Social media in China redraws old battle lines between left and right

Social media like Weibo is helping China have the type of debate it hasn't seen in decades

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 5:11am

"P*** off and go abroad" is an insult that writer Li Chengpeng faces every day. Many conservatives want the former soccer commentator to leave the country and don't shy away from telling him so on microblogs or to his face at book readings.

Such reactions, blunt as they are, show how much political debate in China, beyond the rigid lines of Communist Party discourse, has changed and how hip writers like racing driver Han Han and Li are in the thick of it.

The leftist wumao [government-paid online commentators] are looking for a fight with liberals," he said. "That's why that group seems to be bigger than it actually is

"Students who took to the streets in support of the government during the Olympics have not turned into conservatives," said Xiong Wei, a Peking University law scholar, referring to the 2008 protests in Beijing by hundreds of students opposed to "foreign interference" in Tibet.

Much of the change has been driven by Sina Weibo, the Chinese social network similar to Twitter that had 500 million users last year. Officials have been able to pull down controversial posts and block search terms on sensitive topics, but posts spread fast before being removed.

"Weibo has changed the opinions of many people. Back then, many people supported the government in what they saw as an attack from the West," Xiong said. "Many have now realised that they had been wrong."

The lines have been redrawn between left and right, or what others call conservatives versus liberals or patriots versus the West, he added.

"The values Li talks about are not Western, but universal," said Hu Yong , a Beijing-based liberal media scholar. "In this sense, it's enlightening."

The appeal of new social critics like Li - handsome, funny and fierce - is their stark contrast to an older generation of academic dissidents and traditional leftists.

Those on the left recognise that they are losing their appeal. Some commentators on Weibo "have millions or even tens of millions of followers", Ren Xianliang , a vice-chairman of the All-China Journalists Association, said in an article last week in the party journal Red Flag.

For Xiong, the leftists are a small but vocal minority.

"The leftist wumao [government-paid online commentators] are looking for a fight with liberals," he said. "That's why that group seems to be bigger than it actually is."

The moment the debate changed, said Xiong, was a brawl at Beijing's Chaoyang Park last July. Leftist microblogger Wu Danhong , who posts on Weibo under the alias Wu Fatian, confronted a group of liberals who were in the company of the Sichuan Television journalist Zhou Yan and the prominent artist Ai Weiwei .

The altercation, though little more than pushing and shoving, became more significant online, where insults continue to be traded in a way they would be hardly tolerated on the streets. It culminated in an assault on Li at a book launch in January.

Li's book, The Whole World Knows, became an instant bestseller to the chagrin of leftists "who see social criticism as unpatriotic", said Hu Yong , an associate professor at Peking University's school of journalism.

The renewed debate on values and the direction of the country is taking is a good thing, said Hu, adding that "China hasn't had such a debate for decades".

"Both right and left want to change the course society is taking," he said. "The most frightening thing is neither the left or right, but vested interests seeking to maintain the status quo."