Chinese society is being rapidly reshaped by microblogs and social media, and the government is being challenged to find a workable balance between allowing its 500+ million netizens to benefit from the cornucopia of information available on the internet and controlling information that it deems deleterious to the state. Unlike Twitter, China’s home-grown microblog Sina Weibo and various other platforms enable users to share more than just 140-character posts; photos and videos can be easily posted too, making this platform an extremely powerful medium for sharing information in real time.
Chinese consumers, who are some of the most tech-savvy in the world, are taking advantage of these channels to challenge the dominance of official state media, which have to adhere to the official line set by the Ministry of Publicity. Indeed, microblogging is triggering storms of growing strength in public opinion in China. With their ubiquitous smart phones or tablets in hand, ordinary Chinese citizens are now often the first to report on topics of public interest, long before the government has had a chance to determine its official position on the issue. Not surprisingly, the Chinese government is nervous about the unruly nature of microblogs and is taking steps to tighten control and increase oversight of these channels.
Indeed the Chinese government’s approach to microblogs and SNS platforms seems contradictory; simultaneously trying to both utilize and restrict these information channels. Several incidents this year, such as the Wenzhou train crash in July 2011, have demonstrated that the old way of “harmonizing” news and social opinion in China is increasingly ineffective.
But, while it would be easy to conclude from incidents like these that Chinese government officials are uncomfortable using social media, the fact is that more and more government departments are actually utilizing social media and Weibo platforms. Statistics released by the National Development and Reform Commission in October 2011 indicate that there are over 140,000 accounts set up by government departments and bureaucrats on Sina Weibo and more than 20,000 on Tencent’s microblogging platform, QQ. Some 100 ministers and provincial governors, over 300 bureau chiefs and director generals, and over 1,000 division directors now use microblogs.
Vice Minister Huang Ming of China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has stated he wants the department to use Weibo to “advance social management and enhance transparency, accountability, service and public communication”. Consequently, 5,000 Chinese policemen are publicizing official releases, promoting priority campaigns and personal feelings on microblogs.
But even as the MPS takes advantage of Weibo to get its message out to the public, steps are also being taken to tighten control over the internet. The Communist Party’s Central Committee, for its part, has called for an “Internet Management System” to regulate social networking and instant messaging systems and punish people who spread “harmful information.”
While these developments may seem incidental to companies or businesses operating in China, it is conceivable that a company might one day find itself being accused of using social media channels to spread harmful information simply because this term is so ill defined. While any company operating in China knows well to steer clear of politically sensitive subject matter, the goalposts for what is acceptable online are being continually moved.
Grace Chen brings to Ketchum over 12 years’ experience working at the forefront of China’s public diplomacy. She has profound knowledge of international communications at both a state level and public level. During her tenure with the Foreign Ministry of China, Grace has been posted to Thailand as the Press Attache of the Chinese Embassy in Bankok. She is now running Ketchum Beijing’s corporate practice. Her extensive experience includes public affairs, strategic planning, news analysis, media relations, online and influencers communications.