China 2012: A Year in Review by Helen Gao

Posted by Reading Time: 5 minutes

During this week, China Briefing is featuring a series of specially-commissioned articles from prominent China-based writers regarding their thoughts on the key developments in the country during 2012, and what lies ahead in 2013. Today’s article is written by Helen Gao, a freelance writer covering China-related topics, with an emphasis on social media and education. The complete “China 2012: A Year in Review” series can be viewed here.

Dec. 26 – When Sina Weibo was first established in 2009, its founder had to persuade celebrities to join the network in order to attract attention. In just three years, its popularity has exploded, with more than 300 million registered users in a nation with 540 million connected to the Internet. Often referred to as China’s Twitter, Sina Weibo, along with similar services offered by other Chinese web portals, has transformed Chinese social interactions in ways few had anticipated, and there is no better example of this than the eventful year of 2012.

Into the usual bustle of Weibo – filled with celebrity gossip, silly jokes and petty rants, much like its Western counterparts – the first bomb was dropped in March when the central Party removed one of its most high-ranking members, Bo Xilai, from the seat of Chongqing Party chief. A maelstrom of speculation followed on various social network platforms, revolving around the rumor of Bo’s involvement in the death of a British businessman with ties to his family. Like all other politically sensitive discussions, it was quickly muzzled by censors, who admonished the public “not to spread groundless rumors.” Then, on the morning of April 11, Chinese citizens woke up to find these “groundless rumors” splashing across the front pages of major state-owned Chinese newspapers.

The Bo case is representative of the role Weibo has played in allowing political information to trickle down from the top in a year which has seen the state tighten censorship relentlessly ahead of the 18th Party Congress. While much of China’s politics remain shrouded in a veil of secrecy, the Internet-savvy Chinese netizens, armed with social media, are learning to spot and expose any sign of corruption or injustice.

Other times, social media has enabled the public to take initiatives to exert bottom-up pressure on the political system, by pooling their voices to demand justice in their daily lives. In 2012, civil protests, organized through social media platforms like Weibo and QQ, have sprung up all over China. These have included an online campaign by Qingdao citizens to condemn a wasteful government-sponsored tree-planting project, to massive demonstrations in Ningbo to resist the expansion of a controversial petrochemical plant. These incidents, though local in nature, have quickly gained a national audience through social media, and the attention these protest have garnered have forced local authorities to abandon the old approach of suppression and adopt a more responsive attitude to the grievances of the protestors.

When it comes to public woes so widespread and deeply entrenched in society that immediate government action has been deemed an unlikely solution, web users are tackling them in their own power by tapping into the broad social media-based citizen network. In 2012, online charity campaigns and NGO programs have continued to thrive. Two examples are:

  • Free Lunch, a program started by a Chinese journalist that aims to gather donations through Weibo to help alleviate child hunger in rural China has offered lunch to over 25,000 impoverished students throughout the country.
  • An anti-child trafficking campaign started by a university professor encouraged web users to take the photos of child-beggars around them to post on Weibo, and has helped several parents looking for their children make successful matches.

These social improvement initiatives have grown so popular that Weibo managers even created a specialized platform dedicated to helping these programs promote their causes. In February, Sina rolled out its “micro public welfare” page, where charity organizers can establish a profile to introduce their programs, interact with potential donors, and collect donations.

Part of what has boosted the Chinese public’s courage to voice their demands and strengthen their determination to carry out civic action comes from the public’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of the outside world, owing in no small part to the help of social media. Momentous happenings around the globe, such as the presidential election in the United States, often find a fascinated audience in Chinese netizens, who turn to social media to gain coverage less filtered and biased than that provided by mainstream media. The democratic ideals and concrete policies discussed during the speeches and debates of the U.S. presidential elections have deeply resonated with the Chinese audience, and kindled lively debates among them about the pros and cons of Western and Chinese political styles.

As the new Chinese leadership takes over the reins of the nation, it has demonstrated an acute awareness of the power of Chinese social media, and the possibility that excessive paranoia-driven control from the state can one day backfire. In a possible sign of looser censorship regulations under the new leadership, some names of party leaders, previously blocked on Weibo, are now searchable. Wang Qishan, a member of the party’s Standing Committee, has urged other party cadres to view the Internet as an efficient tool for public opinion gathering instead of a threat to party’s authority.

“We have to listen to all the opinions on the Internet,” he reportedly said at a meeting, “including suggestions as well as criticisms.”

On December 18, however, an editorial appeared on the front page of the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, admonishing readers with the title: “Internet is Not a Space Beyond the Law.”

Mixed signals from party leaders on the future of Internet censorship have fomented widespread confusion and concerns on Weibo.

“If the Internet is not a space beyond the law, then we desperately need such a space,” one user reflected. “We need some strength to put the beast named ‘official power’ into a cage.”

People’s Daily is not a space beyond the law, either,” another user quipped.

As the comments show, the battle between the state and an increasingly civic and liberal-minded Chinese public will rage on in 2013. While the state is unlikely to take any giant steps in loosening Internet censorship across the country, the size and sophistication of Chinese social media users will continue to grow. At some point in 2013, China’s Internet population will exceed 600 million, and these smartphone-wielding, social media-savvy citizens are set to expose more corrupt officials with their scrutiny, and help society’s less fortunate with their donations.

And they will be watching the government’s response.

Helen Gao previously worked as an editorial assistant at The Atlantic Magazine, and is now a freelance writer covering a wide range of China-related topics, with an emphasis on social media and education. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs. She is a native of Beijing, where she currently resides, and is a graduate of Yale University in the United States.