China's social media may diversify amid crackdown on celebrity bloggers

Chang Ping says while the Chinese government's attack on the 'big V' celebrity bloggers is petty, in the long run, a blogosphere without these groomed opinion makers may not be a bad thing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 3:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 3:23am

After prominent online commentator Charles Xue Biqun, better known as Xue Manzi, was detained on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes, Pan Shiyi, another household name in online media, appeared on a CCTV programme and stammered while speaking about the social responsibility of China's star bloggers.

The government's crackdown on internet speech has clearly shaken its "big V" online celebrities (those with a "verified" Sina Weibo account), who have become more careful about what they say and post - not least because a post deemed defamatory that has been forwarded over 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 times could land them in jail, under rules announced by judicial authorities in August.

Still, the propaganda department is not satisfied. Last week, a party propaganda magazine published an online commentary attacking former Google China chief Lee Kai-fu, questioning his claim that he has cancer.

Interestingly, the latest public opinion analysis published by the People's Daily Online said: "The public have obviously become less concerned about information about political and current affairs …We should see that, as "big V" users have collectively avoided discussing political and current issues, the public has become less concerned about the widespread flooding in Yuyao, Zhejiang province. This has exposed the government's weakness in public opinion management. The lack of positive energy and the spreading of rumours have resulted in an information blackout in Yuyao."

This observation revealed a truth about Sina Weibo's "big V" system that even propaganda officials seem to have forgotten; it is already a way to manipulate public opinion, by recasting new media like social networks in the mould of traditional media.

The emergence of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the like have undermined the government's control of the media. In traditional media, content has to go through layers of processing - writing, editing, layout and more - before it is published, and at any point it can be changed, modified or censored. In such a system, few are free to speak.

With new media, however, everyone has a platform to speak, and is free to do so as long as his or her speech does not infringe other people's rights. The spirit of new media is equality for all.

Of course, this is unacceptable to an authoritarian government, which demanded internet companies submit themselves to control. Companies that refuse to comply and have no way of circumventing the rules, like Google, Twitter and Facebook, are banned from operating on the mainland. Chinese firms that saw the potential commercial gain of their business, such as Baidu, Sina and Tencent, were more accommodating.

Sina Weibo's "big V" system tried to please both the authorities and their customers. The requirement to verify users' identities is not new; Sina learned that from Twitter. But the Chinese firm went further and turned it into a tool of control against the spirit of new media.

"V" may as well mean VIP, because Sina treats its "big V" users as such - recommending their posts, creating hype for them, and even added fake followers to their account to boost their popularity. This makes "big V" users feel important, as if they have the world at their command.

Many journalists who worked in the traditional media, such as myself, were at first invited to join the "big V" system. But my posts were soon blocked or removed. Many other commentators who favoured digging deep into current affairs often ran into the same problems - their posts were deleted, and they found themselves being censored or marginalised.

As Sina found out, show business stars and big-name entrepreneurs are not only popular with internet users, they rarely make controversial comments. So Sina took care to groom them. At the start, their posts tended to be on innocuous topics like fashion and business. But with traditional media muzzled, social media has to step up, and these celebrity users found themselves doing more. The recurring incidents of major public concern in recent years also pushed them to speak up.

People who aspire to live in a healthy, normal society are drawn to ideals of democracy and freedom. "Big V" bloggers are no exception, and this irks the propaganda authorities. But these bloggers mostly toe the line: they avoid politically sensitive subjects - not a word, for instance, on June 4, cases of self-immolation in Tibet or the unrest in Xinjiang - and try to broadcast posts of "positive energy". And because of their large number of followers, they shape the social media with what they say - and don't say.

The official attack on "big V" bloggers shows up the pettiness and ruthlessness of China's new leadership. But from a wider perspective, their waning influence in the blogosphere will promote the diversity of opinion and more even distribution of information, making public opinion control even more difficult. This would be in line with the spirit of equality in the new media, and would truly expose the government's weakness in opinion management.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from the Chinese