Social Media in China

In class this afternoon, we will have as our guest David Wertime, one of the founders of  Tea Leaf Nation, a website devoted to stories gleaned from Chinese social media. We will discuss social media and how it is developing in China. Developments in China’s social media have made the news of late, with the government censoring and deleting posts. Consider this essay by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. And check out this Foreign Policy article by new media expert Rebecca MacKinnon, author of a new book on the impact of the Internet on privacy and democracy, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

“Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state,” MacKinnon writes. “I call its new style of information-oriented governance ‘networked authoritarianism.’ Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing — at least sometimes — without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles.” She concludes: “A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference. These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China’s political future.”

UPDATE: This blog essay by The Economist‘s Gady Epstein follows how a tweet by a journalist may have sparked rumours of a coup in China.

Leave a comment


  1. I enjoyed our discussion with David Wertime, and social media is certainly a fascinating topic with a lot of potential.

    However, for all you pessimists out there who are feeling left out by all the cheeriness about the internet, here is a great talk by Morozov on the ‘Dark Side’ of the web:

    Yours truly,
    Devil’s Advocate

  2. I very much enjoyed out talk with David on Monday and in particular the issues surrounding censorship by the Chinease state and how that effects the end product. I still believe that despite the censorship of the Internet that exists in China it is a valuable tool that can be used to gain a glimpse into the mindset of ordinary Chinease but the question is how it will affect the domestic goverance of the PRC in the future. I would personally argue that the PRC will continue to be able to keep ahead of the curve as it were in regard to the internet as they have done thus far and will continue to allow increased access ti the Internet as it enables for not only western organisations such as the Tea Leaf Nation to get an idea of what the average citizen is thinking but also the Chinease state. This can be used as a valuable feedback tool for the CCP in regard to the success or failure of its policies on a local and national level


  3. Bonnie Chen

     /  29/04/2012

    I enjoyed the talk with David Wertime and I think he’s right that he provides a much softer alternative to the scandalous Chinasmack. One interesting thing to note about the internet in China is that in Guangzhou, the police have actually requested the help of netizens to tip them off for crimes they witness. Chinese netizens use the internet to combat their inability to freely protest. Even if the internet does have negative consequences, I think the internet has done more good than bad.

  4. Pernilla

     /  29/04/2012

    I found Wertime’s discussion facebook having become a new standard interesting and how the internet has become a new social area and an intergral part of our lives today. At the same time as the internet has provided new levels of liberalisation, freedom of expression, etc. it has also created a new form of marginalizing people and information. Marginalization occurs in the physical world because of lack of access to internet as well as within the cyberworld (e.g. websites or videos with most hits will continue to take up the most virtual space). According to the China Internet Network Information Center (2009), internet usage has increased in China but the rural to urban gap has widened. One of the reasons behind this is that the internet is mostly designed for urban netizens as well as the lacking infrastructure and economic resources in rural areas. This means that tremendous inequalities are not only intensified through geographical location of individuals but also in respects to acquired netizenship. Is it perhaps just a matter of time before internet access and knowledge will be available at a reasonable cost and level for all? Until that day though (if it ever were to come) we need to consider the negative aspects which internet access and knowledge creates and reach out for different ways toward empowerment.

  5. Daniel Walker

     /  04/05/2012

    I also enjoyed the discussion with David Wertime. It seems there’s more to social media in China than meets the eye. I was reading an article about some UNICEF programmes in India wherein they engage with communities to empower women and the underprivileged to participate and improve the education system. They have had a measure of success through these programmes. But it seems to me that the internet provides a more organic and less invasive means of empowerment in developing states. That’s not to discredit the hands-on work of INGOs—it’s just that social networks provide an opportunity for self-discovery and independence that INGOs might struggle to create.

  6. Stephanie

     /  04/05/2012

    I have a couple of things to say on this topic, which I find really, really fascinating. I am writing my term paper on the effects of the Internet on human rights, esp. in China, so I could bore you with that…but what I am really interested in is the (flawed!) way we use the Internet over here in the developed, democratic countries, especially the US [because it’s a) my home and b) an election year]. I found an article (link @ the bottom) regarding “How the Internet Fails Us,” but I would contest that it’s we who fail at using the Internet effectively, and it’s making us worse citizens and worse critical thinkers. The article states that the Internet degrades news to “machine-made” status, requiring citizens to be only passive observers, sponges. From what I see, and the discourse you hear in everyday life and on many major news networks (cough–Fox–cough) this is both true and dangerous. Because so many people use the Web, it has a bit of a monopoly on the information we ingest and subsequently use in our decision making. For something so biased and self-reinforcing, this is more that a little dangerous. What we “know” these days is not “the truth”–it is either the most extreme version of news, such as Obama and Romney’s biggest flaws and failures and lies; or, it is what we want to know, what we go and seek from sources that likely only perpetuate the bias we have or twist facts until they tell us what we want to hear. (I’m a perfect example–I got this article from Mother Jones, after all.) It seems me that this spells a slow death for our ability to think critically, and nowhere is this more evident the dark and endless depths of the Internet-commenting world–or, as I prefer to call it, hell. I have rarely–perhaps never–seen a productive, logical, and/or constructive argument take place any Internet-commenting realm of any website, though the wonderful possibility does exist. Rather, the most opinionated people spout their flagrant and often less-than-true opinions, and then leave them to fester and attract more illogical banter, with few people taking advantage of the oft-ignored opportunity for intelligent and logical debate. We’re just not doing this right… and this applies to the Internet on a whole. We’re* not using it to expand our minds and our opinions, to connect honestly and intellectually with people in ways never before possible, to further open our worlds….Why? Human nature? Do we just love the power or the feeling of being right too much? I’m not sure.

    *I know this by no means applies to everyone! Just making a gross generalization….plus, I’m from the US, so….

  7. Bonnie Chen

     /  12/05/2012

    In response to Stephanie…

    I just want to say that I agree the internet prevents people, especially in developed nations, to be less critical about the world around them. However, the internet has provided opportunities for us to be more daring and creative in the ways we live. I think YouTube and TED really show how the internet can reach out to a broad audience and expose people to new things, new information, and new ways of thinking.

  8. Jonathan M.

     /  20/05/2012

    Internet is here to stay. Although is true what Pernilla argues, concerning the Digital Divide, we need to consider that Internet as a big part of our lives is recent. This has led thereduction the prices of computers and internet acces, more importantly it has broaden its reach. I do think is a matter of time before it reaches all the citizens of a country. Is a reponsability and a duty of the governement to make sure this happens.

    Chinese citizens are definetely making good usage of the internet. Lacking a proper democratic platform, the net has come as a substitute (perhaps the only platform?) for citizens to share their concerns towards the government. As with the case of the train wreckage and the rumors about Bo, we can see how these topics are reaching the audiences at an incredibely fast pace. Even though the government is trying to ban and censor sensitive topics, we see that net users find creative ways to spread their messages. I dont think the government will be able to censor the topics, users will find the way to evade the filters.

    I find the tea leaf nation page a very interesting project, precisely because it opens up a “secret window” of the chinese lifestyle. Those interested in chinese politics and china in general will find a great deal of information and statistics, more important is the fact that it shows how chinese internet users feel towards their government.

    The fact that the chinese government tries to censor the contentof certain topics comes to me as no surprise. Censorship is found in most countries, (lets remember the SOPA proposition in the U.S.), but in the end, the voice of the citizens comes stronger than these measures.

    The internet, and more specifically the social media pages are a crucial part of our lives. They are shaping the way we allocate ourselves within the society-government structure. It can give us a more “personal” approach with our leades (i.e. tweeter of Obama) and provide us with another chanel for opinions.

    In Mexico for example, Twitter has served to inform drivers and pedestrians about shootings in the city, thus people will avoid these areas. However it has also been a source for rumors. For example somebody saying that there was a bomb in a kindergarden, which led to hundreds of parents to rush into the kindergardens to get their children.

    In the end this is a political tool that needs to be controlled but not restrained.

  9. The power of ambiguity of the Internet in authoritarian countries such as China is more of an advantage to government than a disadvantage. Certainly the internet has the power to spread unreliable information in democratic countries: In the US according to a poll by Gallup 16% think Obama is the antichrist! Whilst rumours can circulate quickly and become out of hand, for the most part the releasing of information is still greatly centralised. The Bo Xi Lai case is a classic example of this. Despite the continual flurry of rumours that surrounds his fate it is left to the CCP to either confirm or deny these rumours either directly or via government controlled news sources. Information on the Internet may not be trusted particularly in China, however these central news sources still have a great deal of power in directly the debates of public opinion. On Sina Weibo discussions are often centred around news pieces done on China Daily and Xinhua for example.

    Rather than being cyber optimist or pessimist, I think we should view the Internet via a cyber realist lens: Within a country the Internet is a reflection of society. Therefore whilst the Internet can help share ideas as Pernilla has pointed out it also lead to a fragmentation of ideas. In China this can lead to the reinforcement of ultranationalist sentiment or as Anderson has termed ‘Cybernationalism’. Thereby any potential discussion or indication of progressive views on the Chinese Internet needs to be put into the context of a nation where this is just one view on the spectrum that includes far more conservative perspectives.

  10. Paul Nagao

     /  27/05/2012

    In response to Stephanie and Josh’s post, I’d like to discuss an interesting point given by Alec Ross in his speech at HKU on social media platforms. One of his main assumptions in his speech was that the internet is a value-neutral technology that gives complete control to the users to shape their experience. I agree with this assertion, and I understand Stephanie’s concerns about the ‘information cocoon’. However, I believe that this is more due to the development of societal structures and norms, particularly with the way that social media platforms have been used to create political spaces. Certainly, there are more opinionated individuals who make comments that are not at all productive, but at the same time we see that social media platforms in China have allowed individuals to change the norms within the PRC, as seen in the high speed rail crash last year. I write this with caution since the effects social media have been both exaggerated and underestimated. Regardless of the competing views on social media, they should be seen as another tool for different actors on the domestic, international, and global level to influence their environment. Thus, my final point mirrors Josh’s, but from a different angle- the internet and social media has multiple uses, but it is ultimately up to the users to decide how to use this new tool in creating change or lasting impact on their surroundings.


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