Already exceeding 200 million users, an impressive number even when considering the immense internet population size, the Chinese weibo-microblogs format has become a channel for spontaneous expression and platform which is regarded by Chinese media and government with respect, as the leadership allows netizens to express themselves quite freely, while attempting to broaden its self legitimacy through the weibo.
Twitter didn't manage to pass the Chinese wall, but local alternatives have proven to be good enough for Chinese who wish to share their opinions or to pass on certain messages. The term Weibo 微薄, micro-blog, is often used by netizens and media as a general term for every internet platform that allows users to post status updates, which their online 'friends' are exposed to, such as local social networks Renren 人人网 and Kaixin 开心, instant messaging platform QQ (which also provides some social networks services). Still the synonym for Weibo in China is the Sina.com service, which is the most resembling Twitter-twin.
The Sina portal exists for about 13 years already, though the Weibo service is much more recent, and is still on the steep popularity rise. The Sina Weibo service by itself is estimated to be worth around $5 billion by analysts. A Sina micro-blog post is limited to a length of 140 words, though unlike Twitter, Sina Weibo allows users to upload photos or relevant files.
The Sina Weibo service (新浪微博, weibo.com) seems to be the fastest way to distribute direct messages or to respond to current affairs. Lately the micro-blogs seem to serve a double role for the Chinese media: Controversial posts by known figures become new hot stories (for example see our stories about Lu Liping's comments against homosexuals, Gao Xiaosong remarks on the Xi'an music academy), while every big news event is reported with the extra volume of netizens' comments, usually in their most direct, spontaneous, amusing or furious manner.
The question of censorship is naturally expressed by foreign spectators when they witness this growing phenomenon. Concerning this, the fact that the networks used are Chinese and not an international is already enough to allow the government to be more at ease. Weibo is subject to censorship, but it is evident that Weibo posts do express a wider range of insights compared to opinions found in newspaper columns. After the Wenzhou train accident on July 23rd, numerous angry posts were expressed, not skipping direct criticism regarding governmental corruption. In such national disaster, perhaps allowing free emotional expression was considered to be the wise compassionate governmental approach (though it is worth mentioning that criticism against official corruption isn't one of the most 'taboo topics', as seen by the Chinese government).
While Weibo posts once published are exposed to numerous users, the Chinese media, when reporting what 'the public thinks', can make some adjustments according to the posts which reflect the main theme it wishes to emphasize (a manner which I believe western media groups also exercise often). Still, this media also wishes to attract readers and even arouse some controversy, so unless fierce violations of 'thinking norms' are taking place, angry Weibo notes also tend to reach the readers. In other occasions, the Chinese media can refer to some controversial posts, criticizing them and 'inviting' additional readers to attack them as well. Clearly, not all items are so heavy and emotional, and Weibo posts are often used as an amusing touch when reporting about lighter incidents.
The Chinese government doesn't wish to be left behind. While micro-blogs can be considered as a way to monitor for inappropriate expressions, it is mainly the case of the government understanding that some freedom of expression must be provided and this rich forest of 'twitting' birds cannot be completely supervised. More and more officials are opening Weibo accounts, trying to find direct ways to reach the public and gain legitimacy through this new channel. Several cadres have opened Weibo accounts during the last 'double conference' (两会, a conference of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), held annually) and tried to involve some netizens in the political loop.
An article by Tang Weihong in the government-run People's Daily (人民日报), August 3rd (read here), addresses this topic and the adaptation process politicians are trying to undergo. The long speeches, which often include empty clichés, might work good for the 7 o'clock CCTV news, but Weibo requires a completely different style of communication. More direct and compassionate, using simple words and showing understanding of the popular sphere - These are all attributes that Tang sees as obstacles in the adoption of Weibo by officials, which leads most of them to still avoid this domain and thus avoid possible embarrassment.
It is intriguing to see how Weibo has, within two years, become a phenomenon that ordinary people and Chinese media cannot disregard. Perhaps the fact it is a version of a Western invention combined with the fact that China isn't a democratic country, that allows people to experience Weibo as a field full of exciting potentials. It will be interesting to watch if the government and media could learn to use it for better self-legitimacy, while keeping the current Weibo users feeling satisfied and liberated.