On July 16, 2010, at 10:09am, Sohu chief executive Zhang Chaoyang (张朝阳) made a post to his Sohu microblog in which he wrote:
The explosion [in growth] of the microblog [in China] has been no easy feat, and it is a major point of progress resulting from the aggregated development of Internet products over the past decade. Discussion forums are collective and decentralized in nature. E-mail is personal, peer-to-peer and delayed. Weblogs are centered on the individual and take the collective into account, but they are not quick and timely. Instant messaging approaches real-time, but is only peer-to-peer. Personal computer products have struggled forward left and right, transforming and becoming universal, and mobile phones have become popular as information tools, in a decade-long process that has created this form of individually-centered interactive Internet product, [the microblog], that enables group relationships, approaches real-time and can be used at any time and place. This is the product of technological progress and transformation in user behavior chosen from among myriad possibilities, and it was not easy. Won’t everyone please treasure it.
This statement [of Zhang's] sounds on first hearing like an industry expert’s summation of ten years of progress in the development of Internet products. But the final five words about the need to treasure [the microblog] are deeply significant. Who exactly should cherish [this technology]? Are there perhaps people who do not share [Zhang's sentiment] that “[t]his is the product of technological progress and transformation in user behavior chosen from among myriad possibilities”?
Looking at the situation that has emerged recently at microblog websites in China, we cannot see this call [of Zhang's] as a random shot.
On July 10 visits to Sina Microblog were suddenly impossible. The service claimed to the outside world that they were in the midst of “security” measures, and only on July 12 was service finally restored. The microblog service at Netease, [another major Internet portal site], began its own “security” measures on July 13, saying that it was “resting due to high traffic volumes.”
Sina Microblog, which has the highest volume of users and has been operating for more than a year, suddenly announced itself as a “beta version” on July 12. This is not all. Aside from QQ.com and Netease, which had been advertised as “beta versions” all along, the microblog services at Sohu.com, Phoenix Online and even the party-backed People’s Daily Online Microblog all put up this “beta version” label or similar statements to that effect.
As a result of this “beta” change, some microblog services have done away with their search functions, and others have placed restrictions on links to content outside the site. The latest development is that newly registering users of the Sina and Sohu microblog services must all submit valid identification and mobile phone numbers for verification. The era of real-name registration for microblogging seems to be upon us.
This year, microblog services have taken off in China, and the density of information they have created, their frequency of dissemination and the degree of connectivity they have enabled for web users far surpass any previous form of Internet use. This is probably the reason microblogs have suddenly drawn such a high degree of attention.
One can see the influence that microblogging has in China simply by looking at recent events. During the Qinhai earthquake the short 140-character online post became the vehicle by which people shared information, conveyed their feelings and offered mutual assistance. It was a microblog writer who revealed that the former Chinese executive for a multinational company had faked his PhD, a revelation that drew the attention of web users to the problem of diploma mills, or so-called “wild chicken universities” (野鸡大学), and tested the credibility of elites.
Recently, when a newspaper reporter exposed related-party transactions by a listed company, local police authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. Tens of thousands of microblog posts were sent out about this incident. Users expressed their views and revealed the immense appetite the Chinese people have for participation in news events. The incident ended with the withdrawal of the arrest warrant by the police.
After the July 28 explosion in the city of Nanjing, web users immediately using microblogs to “report from the scene.” There was some confusion early on about the nature of the explosion, and China Central Television reported that a “gas station had exploded,” but a representative from China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) quickly clarified the cause of the incident through their microblog.
Clearly, the defining characteristics of the microblog that Zhang Chaoyang points to — individuality, instantaneity and interactivity — can be seen in abundance in these cases. What is most critical is that these characteristics are not useful to Internet users alone, but can be useful to the government and to the media.
Microblogs can work as tools to gather public opinion, and they can also serve a useful role in communicating with the public. There have already been a number of classic examples of this.
There’s no need even to point to the role microblogs played in online participation during the meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference this year. Look at our national police network nationally and you find many notable cases.
On June 3, for example, Guangzhou police reported a shooting incident through their microblog, bravely using new media to openly share information about a major sudden-breaking incident, thereby improving the reputation of the police and simultaneously raising the expectations of web users about the possible role of microblogs in sudden-breaking incidents.
The Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department and the police offices of the province’s 21 prefectural-level cities have all launched police microblogs, and this stands as a positive example [to other areas].
Just recently in July, Beijing’s Public Security Department announced the formation of a public relations office, which plans to launch an official microblog in order to help gauge public opinion. Beijing police chief Fu Zhenghua (傅政华) put it aptly when he said at the time: “With the coming of the age of the Internet, there is a clear increase in the independence, selectivity and difference among people’s thoughts and activities. Public opinion about the police must necessarily become a hot topic for various mainstream media, so it’s extremely important for the police to carry out open and timely interaction with the public, the media and disadvantaged groups, and to increase its fair, just, timely and credible publicity efforts (宣传).”
What should especially draw attention is that when the Beijing police answered a question from a reporter who asked how the police would respond to sharp criticism from web users, and whether they would impose restrictions, they responded with an openness that might serve as an example for other government microblogs: “We respect the expressions of web users. As to the question of ordinary public attention and critical opinions, we have prepared ourselves psychologically, and we will meet the questions of citizens head on, and actively reach out to web users, regularly connecting with opinion leaders from various walks of society, seeking understanding and support.”
This is exactly the attitude the government should have toward microblogs.
First, they should recognize that the significance of microblogs far outweighs that of social networking sites, that they have, moreover, a capacity for the expression of views and for political communication, and that they can be used for the mobilization of society.
Second, governments should recognize that microblogs are a gathering place for opinion leaders, especially for the gathering of many professionals in the media, and that they have already to a definite degree become the vanguard (引领者) of other forums in China and of Chinese traditional media. Gaining the understanding and support of these opinion leaders benefits the healthy operation of the government, and helps to mend public confidence.
Third, they should recognize that the voices on microblogs are diverse, and that they can include fierce criticism, and web users are going there seeking not just rhetoric and good tidings, but also reason and facts (理性和真相).
Surveying [microblog] development over the past year, we can say that a kind of microblog politics has already emerged in China.
The microblog is an excellent supporter of sudden-breaking news, an open platform for expression, a strong tool for participation in and deliberation of state affairs, and it is a channel for so-called sunshine governance, [or open governance], that we cannot do without. Naturally, the economic significance of the microblog cannot be overlooked either.
Doing more to open up microblog services would benefit the closing of the gap in Internet technologies, products and influence that presently exists between [China] and the United States, thereby meeting the demands of China’s more than 400 million Internet users.
This is an opportune moment in China for the rise of the microblog. Now that various microblog services [in China] have been transformed into “beta versions,” we can only hope that this as a test run process — allowing for trial and error, allowing for experimentation, and allowing users to develop in an autonomous manner. When Zhang Chaoyang calls on “everyone to please treasure” [the importance of microblogging], this “everyone” includes experimenters and regulators (管理者) [in the government]. Because when it comes down to it, the Internet belongs to everyone in China.
A version of this article appeared originally in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.