China is notorious for internet censorship and high levels of online surveillance. Access to non-domestic communication is restricted and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are made unavailable to citizens (Rauchflelsh & Scafer, 2014). Even websites that are not blocked often employ censorship measures that filter all posts. This may entail posts being published immediately and then removed post-filtering, posts automatically prevented from being posted due to keyword filters, or sent to a censor for review before being posted (Dimov, 2014). According to Qiuqing, there are “more than thirty different censors at the central and local levels in China…and censors at the central level issued 80 percent of all the censorship” (2014, p. 193). Essentially, political censorship is built into all layers of China’s internet infrastructure.
Yet despite this, social media in China is flourishing. There is a Chinese version of just about every social media site used by other nations. This allows the government to provide access to media only they approve of, and keep netizens happy as they can still partake in the social media process. Such sites include Baidu (Google), Ren Ren (Facebook), Weibo (Twitter), Youku (YouTube) and more.
China’s population is one of the most active when it comes to social media networking. It’s internet penetration has increased from 28.9% to 45.8% which is higher than other developing economies, such as India (12.6%) and South Africa (41%) (Rauchflelsh & Scafer, 2014). In fact, 91% of the Chinese population has a social media site, compared to 67% of citizens in the USA. Clearly, social media in China, although monitored, is still pretty pervasive!
Something that has really taken off for Chinese social media is microblogging, facilitated through Weibo. As the above video explained, Weibo is actually more successful than Twitter – It has 536 million registered users and is used by roughly 54 million people per day (Rauchflelsh & Scafer, 2014). Weibo also has more features than Twitter, including the ability to comment directly on other users’ posts and the combination of elements of bulletin board systems and blogs, which have been extremely successful in China. Furthermore, the 140 character limit which is often a nuisance in the English language, allows for much deeper conversations when using 140 Chinese characters (Sullivan, 2014).
Perhaps what is more telling about the role of social media in China, however, is how Weibo rose to fame. Surprise, surprise – it was the importance of citizen journalism (Twitter, anyone?). In Beijing in 2009, a fire occurred in the building next to the new headquarters of the state television system. This was caused by an illegal fire display. Official news outlets responded with necessary caution, but Beijing citizens who witnessed the fire took to their microblogs to break the story and inform other users. (Sullivan, 2014). This showed that “information could be accessed more reliably than via state media channels, where coverage is often compromised by the government’s sensitivities” (Sullivan 2014, p. 28).
Although social media is heavily regulated in China, its importance is not diminished. On a social level, citizens still use their social media platforms to interact and often more effectively, too. However, at a deeper level, “blogs and other online communications have taken on greater importance and credibility than in countries with freer media systems”(Sullivan 2014, p. 28) as they enable stories to be told that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance. Even if they do come under scrutiny and filtering on account of the government, they may be developing into the public sphere, which is essential to any democracy (Scotton, 2010).
Dimov, D 2014, Chinese Social Media Censorship, Infosec Institute, viewed 15 April, 2015, <http://resources.infosecinstitute.com/chinese-social-media-censorship/>
Qiuqing, T 2014, ‘China’s media censorship: a dynamic and diversified regime’, Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 185-211
Rauchflelsh, A Schafer, M.S. 2014, ‘Multiple public spheres of Weibo: a typology of forms and potentials of online public spheres in China’, Information, Communication & Society, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 139-155
Scotton, J. F. 2010, ‘Chapter 3. The Impact of New Media’, New Media, New China, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK, pp. 28-42
Sullivan, J 2014, ‘China’s Weibo: Is faster different?’, New Media and Society, vol. 16, no.1, pp. 24-37