CGCS and Annenberg visiting scholars Jian Xu and Shiwen Wu illustrate the phenomenon of virtual weiguan using usage trends in two popular Chinese social media platforms.
Founded in 2009, Sina Weibo, Sina Corp’s microblogging service, is the most popular microblogging platform in China. In the West, it is widely known as the Chinese version of Twitter. Since its emergence, Weibo has become the most important platform for online weiguan and has shown great potential for fostering political participation among ordinary Chinese citizens.
The Chinese term “weiguan” (围观), which literally translates to “surrounding gaze” in English, refers to a crowd activity that occurs in public venues, such as mass gatherings around ritual celebrations, traffic accidents, and public executions. The term has been used as a cultural metaphor to illustrate the phenomenon of virtual crowd gathering in China’s cyberspace, wherein users discuss and form public sentiment around controversial social issues, usually involving official corruption, legal injustice, and human rights violations.1 For example, a number of incidents became public through weiguan on Sina Weibo including the Wenzhou high-speed train crash in 2011 and the Southern Weekly incident in 2013. The technological advantages of Weibo, which integrates elements of Bulletin Board Service (BBS), blogs, instant messaging systems, and audio-visual sites, make it multifunctional and an ideal platform for online weiguan.
Weibo, however, is not a space free from the government’s internet censorship and regulation. Particularly after Xi Jinping began his presidency in November 2012, the Chinese government began tightening media control. Sina Weibo users have experienced unprecedented restrictions including the government’s “anti-rumor campaign” and the crackdown on the Big Vs (verified accounts) on the social media platform. Tightening control on Weibo corresponds to a decline in Weibo users, which have decreased from a peak of 308.6 million in 2012 to 280.2 million in 2013 and 204 million in June 2015. The number of ‘internet incidents’2 has also diminished due to both censorship chilling effects and the decline of netizens participating in online weiguan.
In addition to increased control of speech on Weibo, the rise of WeChat, a popular mobile messaging app (similar to WhatsApp) released by Tencent in 2011, has seized some of Weibo’s user base. The number of active WeChat users dramatically increased to 549 million in the first quarter of 2015. While some people think WeChat (Weixin in Chinese) will challenge Sina Weibo’s dominant position as the most popular platform for online weiguan, we believe that WeChat is not a suitable platform for online collective action.
Firstly, WeChat is a relatively closed social networking platform—users can only add a maximum of 5,000 people in a group. With Weibo, however, users can follow or to be followed by an unlimited number of people. Moreover, most WeChat users only follow their friends, classmates, relatives, and colleagues, which limits the possibility of networking and exchanging ideas with the wider public. For this reason, WeChat is not a “public forum” in the same sense as Weibo and does not support large-scale networking.
WeChat is aware of this however, and is trying to extend its mass media function to compete with Weibo. In August 2012, WeChat introduced “public accounts,” which allow media organizations, businesses, government organizations, celebrities, as well as ordinary people to run accounts that users can follow as they do on Weibo. Currently, WeChat has more than 10 million public accounts, a number that is increasing by 15,000 every day.
WeChat allows subscribers the ability to comment on information sent from these public accounts, but their comments are only viewable by the account holders. In this way, interaction and networking with other subscribers is limited. Sina Weibo is much more open and interactive in comparison. As someone’s follower, a user can read, repost, like, and comment on that person’s other 100 million followers’ comments. Posts on Sina Weibo are also wide-reaching. For example, a post from Chinese pop star, Lu Han, accumulated more than 100 million comments, setting the Guinness World Record for the most commented post on social media in the world. On Weibo, rather than WeChat, there is the potential to generate an extremely large virtual network that enables users to shape strong public sentiment on a certain topic—two necessary conditions of successful online weiguan actions.
Nevertheless, some argue that WeChat is less censored than Weibo and thus allows the flow of more alternative and sensitive information. This might have been the case when WeChat had just started its service, and the government had not yet found effective ways to control it. However, with the ongoing anti-rumor campaign, restrictions on WeChat have become more apparent. Jason Q. Ng, research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, recently conducted research on the censorship of WeChat’s public accounts. He identified the 100 sensitive key words most likely to be censored on WeChat and argues that the public accounts platform has also become the target of official scrutiny as its competitor Weibo. The government’s tightening control on WeChat was also evident during recent disruptive social events, such as the 2014 Hong Kong protest and the Tianjin explosion in 2015. Therefore, WeChat is not a free from government regulations. It is reasonable to predict that censorship on WeChat, with the fast growth of its users, will become more subtle and enhanced in the future.
Ideal online weiguan requires netizens’ proactive participation and large-scale networking on a highly open, interactive, networked and less-censored digital platform. The relatively closed structure of WeChat makes it unsuitable to manifest online weiguan. Though current weiguan actions on Sina Weibo have become less active and frequent due to the increased government regulations and market competition from WeChat, it is still the most suitable social media platform for online collective action in China. As the government’s internet policies and social media users’ habits are ever changing, online weiguan on Sina Weibo may increase at any time. For example, it is possible that the government will begin to heavily censor WeChat, causing users to move back to Weibo. Weibo still has strong vitality and is largely irreplaceable as the most important online weiguan platform in China.
- Xu, J (2015). Online weiguan in Web 2.0 China: Historical origins, characteristics, platforms and consequences, in Guobin Yang (ed), China’s Contested Internet, pp. 257-282, NIAS Press of the University of Copenhagen. http://www.niaspress.dk/books/china’s-contested-internet.
- Internet incident is a common term in Chinese media studies. It refers to controversial social issues that only become public due to group pressure from the netizens. This demonstrates the power of online public opinion, and differs from top-down agenda setting seen in traditional media. Internet incidents usually involve bottom-up agenda setting, as the online public becomes so vocal about a specific issue that the mainstream media and the government cannot neglect it.
Dr. Jian Xu is a joint visiting scholar at CGCS and the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. He was an Endeavour Research Fellow at the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney. Dr. Xu researches Chinese media studies with a particular interest in the mediated social-cultural-political changes. His research areas focus on China’s Internet activism, Internet governance, authoritarianism 2.0, and micro-charity. He is the author of Media Events in Web 2.0 China: Interventions of Online Activism (2016, Sussex Academic Press).
Dr. Shiwen Wu is a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Wuhan University, China.