Score one for the censors, then. But in the longer term? Despite the filtering, Weibo is changing China. The conversation is often angry, and is increasingly leading people to take action at the local level. That must eventually lead people to question the broader system that allows corruption and injustice to thrive.
“Maybe this is working for the government, in that [China] is a big pressure cooker and this is a release valve,” says Mr. Bishop, the Internet expert. “But, clearly, this has gotten much bigger than anybody expected.”
The network’s hottest moments
Wenzhou train disaster
Arguably Weibo’s biggest moment to date. When two high-speed trains collided outside the city of Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, killing 40, Netizens on the trains were the first to report the crash and to call for blood donations. When the Railway Ministry tried to hide what had gone wrong – at one point burying one of the railway cars involved – millions of Weibo messages demanded that the car be dug up and an investigation be launched. A government panel ended up concluding that faulty equipment and corrupt officials shared the blame.<z_sym_heart_01>Environmental protests <extra_leading>
For weeks, Weibo users traded information about the health risks posed by living near a molybdenum copper plant like the one the local government planned to build in the city of Shifang, Sichuan. On July 1, thousands of residents took to the streets, shouting, “Kick out the copper factory!” After two days of intense confrontation – demonstrators smashed police cars, while police responded with truncheons and tear gas – the local government halted construction. The latest in a series of “not-in-my-backyard” protests organized via Weibo.
The photos were gruesome: 23-year-old Feng Jianmei lay exhausted on a hospital bed; beside her was the bloody body of her stillborn baby that doctors had forcibly aborted. Because Ms. Feng already had a six-year-old daughter, she was barred from having another by China’s one-child policy. Seven months pregnant, she was abducted by family-planning officials in Shaanxi province and given an injection to induce labour. The photos that were uploaded by enraged relatives sparked outrage online – “seven-months pregnant forced abortion” became the most-searched term on Sina Weibo. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” one user wrote.
For centuries, the city of Jinhua in coastal Zhejiang province held a “dog-meat festival” each October without incident. But last fall, Chinese animal-rights activists took to Sina Weibo with a jarring and simple campaign featuring photographs of dogs being caged, skinned, cooked and eaten. “This is not a festival, this is a massacre! Call on China to pass animal protection laws!” read the accompanying petition. It was quickly forwarded hundreds of thousands of times, and Jinhua officials decided to cancel the festival.
Being the local Communist Party boss in rural China used to mean you could misbehave with impunity. No longer. The party secretary in Lujiang, Anhui province, and the deputy party secretary of a Communist Youth League chapter discovered that Weibo really is everywhere in China after they were identified online as participants in orgy photographs that someone uploaded earlier this month, under the cheeky caption, “Comrades in Charge.” The younger comrade took the fall, admitting that he and his wife were two of the six swingers involved, while claiming the others were “strangers,” not the top party officials they resemble.
If the response to the Wenzhou train disaster was Weibo at its finest moment, the worst was seen in March when some users began posting that they had seen military activity – and even heard shots fired – near Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s leadership compound in the centre of Beijing. Coming amid the spectacular political defenestration of one-time party star Bo Xilai, Weibo lit up with rumours of an alleged coup d’état. There was no coup, and the online hysteria led to the introduction of a new system that can see Weibo users punished for perceived misconduct.
With research by Yu Mei in The Globe’s Beijing bureau.