Chinese parliamentary sessions 2014

Beijing still struggles to make voice heard through Sina Weibo

With 100,000 official microblogging accounts, the government has a presence in the social media world, but its voice could be better heard

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 4:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 4:38am

This week's political meetings in Beijing will be attended by thousands of the nation's most powerful lawmakers, hundreds of whom reach out to their communities back home through social media sites such as Sina Weibo.

While the number of verified government accounts on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblog service, has grown steadily over the past few years, it remains to be seen how effective they are in influencing public opinion.

Beijing has long recognised the sway of social media and sought to control it. In 2013, Premier Li Keqiang said the administration was in the "era of weibo", and Li Jingtian, senior vice-president of the Communist Party's Central Party School, told the Davos forum social media was strengthening oversight of Chinese officials, and this was "a very good thing".

As of October, there were 100,151 government Sina Weibo accounts, 66,830 of which were department ones and 33,321 belonging to individual officials, according to a report by the People Online Public Monitoring Office.

Of the individual accounts, only 36 belong to those in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy. Nearly 1,890 were slightly below minister-level, and just over 10,250 were at the county-level, while the rest were held by lower level officials.

"The government is making effective use of Sina Weibo both through official accounts and a more modest number of personal accounts of officials," said Jeremy Goldkorn, a media expert.

In recent years, Sina Weibo has been a conduit for the anti-corruption campaign, exposing corruption and channelling public support for those who try to gather evidence of wrong-doing.

"I hope the National People's Congress delegates will pay special attention to the topics that Weibo users care about, especially corruption and the environment" said Zhuo Yuexiong, an avid weibo user in Shen zhen.

The number of new microblogs created each year has slowed, due in part to the rising popularity of social messaging apps like Tencent's WeChat, as well as the crackdown on "rumour-mongers" on Weibo. Many opinion-makers with verified accounts have left the platform out of fear of getting into trouble for public remarks.

Zhuo, who has 400,000 Sina Weino followers, said government officials were less keen to exhibit personal flair in their microblog posts. "Their words sound very official, much more filtered than before," he said.

In September, the nation's top legal authorities said people would be held criminally liable for "false online posts" that were viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times. Authorities targeted influential microblog commentators, some of them whom were detained.

"The government also uses 'grass-roots accounts' that appear to be by ordinary internet users to disseminate certain types of propaganda, such as photos of Xi Jinping visiting restaurants", Goldkorn said.

The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meets today, while the National People's Congress will open its annual session on Wednesday.