How Weibo Is Changing Local Governance in China

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How Weibo Is Changing Local Governance in China

While most studies of Chinese social media focus on censorship, Weibo is helping to improve local governance in China.

How Weibo Is Changing Local Governance in China
Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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.

“Occupy Weibo”

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.

From Service Provision to “Service Prediction”

In addition to service provision, a new trend in the development of government microblogs is a subtle move toward service predictions and government surveillance. Digital representations of governments and citizens now serve as “data doubles” on behalf of their physical, offline bodies. Traces of online interactions can be captured by the state actor that offers services or a commercial agent that enters into a complex relationship with the government institutions tasked to regulate the commercial platform. As suggested by David Lyon, a “function creep” – the gradual widening of the use of a technology or system beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended – can easily turn the function of ex post service provision into ex ante service prediction or surveillance.

Analysis of huge amounts of data generated by users of government microblogs could allow for individualized services as well as government surveillance by predicting citizen needs. The municipal microblog managers we talked to clearly saw it on the horizon: “When a person conducts business or interacts with government, it produces related data. This will cumulate and can be stored in one archive. Let us say you got married, well then I might recommend to you that you apply for a birth permit, as you would be prepared to have a child, right?” Such potential uses of microblog data for service prediction, based on our interviews with local government microblog managers, are being praised by Chinese academics and administrators in the name of “smart government,” while the myriad unanticipated surveillance consequences were not a major concern.

Negotiating with Commercial Service Providers

The original intent of the municipal government we studied was to create a government-run microblog platform besides the commercial ones. The idea was eventually abandoned in favor of operating on the two dominant commercial microblog service providers in China, namely Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo. The advantage of this approach is obvious: namely, a potential increase in efficiency and a new government communication channel with a large user population without expending resources on hardware and software. However, depending on commercial providers limits government control over user data that is being more efficiently archived, mined and analyzed by commercial service providers.

The municipal government examined in our study did not have any privileged access to user data. Nor does it have any formal means to demand access to user data under the current legal system. In addition, government microblogs are authenticated by private microblogging service providers, whereas previously citizen interactions with local governments occur mostly on e-government sites. This marks a shift towards a larger role for commercial actors in local governance and opens up the possibility of “shared” governance. However, microblog service providers could potentially be required to supply government entities with raw user data and other privileges on their platforms. Historically, the Chinese central government wields more power in regulating the Chinese Internet as well as commercial entities as it sees fit, usually in the name of public safety and security.

Social Management and Authoritarian Resilience

From fax machines to emails, online forums, blogs, search engines, and microblogs, the CCP seems to have weathered and withstood waves of information technology transformations. The state has grown more adept at promoting social stability, social management and its own legitimacy. Our study suggests the impact of microblogging on local governance will be mediated and moderated to reinforce the existing power arrangement, despite the challenges it poses to local governments and the public pressure they feel.

When assessing the potential impact of Chinese government microblogs in the long run, a pertinent question is whether such beta institutions become mechanisms for change. On this very issue, one of the microblog managers we interviewed remarked: “I believe that if microblogs can maintain popularity over a relatively long period of time, more organizations will build working mechanisms, working methods, and start thinking about working in a new way related to microblogs.”

One also needs to keep in mind that besides administrative efforts to integrate microblogs into the day-to-day operation of government units, the environment in which weibo exists has changed. Legislation (namely, the Real Name Registration Policy) was passed to regulate weibo. Microblogging celebrities like Charles Xue have also been intimidated. All this produced a chilling effect on public discourse, exacerbated in part by the migration of weibo users to Tencent’s Weixin (or WeChat, a popular messaging mobile app based on users’ smaller circles of friends). However, Weibo continues to be used for public issues and debates as well as interactions with local municipalities.

While research on Chinese state–netizen relations tends to emphasize confrontation, the more mundane and conciliatory use of social media by local governments in Chinese Internet users everyday life should not be downplayed or trivialized. An overarching “confrontational” framework tends to overlook real, prolonged possibilities of authoritarian resilience.

Min Jiang is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UNC Charlotte, and Research Affiliate at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She can be found on Twitter @mindyjiang. Jesper Schlæger is Associate Professor at the School of Public Administration at Sichuan University, as well as Associate Researcher at the NIAS Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. They are the authors of, “Official Microblogging and Social Managment by Local Governments in China,” which appeared in the most recent issue of China Information.