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China: Political Space of the Weibo Blogging Platform

Chicago University Sociology Professor Zhao Dingxin recently delivered a speech entitled “Weibo, Political Space and China Development” at East China Normal University. Zhao's reservations on the technological setting and nature of Weibo, a well known Chinese micro-blogging platform, has triggered debate and reflections amongst Chinese bloggers.

Reflections on Weibo

Zhao's speech has been partial transcribed and published in local newspaper Dongfang Daily (via NetEase) [zh]. Below is a selected translation of the transcript:


Weibo is an absolutely democratic but highly manipulative mode of communication. It is democratic in the sense that the user only need to write a few sentences. Once a person knows how to login, s/he can start writing regardless of the quality. It is manipulative in the sense that each voice does not register the character of an equal vote… If a person controls a lot of money or certain technology, s/he can hire an online army to magnify their voice and create fake public opinion. The space for manipulation is huge.


The distinction between front-stage and back-stage behavior marks the principle of our social manner. However, in Weibo, the line between front-stage and back-stage has been blurred. The speech in Weibo is directed to society and thus should be considered as front-stage behavior. However, many Weibo users are not hanging around with their own social circle and the users don't know each other's real self. Hence, they can swear and get away with peer pressure. In this sense, the public sphere of Weibo has turned the back-stage into the front-stage. This is the structural explanation for the verbal violence and abusive language [evident] in Weibo.


In some sense, people are acting like Gustave Le Bon‘s description of “the crowd” in Weibo's public sphere. They are against authority on the one hand, but on the other hand worship authority. Some Weibo fanatics are acting like the Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution: tearing down everything and putting everything in doubt, while at the same time attacking whosoever opposes the leader's [here means Mao Tzedong] authority.

Zhao pointed out that most of the debates in Weibo are ideological and he used famous Chinese writer Han Han's ghostwriter scandal as an example to explain his point:


At first, I thought the core issue of this debate is a matter of true or false rather than value judgement. Then I found out that those who support the writer could be divided into three types of characters. First are liberalist fundamentalists. They consider the writer as their alliance and see the scandal as a political conspiracy. It is an ideological matter rather than an issue of true and false. The second type are the writer's fans. A writer without a university degree, a cool lifestyle different from typical rich people; many young people adore the writer and feel responsible to defend him. Such behavior is religious in nature. The third type of people are those who lack common sense. They believe in miracles and detest common knowledge.

Zhao believes that such irrational populist sentiment is rooted in the disintegration of the value system in mainland Chinese society as a result of the cultural revolution, the lack of direction in humanities subjects in the education, people's skepticism of the mainstream media and the culture of a mass consumption society.

Reactions online

Some Chinese netizens disagreed with Zhao's observations. For example, blogger Zuo Zhijian pointed out [zh]:


It is true that there is a ‘commercial army’ [promoting things] on Weibo. But Zhao has omitted the fact that Weibo is an open platform and a free speech market… It is more easy to distinguish the ‘army’ on Weibo than on BBS [Bulletin Board System]. Ordinary netizens’ ability to distinguish the ‘online army’ is not be weaker than that of public intellectuals. In fact, they have long experience in fighting against the ‘army’ across different online platforms.
When compared with TV and radio broadcast, on Weibo it is a lot more difficult to manipulate the audience.

Zuo agreed that it is difficult to develop consensus via Weibo but he stressed that's the reason why public intellectuals should engage more with the open platform:


Knowing the restriction of Weibo, politicians and public intellectuals should be more engaged and help to make use of the advance setting of the platform.
For politicians, they should provide accurate public information to clear people out from speculation.
For intellectuals, they should be making use of Weibo's distributive power rather than entangling in the debate of its nature. It is a platform for people's enlightenment. In particular in China where we lack free speech space, Weibo has become the only platform.
In China, the enlightenment project is more important than debate. Now that intellectuals are aware of the populist tendency, which means you have to work hard.
The environment Chinese intellectuals are facing now is very different from our precedents, we have the Internet, an open platform. The fundamental course for intellectuals is to understand and actively making use of the tool.

Blogger Shan Gu's view echoed with [zh] Zuo Zhijian's criticism and looked deeper into the nature of Weibo as an open platform:


The Weibo space is highly diversified. High and low culture, beauty and ugliness, truth and rumor co-exist. However, when compared with the conventional media, Weibo has very good memory function. If we have to prove that a conventional media told a lie two years ago, we have to dig into its archive. If we have to prove a Weibo opinion leader for telling a lie two years ago, we just need to hit our keyboard. Although there are a lot of rumors in Weibo, the rumors would be cleared in time. Lies, rumors and other manipulative acts would become a joke eventually.


Le Bon description of “the crowd” stresses the effect of collective presence. Only when a person is in a collective presence, would his/her irrational emotion be magnified and take control of the individual's behavior. On the Internet, irrational emotion do not have such kind of collective presence and could not be further magnified. It expresses in the form of four-letter [curse] words. Even if a minority of them take action, such action would be based upon a very utilitarian calculation. To understand the difference, we can compare the emotional effect of watching a football match at the pitch with a huge crowd and watching it on a TV screen with a dozen friends.


The underlying threat of the Weibo public sphere does not lie in the hand of some “conspirators” but in the state machine. Only state control will not be restricted by cost and effectiveness. Its monopolized power allows its influence to extend beyond temporal and spatial restriction and achieve domination. If netizens are to be manipulated, the threat does not stem from the Weibo platform, but the coercive force from outside the platform.


Professor Zhao Dingxin's viewpoint reflects his [feeling of] intellectual superiority. In his eyes, “netizens” are irrational, easily manipulated and in lack of common sense. Han Han's fans’ intellect has blasphemed common knowledge (they defend him as if he were a miracle or a religion)… But he has forgotten that the popularization of common knowledge cannot be founded by the “cultivation” of “prophecy” of a guru upon the public. It can only be actualized in an open society with free information flow.
The thumbnail photo showing Professor Zhao Dingxin is accredited to Dongfang Daily via NetEase.

1 comment

  • […] on”Weibo, Political Public Space and Chinese Development” and Owen Lam has translated portions of the transcript and netizen responses to the talk. Zhao Dingxin asserted provocatively: Weibo is an absolutely democratic but highly […]

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