Bo Xilai trial insight into Weibo and the changing face of Chinese media

Alexander Speirs speaks to Andrew Zhu, marketing lecturer and PhD Candidate at the University of Auckland specializing in Chinese social media, about the role of Weibo in a 21st Century Chinese Media landscape.

Social media in China has had an enigmatic history, with plenty of growing pains as the Chinese Administration comes to terms with the powerful 21st Century medium.

After blocking popular social media websites that have become synonymous with the Internet in the Western world – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – China’s social media ecosystem began to take shape in 2009 with the advent of Sina Weibo. Sina Weibo, popularly known solely as Weibo (Chinese for microblog), has exploded in China with a user base in excess of 500 million. It is presently ranked the 35th most popular website on the internet by Alexa. In contrast with other attempts at invigorating the Chinese social media space, Weibo was backed by a number of major internet service providers which gained immediate traction.

University of Auckland’s Andrew Zhu notes that social media has given the Chinese an outlet for expression and a voice typically not spoken within the conservative society. “Online, the way that people behave and interact changes completely.”

“In Chinese culture, people are pretty conservative and like to secure themselves in a safe environment, especially when strangers get in touch with them. But in the social media environment people seem more relaxed and behave differently.”

Zhu puts part of that down to the diminishing censorship employed by the company and the Chinese government. “Four years ago if you typed “Jiang” (referring to ex-Chinese President Jiang Zemin) the message would be banned and instantly deleted. That online casino is changing though and censorship is becoming much lower.”

The impact of social media has been huge with mainstream newsmedia and the Chinese government alike embracing the medium and its ability to connect with a broad audience in real-time. No better has this been seen with the Bo Xiali trial – an extremely high-profile and sensitive event involving a high powered provincial government leader, that typically would have ?been secluded with limited information available.

Instead, the event was live-blogged on Weibo by the Chinese Court.

“I couldn’t believe it in the beginning,” says Zhu.”It’s become a very interesting topic on Weibo because people weren’t expecting it. It was supposed to be too sensitive. Instead we have a political game being taken outside the party and opening the realm of discussion.”

The changing face of Chinese media is represented best with the the more modern role of CCTV in China which faces competition from a conglomerate of domestic and international television networks.

Says Zhu: “The style of news reporting has changed. They appeal to and engage with their audience, empathising with the viewers instead of the neutral, formal structure of old.”

When compared with the propaganda machine of old, where State news would play on every channel at 7:00pm daily and reporters were famously “let go’ for showing emotion on air, the gradual liberalisation of CCTV illustrates the easing back of staunch government controls on Chinese newsmedia.

“The driver for social media popularity in China is the years of full media control by the central government,”?says Zhu.”?Previously, whatever the government said was automatically the mainstream.”

Social media – particularly Weibo – is changing that by allowing more open and direct channels of communication.? “In the previous four years everyone involved with Weibo is co-creating value with a platform in place to build a new knowledge base.”

Zhu suggests that rather than opening media channels in the name of information liberalization, the government is actually embracing a 21st Century tool for the regime. He¬†says Weibo gives the government an overall idea of the trends on major issues and how they handle it. “It”s a great monitoring system. Everyone is being watched. The government gives up something useful, but is receiving something more useful in return.”

Using the Bo Xiali trial as an example, Zhu comments: “On the first day of the trial, Weibo’s front page is full of him, the story, his image, people’s arguments. They can see the trend, if 50 or 70 per cent of people are showing strong support, the Government may have to consider who is behind this, why Bo is so popular.”

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Andrew Zhu is a marketing lecturer at The University of Auckland. Supervised by Professor Rod Brodie and Dr. Rick Starr, he is working on his PhD studying the concept of reciprocity in Chinese Social Media.


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