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What Microblogs Aren’t Telling You About China

In China, where notions of freedom of speech and freedom of expression are seen by the government as secondary to the all-important ideal of social stability, there is little space, if any, for truly open and unmediated public conversation. Elections, the media, and protests, where they exist, are ultimately subject to top-down government control. Certain topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the personal lives of the nation’s top political leaders, are off-limits altogether.

Given this context, it’s not surprising that journalists, academics, and China-watchers interested in knowing “what the Chinese people are really talking about” have seized on the rise of the Internet and in particular on social media services such as Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, the two biggest microblogging platforms. With a combined user base of over 600 million users, the Sina and Tencent services are seen as the closest approximation of a public sphere, a Speaker’s Corner of sorts for open debate and discussion. These days, it is not uncommon to see quotes from Weibo users slotted into academic essays, news reports, and blogs and offered up as the alternative voice—the ordinary voice—of China. There are even entire web sites dedicated to tracking social media trends and translating user comments on Weibo.

... there is no way to know if a person who is being quoted really is who he or she claims to be.
But the elevation of the average Weibo user to the position of spokesperson for the masses isn’t as straightforward as it often seems. Sure, social media trends are interesting and important, and yes, Weibo does to a certain extent determine, or at least reflect, the national conversation. But the recently implemented system of real-name registration, which requires users signing up for Weibo to submit information such as personal ID numbers and telephone numbers, is useful only to the government in identifying users. For the rest of us, there is no way to know if a person who is being quoted really is who he or she claims to be.

This is particularly important at moments—like this one—when outside observers try to gauge the origins and extent of an apparent eruption of nationalism. It’s difficult to know which of the jingoistic posts that so often appear in news coverage come from the tens of thousands of wumaodang or “fifty centers,” the undercover Internet commentators the Chinese government pays to influence public opinion.

The increasing reliance on Weibo-sourced quotes begs the question: Who does the average Weibo user truly speak for? Which voices are missing?

In the absence of detailed information about the demographics of Weibo’s user base, looking at the makeup of China’s netizen population as a whole serves as a useful reminder of just how skewed the Chinese netizenry still remains. According to the 29th Statistical Report on International Development in China [PDF], released by the China Internet Network Information Center earlier this year, at the end of 2011, the overall Internet penetration rate in China still hovers around 40 percent, or 513 million netizens in a population of 1.3 billion. The netizen base is dominated by city-dwellers, with rural users making up only 26.5 percent of the total Internet population. A mere 7 percent of the population of people age fifty and above and 25 percent of people in their forties are online, compared to 73 percent of citizens in their twenties and 70 percent in their teens. As far as education goes, 96 percent of the population of college-educated citizens are online, whereas fewer than 10 percent of those who have received only primary school education or not even that have access to the Internet. The netizenry is also heavily skewed toward the eastern, more economically developed provinces. In Beijing, the Internet penetration rate is 70 percent, whereas in Yunnan, Jiangxi, and Guizhou it is less than 25 percent. And of this 513 million strong population of netizens, only about half, or 48.7 percent, use the Internet to access microblogs.

The numbers show that the Internet user base is still dominated by younger, urban, highly-educated Chinese who reside in the more highly-developed eastern provinces. It is very likely that this characterization is applicable to the Weibo user base as well, which leads me to make the next simple point: Weibo-sourced reportage is useful insofar as it provides a glimpse into the conversation among a certain segment of the Chinese population. There are still millions of Chinese people who have yet to join this “national conversation.” And yet these unheard voices are often those of the people most affected by the social and political issues netizens discuss. They are the rural citizens, ethnic minorities, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged. There is no question that the emergence of Weibo platforms and the Internet more generally has amplified the voices of the laobaixing—the ordinary people. But in order to know what the Chinese people are really talking about, it is not enough to just follow the viral videos and microblogs on Weibo.