The discussion on China’s social media has been going on for three to four years. Scholars and researchers write papers on it, marketing planners both within and outside China want to use this fast-growing tool to prop their business, even ordinary Internet users like my friends in Hong Kong, Canada, and the United States are now on WeChat, the largest and fast-developing standalone messaging app by monthly active users.

But what exactly is (are) Chinese social media? What are some of the most popular social media platforms in China? Who are using them for what? Below are four points you need to know to help address these questions.

  • The sheer scale of Chinese Internet and social media use is just big, with increasing number of people going mobile.

As one of Chairman Mao’s widely quoted phrases goes, “人多力量大” (many hands make light work). So is the case of social media in China. One of the key reasons why we are talking about China social media in Canada, U.S. and many other places outside China today is because of its sheer scale. By the end of 2014, China’s online population has reached 649 million, almost half of its population is online. What’s new and noticeable is that, more than 5 million users are now going mobile. Such mobility and portability can lead to stronger social mobilization, decrease the digital gap between urban and rural China, and it is what make social media powerful today.

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But what do such big numbers mean exactly? Well, if we compare it to Canada, Chinese online population is almost 20 times more than the entire Canadian population.Research also suggests that the average Chinese netizens spend 25 hours on the Internet per week. The time slots where Chinese use social media the most are: after meal, before meal, before sleep, while commuting, or while at study or work. That is to say, on an individual level, the scale of Chinese social media users might be that every one in three urbanites’ daily life would be like this: they get up at 7.30 am, read a bunch of news notification from their mobile news apps or Weibo. Then, if they run into a heavily polluted day (as it frequently happens in major Chinese cities), they’ll probably go to social media such as WeChat, or Weibo while they are commuting and post pictures of the air pollution. If they happened to be browsing Weibo in early 2011, they would almost absolutely run into posts about the Saving Abducted Children by taking photo of them and posting them on Weibo.

This incidence explains why social media, even thought heavily censored, are still relevant and important to China and the outside world. China’s policies are often seen as being made inside a black box without consulting ordinary citizens and that ardently citizens usually lack the resources or power to exercise their rights to supervise the policy-making and law-enforcing bodies. In the case of the campaign for  saving abducted children campaign on Weibo, it not only caught traditional media’s attention, one of the initiators, Yu Jianrong from the China Academy of Social Science, levelled up the campaign and wrote a proposal to the National People’s Congress, hoping to amend relevant polices.

  • Social media is disaggregate.

Social media is not a homogeneous concept. Many of us have been talking about Weibo, WeChat, while in fact there are hundreds of social media service in China. Inspired by a Western social media-based marketing diagram, I made a simplified, Chinese version of social media landscape.

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Because of the Great Fire Wall, social media in China is very much of Chinese characteristics. Such phenomena has been referred to by some researchers on Chinese Internet innovation as “C2C model” — Copy to China. You guys have Twitter, we have Weibo. While Facebook and LinkedIn are two of the most popular social media in Canada, they are either not accessible or do not have a large user base in China. Instead, we have QZone, Renren, Kaixin, which basically fulfills all the Facebook/LinkedIn functions you can think of. Then we have WeChat as instant messaging service substitute for Whatsapp and Snapchat, Youku, and Tudou for Youtube, and we also have perhaps the fastest growing e-commerce sites in the world.

However, for scholars and researchers who want to follow quality intellectual debates, these popular social media platforms are NOT an ideal place to go to. Along with Dr. Timothy Cheek, professor at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, I have compiled a list of New Left, Liberal, Confucian-leaning platforms where Chinese intellectuals write and read on. As it turns out, almost all of them are traditional blogging platform or bulletin boards.

  • Neither are Chinese social media users homogeneous.

If we take a closer on at social media users’ behaviours, we would see a difference between urbanites and ruralists. In Tier-1 cities, people use social media as often as they breathe. The amount and frequency this group of people is exposed to the Internet and social media is significantly higher than other groups in China. If a “Twitter Revolution” (in China’s case, it would be a Weibo or WeChat revolution) were to happen, it would probably first ignite among this group.

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Tier-2 cities users tend to go to social media for online shopping more often, whereas in less developed cities, the economic, political, social impact of social media might be much smaller because people consider them primarily as a tool to watch video or chat with friends.

Now, what about different platforms? Is the rising WeChat just another newer version Weibo or are there any differences? In fact, they are very different.

Weibo, however controlled it is, is still resembles a public square where information travels relatively fast and can reach a wide audience.That’s why even today when Weibo is said to be dying, many would still go to Weibo for reading and sharing real-time news. Comparatively speaking, less people actively write posts by themselves on Sina Weibo. In this sense, Weibo serves primarily as a source of the latest news and information to many Chinese. WeChat, on the other hand, is what I call a close-knit social network. The travel path of certain information on WeChat is both smaller and shorter than that on Weibo, and because of it, the censorship on WeChat is less heavy or more subtle than that on Weibo (at least as of now). Instead of telling you a post has been deleted “according to law and regulation”, on WeChat you will see the below message when you try to read a deleted article — “The content is reported by multiple users. Relevant content cannot be viewed.”

  • Chinese government’s attitudes toward social media are mixed and it’s not all about suppression. 

When it comes to China’s Internet and social media, Western media and scholars tend to focus on how much censorship  and suppression it is experiencing. The truth is, yes, there is suppression, but there is more than suppression. Less attention is paid to government programs like Safe Beijing, which seek to increase the use of Internet technology as a tool to promote citizen-state interaction and to increase the availability of social services through what is known as “e-government,” which is categorized into three areas by Greenland and Ranerup, that is, facilitate access to information and public services, improve the quality of public services, and provide citizens with opportunities for interaction.

One of the channels where the government steps up its e-governance services is social media, starting from Sina Weibo to Tencent WeChat. The first Chinese political microblog dates back to 2009 when “taoyuan.gov.cn” run by the government of Taiyuan county in Hunan province, south-central China, opened its microblog on Sina Weibo. Since then, political microblogging has witnessed a skyrocketing growth in China. The trend is further encouraged after the 18th Communist Party Congress promised to establish a “service-oriented government” (服务型政府, fuwuxing zhengfu). In a similar vein, Premier Li Keqiang unveiled in his Government Work Report in March 2015 and stressed the need for more state investment in the Internet sector, a move he referred to as the “Internet Plus” strategy. By the end of 2014, there are nearly 280,000 government Weibo accounts in China, ranging from Weibo of police departments, China’s Supreme Court, to individual government officials. Governments from south-eastern China are most active on Sina Weibo, with Jiangsu and Guangdong province having more influential Weibo accounts than others. Department-wise, the Youth League Committees, public security agencies, and propaganda departments use Weibo the most. According to the national e-government ranking by the United Nation, although China only ranks in the upper middle range at 70th in 2014, it has nonetheless gone up eight place since 2012.

In the next blog post, I’ll introduce some tools, academic paper, and scholars I find useful and inspiring for research on China Internet and social media. It helps me collect more comprehensive data from social media and keep track of the trending topics as well as censorship on Chinese Internet. Stay tuned!

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