The latest about microblogging (weibo) in China

China is a very exciting but contradictory place when it comes to the development and impact of ICT on society and the economy. Take for example the case of microblogs/weibo 微博. I recently wrote an article (in Swedish) entitled Public debates, activism and charity on microblogs/weibo in China” trying to summarise developments, profile of users, patterns of use, and how censorship works, so I will not go into much detail here, but just note a few things and recent developments. First of all, and in contrast to the case of Twitter (which is blocked in China), several Internet companies in China have launched their own and competing microblogging services, so we have a quite competitive market. Sina weibo is the largest and most popular. It recently claimed to have more than 400 million registered users, while Twitter in early 2012 reported some 500 million registered users worldwide. These are interesting and telling figures which shows the great appeal of weibo to Chinese Internet users.

Yu Jianrong is one of the most popular public intellectuals on weibo with around 1,5 million followers.

When I started to use weibo (if you want to follow me on weibo you find me at 史雯2010) in August 2010, it was still a quite new phenomenon with quite few users. Sina weibo only started in 2009 and by October 2010 it reportedly had 50 million users. The development since then has thus been dramatic. Now everybody seems to be on weibo: ordinary citizens, scholars, journalists, activists, film stars, companies, and, increasingly, also government institutions.

According to a report released in late November, 60.064 government bodies have now opened a Sina weibo account, whereas Tencent, the other major player, a couple of days later reported that 70.084 government bodies had opened a weibo account with them.  From the report on Sina weibo government users we see that Jiangsu province is the most active province, and that among all government bodies the police is the moist avid user. The whole report, in Chinese, can be downloaded here . Last year only 18.132 government bodies had weibo accounts. This shows that the Chinese state is increasingly regarding weibo as an important tool for governance and propaganda work. Whether it provides more accountability and transparency, or rather serve to “guide” and control public opinion, is a question that we will come back to.

Journalists were among the first adopters of weibo and they are also among the most avid and influential users. Social media has created new possibilities but also challenges for journalism and the Chinese media. I have been following this development for some time in another research project. In March I made a presentation on journalists’ use of weibo at an event organized by the British Academy and I will come back to this particular topic in a later blog post.

Weibo has certainly become an important space for sharing information and news, engaging in public debates, networking, PR and marketing, contentious politics, and propaganda, something that our project will follow and study. However, to what extent it provides a real public sphere and equal space for all, given its fragmented nature and the existence of censorship, and the way off-line inequalities are replicated on-line, and also bearing in mind the larger issue of socio-economic and digital divides in society, was some of the questions that the Chinese blogger Michael Anti, Professor Christian Christensen , Uppsala University, and myself debated at an event in Stockholm in March this year. Those who want to listen in at this debate can watch the video recording

Even the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, when he visited China last week, went on weibo for a Q&A with Chinese users on issues related to social and political developments in Sweden. He got more than 200 questions, but how many questions that might have been censored are anybody’s guess. See report on Swedish TV and the conversation in Chinese on Sina weibo.

For those who don’t know Chinese but are curious to know what is happening on weibo and on the Chinese Internet more generally, and it is quite a lot, I would recommend TeaLeafNation and China Digital Times.

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