Weibo, China and Japan
Image Credit: Kai Hendry

Weibo, China and Japan


Social media offers a powerful platform for building mutual trust and understanding in Asia. And, used effectively, it could help change Japan’s image for the better among Chinese.

Social networking sites have really taken off in China since 2009. More than 200 million Chinese now use Weibo (Chinese equivalent to Twitter) to discuss politics and news. They spend hours each day discussing issues, asking questions and responding to suggestions from other users over Weibo. This dizzying expansion has challenged China’s political and propaganda establishment. Embedded as they are in China’s diversified media environment, alternative media sources beyond the Chinese Communist Party’s control can’t fully determine Chinese views of Japan. They can, however, help the people of China to get to know more about Japan and acquire a more complete picture. 

In the past, Chinese could only receive filtered information, ranging from anti-Japanese dramas based on World War II and textbooks emphasizing the Nanjing massacre and Japanese invasions, to hawkish news reports on territorial disputes. Nowadays, though, internet technologies permit more diversified voices to be heard, spread, and circulated instantly via social networks.

During the East Japan Great Earthquake in March, social media platforms such as Weibo demonstrably contributed to shifting views in China, with two important elements standing out. First, social media acted as a news aggregator and distributor. Microblog authors aggregated pictures, synthesized news and analysis from traditional news channels and proposed discussions based on them. Some professional journalists updated their microblogs more frequently than their traditional media columns because of the faster circulation speed and relative freedom of speech offered by the blogs. At the same time, social media pushed stories to a larger audience.

Second, social media provided a platform from which ordinary people could express opinions to a broad audience – something that had not been possible in China. For example, one Weibo post reported on an initial feeling of happiness that Japan had suffered an earthquake, but he later revised this opinion. After seeing the disastrous pictures and news reports, the writer commented that he now felt sorry for Japan because he could see that the Japanese are also human beings.

In one online poll, 23,029 people expressed their condolences, sympathy, and support for Japan. Only 2,391 people chose to respond to a provocative online poll that asked whether respondents were happy about the earthquake in Japan. Of these, only 10 percent (260) said ‘yes.’ In addition, a number of micro bloggers were impressed by how the Japanese coped with disaster. They were not only amazed by the Japanese ability to withstand the disaster with their wits largely in check, but also that the infrastructure stood up relatively well to the earthquake and tsunami.  The author of another post commented that he had always been curious how Japan developed such an orderly society, and he hoped China would one day develop into such a place.

Overseas Chinese, especially those based in Japan, also joined the conversation, using the platform to describe their personal experiences during the earthquake. These first hand accounts by fellow Chinese provided those in China with a picture that proved to be more vivid and convincing than reports provided through the CCP. One blogger described the change of heart he had experienced upon his arrival in Japan: while he had been fenqing (angry) in the past, he soon realized how one-sided his views had been, and that Japan had many admirable attributes that China could learn from.

Criticisms of China – made by Chinese citizens, from the safety of their computer screens – went deeper, with some netizens arguing that an equivalent 9.0 earthquake in China would result in many more casualties, due to the poor infrastructure in the country. Such criticism makes the Chinese government nervous. While such posts soon disappear at the hands of censors, they have by then already had an impact. Posts questioning the infrastructure quality in China were deleted, but not before being circulated by millions of people and generating thousands of comments.

It’s too early to conclude that the Chinese public has changed its attitude toward Japan and is prepared to embrace its former enemy. Tensions and historic animosities run deep among the Chinese public, and will continue to spark online debates and emotional sentiments. Just last month, for example, a heated discussion took place among Chinese netizens about a stone monument erected for Japanese settlers who died during World War II in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. The monument’s erection provoked anger and disdain among Chinese netizens via online protest and petition, forcing local authorities to remove it.

Two important lessons can be learned from the above cases. First, Chinese attitudes toward Japan are multidimensional, not monolithic. In this sense, social media intensifies existing sentiments. Japan is perceived as a society with abundant wealth and advanced technology. Chinese have very strong views and are extremely sensitive to actions initiated by either Chinese or Japanese counterparts. 

Could people who love Japanese culture, especially animation and pop music, also be anti-Japan regarding historical issues?  It’s necessary to differentiate people’s evaluations of historic issues involving Japan from other issues. Thus the Japanese government should be cautious about actions that might boost anti-Japan sentiments (e.g. visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine).

Second, a more diversified media environment means CCP propaganda campaigns will become less effective. In the past, the CCP used nationalism to whip up popular sentiment and direct it at foreign targets. That’s much more difficult with the proliferation of social media since the Chinese people are more inclined to be critical of the CCP for its failure to address domestic issues.

The acquisition of a more holistic understanding about Japan – courtesy of social media – is the first step toward a better understanding of Japan.  Japanese netizens should contribute to this development by sharing information and insights about themselves and their country. This would be the first step toward an enduring improvement in the bilateral relationship.

Yang Yi is a Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.
October 24, 2011 at 09:59

I clearly see the pattern. But, I still hope that some of these bloggers are true patriots being mislead by their state propaganda. Otherwise, it is our common responsibility to systematically unmask the Agents Smith (cf The Matrix movie) propagating the lies of the state propaganda. And we have a beautiful tool for that: the uncensored Internet.

October 23, 2011 at 22:10

Nirvana, whatever said is not true, don’t you see the pattern from pro-CCP bloggers? It is done on purpose with the hope that anyone who is not following closely with what is happening around them would believe whatever they said.

October 23, 2011 at 15:23

How strange?

On the economy downturn, I Google as below and NOTHING came out in the first pages that corroborate your allegations.
“BBC report Greece economy “,
“BBC report China economy”,
“BBC report China economy downturn”,

As for the coverage of the Wall Street Protest movement by the US TV media, below is a sample. This is a shortlist to show that I can get a full spectrum of diverse opinions. (MSNBC – NYPD brutality) (MSNBC – What is the message) (MSNBC Senator Sanders Mad as Hell) (CNN with Roger Moore) (ABC News) (Fox News – mocking)

How strange that it took me only half an hour on the (uncensored) Internet to find such evidence that seems to disprove your allegations?

October 22, 2011 at 09:16

I watch CNN, BBC, CNBC i read the online editions of the New York Times, The Economist, Foreign Policy and The Diplomat. You need to go to youtube and compare the tone of the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all those other mentioned with that of the Russian Georgian war. You need to go back and look how long the Thahire square protests where covert and look how occupy wallstreet is covert. You need to pay more attention to the financial analysis of China where there is a constant reminder of it “imbalanced economy” and “unsustainable model” you never hear that about the US and EU economies, not even Greece.

October 22, 2011 at 04:54

Why VN is such a miserable country?

October 22, 2011 at 00:31

Cross-cultural communication is good, but I don’t believe this will really change anything. History, geography, current politics and the control the CCP has in China means that whatever happens, will probably not result from the input of the Chinese public (with the possible exception of nationalists).

October 21, 2011 at 15:08

What makes us believe that Bill is not Guo, Pradesh, Nguyen or Youri? What makes us believe that there is only one person behind Bill? What makes us believe that Bill is not “Agent Smith” as in The Matrix?

Welcome to the Internet world! A world where, if it is not censored, the power of the Many can defeat the most formidable state propaganda.

October 21, 2011 at 09:15

>> Why is there more reporting about the protests in Tahire square than Occupy Wallstreet ?
>> outrage about the Russian Georgian war but hardly anything about US and NATO wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or the bombings of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia ?
>> Why is there a constant focus on economic weakness and problems in China?
For my ignorance, can you substantiate any of these accusations? Which TV channels are you watching? Fox news?

October 21, 2011 at 07:48

The western governments doesn’t need to censor the media because the media is already in there pocket. Wars, domestic protests and real economic hardship are not shown in our media. Why is there more reporting about the protests in Tahire square than Occupy Wallstreet that now has spread to more than 20 cities in the US and beyond and all over the world ? Or why was there such an outrage about the Russian Georgian war when you hardly hear anything about US and NATO wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or the bombings of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia ? Or the antiwar protests that is happening across the US. Why is there a constant focus on economic weakness and problems in China when there is constant talk of “recovery” of our own economies when in reality the economy back home has worsend over the past 4 year’s when that of China has grown more than 40% ? The fact that George W. Bush on google is called “a miserable failure” is largely due to user generated content. In this aspect it is true that the west is better than China the fact that it doesn’t censor user generated content on the internet. But don’t count on the “mainstream media” for the truth about what is happening in the world or simply back home. Because they are now owned by large conglomerates that have wide economic and political interest in there own countries and across the world and don’t wants to upset those with there coverage of sensetive issues. And you’re assertion that the EU “forbids the progagation of racism and xenophobia on the Internet or other media” is news to me, with the exception of Germany that “censors” neo nazi propoganda in the rest of the EU you could post or say what ever you like when it comes to racism or propagating xenophobia.

October 20, 2011 at 18:45

Oh look, another non-Chinese trying to act hip and ironic. It’s the internet and you can be anyone you choose to be. Hick, you think I work for the Chinese government, what make me believe you do NOT work for the CIA?

October 20, 2011 at 16:31

That China censors the internet and the news in general is well-known. How it goes about it isn’t. Or at least it wasn’t until Mark Newham went to the heart of the Chinese propaganda machine to find out and report back in his hugely illuminating and highly entertaining book ‘Limp Pigs and the Five-Ring Circus’. Strongly recommended reading for anyone seeking the inside story on the lengths to which China will go to manipulate the news to its own advantage.

October 20, 2011 at 12:46

In European Union countries, there are laws forbiding the progagation of racism and xenophobia on the Internet or other media. European media, artists and politicans have been regularly condemned for infringing such laws. But there are no censorship on the Internet against the voice of the citizens rebutting their own government propaganda.
I remember 6 years ago, when you Google “miserable failure”, the first link you get is the biography of President G.W. Bush. At least Google was not censored or banned in the US for this. Last weeek, I just watched the former President Carter saying on the BBC that invading Iraq was a mistake. At least, he was not sent to house arrest and muzzled as Mr Zhao Ziyang. He has written 29 books and none of them has been banned.
While I agree that US and Western media are sometimes manipulated by their government, I don’t think that they are controlled by their government as in the case of China (and other authoritarian governments).

October 20, 2011 at 10:04

Not only the US. ANY state propaganda, focusing on the ones that are censoring the most, unmasking the ones that are manipulating nationalistic feelings.
Please join in!
Let’s use Righteousness to defeat violence.

October 20, 2011 at 08:28

This is great ! Now i wish to see something similar happen in America and Europe where the hatred of others especially muslims are just getting ridiculus. The media here ie the government is blaming all it’s problems on others rather than take it’s own responsibility. There are trying to blame the failures in Afghanistan on Pakistan, there blaming Iran for Iraq they blaming China for the economic crisis and they are blaming crime on foreigners. I wish more people in the west and around the world would use the internet to gain knowledge and a better understanding of the world. But sadly most people just use it for entertaiment purposes only.

Oro Invictus
October 20, 2011 at 00:11

I’m hoping, similar to what we see here with the Chinese and the Japanese, a more interconnected world will help reduce the plague of nationalism and xenophobia present in our world; not only will this reduce conflict, but it will increase the degree of egalitarianism in our societies by removing some of the traditional means by which socio-economic classes are formed and perpetuated. Similarly, it will also help remove the means by which governments like that of the PRC or the US can oppress and mislead their citizens; as knowledge and opinions are rapidly shared, the individuals of a group become a whole greater than the sum of its constituents, something too powerful and too adaptive for any government or similar authoritarian system to rule over with an iron fist.

Mind you, due to the baseness of some aspects of human nature, it would be extraordinarily naive to assume this or anything in the near future will result in anything approaching a truly united and equal humanity, but these sorts of signs are encouraging and provide a glimmer of hope.

October 19, 2011 at 23:52

I will gladly join in if you are referring to that bellicose propaganda spewed out by the US.

October 19, 2011 at 21:04

YYYES! Congratulations to the responsible patriotic Chinese. Please blog extensively. Together, we will defeat state propaganda.

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