Oct 26, 2012 · 4 minutes

Just to get a sense of how much more important Sina Weibo is to China than Twitter is to the US, consider the response to the New York Times' huge story on Premier Wen Jiabao's secret family fortunes. His relatives, the Times revealed, control about $2.7 billion of assets.

Within hours of the story's publication – which came at 4:34am China time – both the English and the Chinese versions of the Times' websites were blocked in the country. The censors quickly sprung into action on the social media sites, too, deleting posts and updates that mentioned the story or contained specific search terms related to it. Those terms included well-known code words for Wen, such as "Grandpa Wen" and "Best Actor," according to the blog Tea Leaf Nation.

The reactions on Sina Weibo, which is like a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, prior to the blocks demonstrate the microblog's ability to rip away the cloak of humble servitude in which China's Communist leaders shroud themselves. Wen in particular has long been seen as a benevolent leader who cares about the poor. As the Times points out, he is known in China for "his simple ways and common touch."

In the wake of the Times story, however, Wen's reputation has been subjected to a social media shredder – at least until the comments were blocked. Tea Leaf Nation provides a sample of what was said by Weibo users, including:

  • “In this day and age, no official is clean and I can accept that, but they shouldn’t treat us like we are stupid. They fill up on abalone and lobsters in a five-star hotel, and then go to crowded street markets to buy cheap vegetables just to put on a show! I can’t take that."
  • “The number is so large, I have no idea what that even means."
  • “Just glanced at it, and I was completely blown away!!!! This is not just corruption, this is a black hole!!!”
  • “The premier looks so kind and caring about the average people. How is it possible that he has got 2.7 billion USD!!!”
  • "I don’t believe Wen has no knowledge of the $120 million sitting in his mother’s account.”
  • “The article mentions that he is not happy about his family’s dealings but unwilling or unable to stop them – although that’s not evidence of his guilt, how can he fight corruption in the whole system if he cannot stop corruption within his family?”
  • [Referring to Wen] “A giant when he talks, but a dwarf when he acts. Fare thee well.”
In the US, we're accustomed to dismissing anti-government rants as the inane and ineffectual rumblings of individuals. In China, those rumblings, especially when they happen en masse, are more significant, because the authorities have for decades used the media to support their myth-making.

Social media has the potential to subvert that decades-long propaganda practice. In the past, China's leadership could easily dismiss and suppress dissenting voices, but Sina Weibo now allows those voices to aggregate and broadcast to a huge audience. Even though they are now censored, it took only minutes for those views to spread widely and influence the narrative around Wen.

As the New Yorker's China correspondent Evan Osnos has told me, Sina Weibo has the powerful social effect of increasing skepticism among the Chinese people. “What you’ve got are people who are un-intimidated, they’re willing to put things online that they wouldn’t have done a few years ago, and they’re connecting with each other in very substantive ways,” Osnos said. “That’s meaningful."

Tea Leaf Nation concludes that Wen's political legacy and historical image are likely to be tainted forever by the Times article. Part of the reason it could have so much impact is that it was amplified and shared on Sina Weibo. These days in China, it takes only a minute to shatter a myth. And myths in China are critical to the Communist Party's hegemony.

One should be careful about taking too utopian a position on the role of social media in China. The authorities have shown they can clamp down hard when they need to. China already blocks Twitter and Facebook, and for a time even blocked homegrown competitor Fanfou.com. Sina Weibo is only allowed to operate because it has agreed to play by the government's rules. And just as Weibo is a useful platform for spreading dissent, government can use it for its own measures and message control, too.

But as we've seen today, the noose isn't tight enough to totally suppress the public's voice. That could well mean something will change. Maybe the government will decide that censorship of social media has too many costs and will decide to open itself up to more criticism. The alternative is that it cracks down even harder. Unfortunately, it has a history of the latter.

[Image courtesy astix]