Sunday 04 December 2016

Weibo and the China Dream

This post was originally published on Edelman.com.

China’s 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) officially came to a close on March 17th, marking the end of a long transition of power that had first started in October with the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

While the NPC captured media headlines in China and around the world, it also played out in a significant way on social media.

Just hours after the newly-elected Premier Li Keqiang delivered his first press conference, “Meet China’s New Premier” became a top trending topic on Weibo – China’s popular microblogging website (considered a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook). 14,000 ‘tweets’ on Weibo were directly related to the press conference, with almost half tweeted during the week leading up to it and another half posted within the first 24 hours afterwards.

Meanwhile, the topic of China’s “Two Sessions” (the common name for the two week-long political meetings) ranked 19th out of 100 top topics for the week, with nearly 5.3 million comments tweeted or re-tweeted during the week leading up to the NPC.

China’s online landscape has long been one of the fastest-growing in the world, with more than 564 million internet users309 million microblog (Weibo) users and 420 million mobile web users.

In the context of China’s population, this means nearly half of all Chinese citizens (42 percent) are going online for something, and nearly 55 percent of these “netizens” are actively using microblog sites like Weibo.

Weibo has since become one of the richest sources of public discussion around current events, breaking news and top trends – basically, anything from crazy cat videos to critiques of China’s environmental policies.

The power of social media is not lost on China’s government – not only has it gotten more involved in monitoring online activity (Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all been blocked since 2009), it has increasingly taken to Weibo, with an estimated 60,000 government-related Weibo accounts contributing to Weibo’s daily average of 86 million posts.

China’s authoritative State Council recently launched its first Weibo account to announce new rules and regulations, and currently has more than one million followers – though it does not interact with fans or allow questions and comments.

Perhaps the most interesting new Weibo accounts have come in the form of “fan” sites dedicated to China’s leading politicians: the “Learning from Xi Fan Club” (学习粉丝团) was created just days into Xi Jinping’s role as CPC General Secretary and is dedicated to tracking Xi’s public appearances, racking up more than 1.3 million fans to-date.

Meanwhile, an account devoted to Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan, the “Guo Mu (‘national mother’) Fan Club,” recently reached almost 6,000 followers before being mysteriously shut down at the end of March.

So what does this tell us? As an increasingly engaged generation of Chinese citizens continues to move between online and offline sources, it’s clear the government must find new ways to maintain its relevance and to participate in the conversation.

And while we might not see Xi Jinping engaging in a Reddit Ask Me Anything (a la Obama) any time soon, it’s safe to say China’s government will not ignore the power of social media platforms like Weibo.

I predict the government will increase its online engagement and monitoring (censorship) even more as China’s new leaders promote their “China Dream” strategy. And if we’re lucky, we may even see a few more fan sites pop up?

Marissa Bushe is a Global Fellow for Edelman in Beijing, China, and is in her third year with Edelman. You can also follow her on Twitter: @Mbushe

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