Joining Kaiser and Jeremy this week are David Wertime and Rachel Lu from Tea Leaf Nation, along with Paul Mozur from The Wall Street Journal. And our topic? None other than the firestorm that has engulfed Sina Weibo following China's effective criminalization of anti-government tweeting on September 9th, and then the political crackdown that followed this week targeting the more rabble-rousing of celebrity microbloggers on China's most popular public messaging service.

At the heart of this crackdown lie the fates not only of some of China's most prominent tech companies, but also the degree of editorial independence of some of the most-followed and influential non-Party businessmen, celebrities and intellectuals in China. In addition to discussing this, we also ask whether Sino Weibo will continue to be popular under this sort of chilling effect, and to what extent evidence shows that online discussions are already migrating away from the web towards popular mobile services like Weixin (WeChat) with stronger limits on public broadcasting.

Enjoy Sinica but hate our in-site audio player. Please note that this show is - like all Sinica shows - available as a standalone mp3 file. Please feel free to download it and share with friends.
 said on
September 21, 2013
Can you share the recommendation links, please?
 said on
September 21, 2013
The best Sinica podcast yet. Guests and hosts are pretty much equally expert in the field, and this is a subject about which each participant has a lot of insight and feels quite passionate.

So many things I wanted to scream at my smartphone while I listened, but I'll limit my comments to the main perspective I feel is always missing in our Western coverage of Weibo.

As Westerners we are accustomed to viewing China from a highly politicized perspective. This is especially true when it comes to Weibo -- we see it primarily as a political force.

In the description of who we mean by "Big V", all of the examples provided were users that post heavily on political issues. The only exception was the actress Yao Chen who was described as "also occasionally willing to say something political".

From a wider perspective, "Big V" should refer simply to verified (V) account holders with huge numbers of followers. If you look at the list of the top 10 verified Weibo accounts (in terms of number of followers), of the examples given in the podcast only Li Kaifu (#3) and Yao Chen (#5) even make the list.

So what about the others? Expanding even to the top 100 verified Weibo accounts, the list is overwhelmingly dominated by entertainers and celebrities who rarely if ever involve themselves in political discussion. (In that sense, howiesnyder's comment is pretty accurate.)

Some of the "Big V" examples mentioned in the podcast were people with relatively few followers but who have been in the news lately for being detained for political reasons. (Hua Zong, for example, has 272,000 followers which doesn't even qualify for the Top 2000 list, the point at which the "Top" list ends.)

I'm not trying to belittle the work of these dissidents and political activists. The individuals mentioned are brave people doing amazing things. But I think we should recognize that our discussion of Big Vs on Weibo is ONLY referring to political opinion leaders on Weibo, not just influential Weibo accounts in general.

Even that's not entirely accurate. Hu Xijin would be considered a "political opinion leader" yet we wouldn't usually be considered a "Big V" (despite his 4 million followers) because he works for the Chinese state. So I would have to say that the definition of "Big V" as far as this podcast and most media discussion is concerned, is limited to a discussion of the small number of influential micro-bloggers who discuss political issues from a perspective that is independent of the Chinese state. These people, after all, are the target of the crackdown.

I think this is an important point if we are to truly understand the Internet in China. The vast majority of social media users in China are non-political, or shall we say de-politicized. The main interest for the vast majority of users is to follow celebrities and socialize with friends. In this sense they are little different from social media users the world over. Yet our discussion of Weibo only ever focuses on that small minority that are politically active.

In the three years I've been on Weibo, I have been a front-row witness to the Weibo boom and subsequent decline as users increasingly migrate to WeChat. In talking with friends, fans and acquaintances, the main reason people give is that Weibo is too depressing and the online discussion is too angry. It's still a great place to follow celebrities, but most users are frankly not that interested in the debate over constitutionalism or the endless exposition of social evils and corruption. Political junkies love that stuff, can't get enough, but ordinary grassroots Weibo users gradually tune out. It's depressing and they feel it's irrelevant to their daily lives.

This is what I feel is missing from the Western discussion of Weibo, whether in this podcast or on sites like Tea Leaf Nation in general. We only ever discuss the political slice of the big pie, and then only from the perspective of activists who are (to say the least) out of favor with the Chinese state. This only helps reinforce the perception that Weibo is all about the people vs. the state, to repeat the grossly-overused analogy: a cat and mouse game. It's a very limited and facile view that distorts our Western understanding of social media in China.

I know this will be slammed by political crusaders and the like. Very politically incorrect of me. But I'm not justifying the recent political crackdown. There should be limits placed on free speech, safeguards against libel and hate speech etc., just as there are in the West, but criminal charges simply for passing along "rumors" is wrong. I'm just saying that our discussion and analysis of Weibo only goes as far as it is related to political dissent, which is a very limited perspective, and always stops there. Sure, political dissent is always newsworthy, but what about the rest of the picture?
 said on
September 21, 2013
For once, 大山, I don't hate you for being on TV. :-p You have totally earned my respect. May the Gods speed our making acquaintances one day soon.
 said on
September 22, 2013
Dashan touches on a very important point. this specific topic notwithstanding, the narrow perspective, relic of the Cold War, is the reason in general why the west has consistently underestimated the longevity of the CCP lead state and its ability to adapt to change; and the same reason that lead to the west supporting many many silly causes and dubious individuals just because they are perceived to be 'political' and anti CCP. at the very least, understand that your enemy's enemy is not always your friend. just because the CCP is against something doesn't mean it is good. rumour mongering (more usually commercial), fraud, blackmail etc. plague the Chinese internet. time for clean up for sure. of course the new re twitting law is blatantly a catch all for suppressing political dissent and it is wrong. but in any case, am afraid the narrow perspective problem would persist, especially in western mainstream thinking. so the CCP lead state would continue to surprise and defy expectations. and the west would continue to feel wrong footed and unsettled by China.
 said on
September 23, 2013


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