeChat’s other advantage is even more basic. According to Xinhua, 70 percent of China’s new Internet users use cell phones to go online, a market that cheapsmart-phone manufacturers like Xiaomi has come to dominate. And WeChat — with its wide range of services and simple, intuitive interface, has become an essential app for these newly wired millions. “The circles formed on Wechat are smaller and more intimate, and are mostly among friends and acquaintances,” says Helen Gao, a writer and Beijing native. “It allows you to message them, follow their activities, and speak to them more easily than Weibo does.”
Weibo IPO, Survival and Growth
In April 2014, Weibo went public on the Nasdaq under the symbol "WB" and opened just below the expected $17 price. Underwriters for the initial public offering (IPO) included Goldman Sachs. At the $17 a share Weibo was valued at $3.46 billion. The company that controlled Weibo — Web portal firm Sina sold 16.8 million American depositary shares at $17 each, raising about $286 million, Reuters reported. This figure was less than the planned 20 million ADSs priced between $17 and $19 each. [Source: CNBC.com, Reuters, April 17, 2014]
Reuters reported: “Although Weibo may have waned slightly with the growth of Tencent's WeChat messaging app and other mobile services, the company believes that the dilution of the mobile Internet market is natural. Weibo's Chairman Charles Chao said before the IPO that there is a potential for 1 billion mobile Internet users in China. Weibo had 25 percent of the approximately 300 million monthly active users on mobile Internet in 2014, Chao said. "So there's a lot of room to grow basically." The company's revenue almost tripled to $188.3 million in 2013, while net loss narrowed to $38.1 million from $102.5 million, Reuters said.
Although Weibo and Sina weren’t the dominant force they once were, they survived and found ways to make money. Forbes reported in 2017: “Sina’s advertising revenues were up by 17 percent to $871 million through 2016, while non-advertising revenues were up 15 percent to $160 million. Within the advertising segment, Weibo has been instrumental in driving growth for the company, while portal advertising revenues on Sina’s platforms struggled. Weibo’s net revenues were up by 36 percent year on year to $652 million, while portal advertising revenues (generated from online brand advertising on Sina.com and Sina mobile properties) last year fell by around 11 percent year-over-year to $305 million. [Source: Forbes, May 12, 2017]
“A key reason for growth in Weibo revenues has been the number of active monthly users on Weibo’s social media platform. Weibo had over 313 million monthly active users (MAUs) in 2016 with almost 139 million daily active users (DAUs), up from 236 million MAUs and 106 million DAUs in 2016. As a result, Weibo has become a popular advertising space among digital brand advertisers in China. “Moreover, ad revenues from Weibo’s advertising segment have been boosted by a sizable contribution from small and medium enterprise customers. Sina launched self-service ads in late 2014 to further help SME accounts post more relevant ads. As a result, ad revenues from SME customers have contributed significantly to growth in ad revenues. This is likely to continue to drive ad revenue growth in the long run.
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 May 2022