Most foreign studies on Chinese microblogs probe patterns of censorship, paying scant attention to how state-society conflicts are neutralized by local governments or how changes are introduced into local governance itself.
In a recent article in China Information, we asked: “How does the Chinese government’s adoption of microblogs affect local governance and social contention it is tasked to manage?” We explored this question through an in-depth case study of a municipal government’s microblogs (or weibo in Chinese), arguing that official microblogs do not in the short run act as a battering ram to spearhead reforms or a virus bringing unexpected consequences. Instead, Chinese local government microblogs function largely as “beta-institutions” with the local governments experimenting with ways to interact and negotiate with their publics and service providers in an effort to improve social management and enhance their political legitimacy. Local governments are also evolving gradually from service providers to “service predictors,” with enhanced capabilities to deliver individualized services and institute state surveillance via commercial service providers.
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The Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) estimates that China had 278 million microbloggers at the end of last year. The first Chinese microblog service, Fanfou, started in 2007 but was banned in July 2009. However, the Sina Corporation managed to overcome regulatory hurdles and started to offer its own service Sina Weibo in August 2009. Following Sina, similar microblog platforms have been developed by Tencent, NetEase and Sohu. There is even one from the state media outlet People’s Daily, which is called the People’s Weibo. Quickly, weibo became the epicenter of China’s online public life, where corruption scandals were exposed and local grievances were aired.
Over time, the Chinese central government grew increasingly nervous about the political ramifications of Weibo. Indeed, in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, Wang Cheng, deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department, encouraged local propaganda units to “occupy weibo.” Taking their cue from above, local governments incorporated microblogs into their administrative operation as a form of “social management.” By August 2013, there were more than 176,000 official government microblog accounts across various platforms, according to the Chinese Academy of Governance E-government Research Center. Notably, more than one-third of government microblog accounts are maintained by public security agencies and officials. The second largest group of government microblogs are from administrative entities such as municipal governments (for instance “Beijing Announcements”). These accounts emphasize collecting information for decision-making, obtaining social news, interacting with users, promoting positive news, and maintaining social stability during crises.
Government Weibo as “Beta Institutions”
Official microblogging, we argue, is an extension of previous e-government efforts for managing social tensions and conflicts. In general, they are tasked with gauging and guiding public opinion, and providing efficient services to improve local governance and state legitimacy. Local units do so by being embedded in people’s everyday lives: providing local information, answering users’ questions, and engaging local residents. However, unlike regular institutions that come with clear guidelines, personnel and budgets, government weibos are “beta institutions,” which are semi-institutionalized practices intended for temporary use or experimentation, open to local interpretations and innovations. In fact, local Weibo accounts such as those from Beijing, Chengdu, Nanjing, and Shanghai vary considerably, reflecting unique administrative structures, local cultures, histories, and issues.
An official microblog involves much more than meets the eye. There are diverse and conflicting interests. Officials in charge of local e-government portals try to use their own microblogs to push for back-office integration across different agencies. The propaganda bureau, on the other hand, focuses on information provision and control, while line agencies (e.g. urban management bureau) are keen on integrating microblogs as another channel of communication with local residents.
The motivations for adopting government microblogs are just as varied. Our respondents cited three major reasons for the adoption of a microblog by their municipality: 1) perceived pressure from the public; 2) the need to monitor public opinion for social management, especially during a crisis; and 3) a belief in a service-oriented government. In general, municipalities regard microblogs as a powerful medium through which the public voice their opinions and monitor government work.
The municipal propaganda office we studied runs a highly successful government microblog attracting several million followers and averaging roughly 20 posts per day. It adopts a highly friendly tone and an efficient approach, promising to provide replies to user complaints within one hour during regular workdays. Its pages contain many useful tips (e.g. weather, transportation, health, food, and safety) and heart-warming human-interest stories. The office develops a “morning post and evening post” formula that greets local residents at the start and end of their workdays. Prior to the Spring Festival, the busiest time of year for travelling, it explains the classification system of China’s high-speed trains: “Train labels starting with ‘G’ or ‘C’ can travel at a speed of 300 km per hour; those with ‘D’ can reach a speed of 142; and those with ‘K’ can travel at 120. How fast is the train you usually take?” Overall, it is responsive, useful and humanizing.