Taking the social-media pulse of Chinese students

Steve Kelman quizzes visiting Chinese students on their use of social media in the repressive Chinese regime.

Faithful blog readers will know that two or three times a year, I meet with a group of Chinese university students who are visiting the US for a few weeks with a program called China Future Leaders. I speak with them about my family (to illustrate the role of immigration in American society), about Harvard (including a topic that interests almost all of them, applying to a university in the US), and about current issues in US-Chinese relations. I also always take the opportunity of their visit to ask them some questions.

This time I mostly asked them about their use of weibo, literally “micro-blogs.” As you may be aware, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are all blocked in China, though most Western sites (including the New York Times, Washington Post, and this blog) are available. Each of these forms of social media, though, has a Chinese counterpart. The social medium with the most social importance in China is the Twitter-knockoff Sina Weibo (though it has some much smaller competitors with a similar format).

Over the last few years, it has grown into a huge force in Chinese society, and an outlet for information and comments that is extremely imperfectly under government control. Issues that might have been kept under wraps – such as the flight of a senior police official to the US consulate in Chengdu, China, which set in motion a huge political conflagration leading to the ousting of a major contender for national political power and the arrest of his wife for murder – have come into the public eye because of pictures taken by amateur photographers and posted on weibo. Weibo also routinely features skeptical comments by members of the public about government policy.

The government plays something of a cat-and-mouse game with weibo users, sometimes taking down individual posts or blocking all posts using certain key words, but the public reacts by starting to use homonyms or other circumlocutions for the forbidden words or names. There have also been efforts in some local jurisdictions to require “real name” registration on weibo, so people will not be able to make comments anonymously.

I asked the students about their own weibo use. About 70 percent of them reported opening up weibo at least once a day, and somewhat less than half three times or more a day. But their answers to my other two questions surprised me a bit. Only three out of the 20 or so students reported having their own personal blog on weibo – I had been under the impression that this practice was close to universal among Chinese students. Of the three who reported having a blog, one said that there had been a time when a post had been taken down.

Also, only about four out of the 20 said that they used weibo as a major source of news about what is going on in China, using instead more conventional Internet or other sources. At least among this group – and these kids are probably quite aware of the world around them compared with many – it doesn’t seem fair to claim that weibo has revolutionized their ability to get access to non-official news.

I also asked them about China-Japan relations, which have become tense in recent weeks over emotions about some uninhabited islets controlled by Japan but claimed by China. This subject has occasioned demonstrations and even Toyota burnings in China, boycotts of Japanese products, and a public statement by a military leader that the situation could lead to war. These students seemed to be fairly calm and free of extreme nationalism over these events. Only four of them said they had started to boycott Japanese products, and none of the 20 thought it was likely that there would be a war between China and Japan during the next five years.

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