Over the past several weeks national sentiments in China and Japan have been enflamed by activists from both countries landing on disputed islands in the East China Sea. As this battle has raged, a separate one has been held on the Chinese microblog site Weibo, which boasts more than 300 million users.
A local government-controlled Chinese newspaper ran a story with a photo depicting the activists planting three Chinese flags on the desolate island. In reality, one of the three flags wasn’t the People’s Republic of China, but rather the Taiwanese flag. The Chinese newspaper redesigned the original photo in order to make it fit the nationalistic line. The little trick was discovered, however, by Chinese netizens who exposed the doctored photo thousands of times on Weibo. After hours of ridicule, the newspaper ended up running an excuse on its own Weibo account.
As this case demonstrates, truth-searching Chinese netizens have made classic propaganda more difficult for Chinese authorities.
Weibo has also become a platform for questioning government policies. Officially, China remains adamant on refusing any international intervention in the on-going conflict in Syria; the Chinese public is able to express different views through Weibo. As one Weibo user commented when China vetoed a UN sanctions bill, “I don’t understand why our country made such a decision as the Syrian government is slaughtering its people. We should step in.” Likewise, polls on Weibo show that a majority of netizens are sceptical of the Chinese government’s restrained policy on Syria.
Correspondingly, Weibo has opened up a new space for foreigners to interact more directly with the Chinese people, making it a new tool of diplomacy as well. With more than 300 million users and still growing, it is the largest linguistically homogenous public sphere with peer-to-peer communication. Numerous foreign governments have opened up embassy-weibos to take advantage of what’s been dubbed as ‘Wei-plomacy.’
Yet embassy posts can still be deleted by the Chinese censors. The American embassy’s Weibo, one of the most active in promoting values, is carefully vetted. The Canadian embassy had its post on the Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing deleted, which contained the whole court proceedings with forthright evaluation of the Chinese legal system.
Thus, Weibo is still a public sphere full of restrictions. Just as on the Chinese version of the internet enclosed behind the Great Firewall, searching for words deemed sensitive such as Ai Weiwei or Liu Xiaobo are equally censored. Posts are deleted, and personal accounts go down – and up. One controversial netizen, Yu Nan has used Weibo to try and run as an independent political candidate has had to continue reopening new accounts in order to evade censors.
But the Chinese government is adjusting not only to censoring Weibo but also as an active participant. Wei-governance was the buzzword of 2011. Government agencies as well as Chinese deputies now communicate on Weibo. The Beijing police also have over 3 million followers. Cai Qi, local communist grandee in Zheijiang, boasts more than a million followers and laid out the government’s strategy as ‘controlling Weibo while using it, and facilitating control by using it’.
It is clear Weibo is becoming a social force to be reckoned with. It has and will continue to increase public scrutiny while also at the same time forcing the central government to shape public opinion in subtle ways resembling Western spin-doctoring rather than the blunt propaganda of the media line run by the state-driven press.
Diplomats are right to join in that conversation. Still, Weibo remains a far cry from the unhindered free communication space envisioned by Habermas. Embassies shouldn’t accept self-censorship by only posting innocuous tweet that can pass through the censors. Instead they should give the full spectrum of views including on values – even if it means more deleted postings. As an example, Chinese citizens should be informed about the human rights dialogue that foreign governments like the EU and the U.S. hold with the Chinese government so they can have their say on the issue as well.
Otherwise, by engaging in Wei-diplomacy, as one Chinese activist told me, foreign embassies also accept the sliding slope of red lines and self-censorship inside the Chinese system. “If you want to know the truth, you better jump the Wall,” he remarked in order to suggest that it is better stay on Twitter, which isn’t subject to Chinese government regulations.
Jonas Parello-Plesner is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.