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David Wertime

China’s Party Mouthpiece Shows Its Human Side on Social Media

The headline reads "Top 10 Drunken Mao Zedong Twitter Gaffes." No it doesn't

The Chinese Communist-Party controlled People’s Daily, a newspaper known for insufferable lockstep propaganda since its 1948 founding, has entered the age of social media. On July 22, the People’s Daily (@人民日报 ) sent its first tweet on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, and immediately showed netizens something they had not expected from the staid publication: Candor and humanity. 

The paper’s first-ever tweet read, “Beijing’s great storms; a whole night without sleep. The People’s Daily official Weibo account will be carefully watching along with everybody else. We are praying for every person who has not yet arrived home safely, and salute every person still fighting on the front lines of the rescue! Go Beijing!” {{1}}[[1]]京暴雨,整夜无眠。人民日报官方微博与大家共同守望。为每一位尚未平安到家的人祈福,向每一位仍然奋战在救援一线的人致敬!北京,加油![[1]] 

At first, netizens could not believe it. Although the paper has worked in recent years to cultivate an online presence less staid than its Party provenance might suggest, most Chinese still view the publication with suspicion. (One popular joke: Q: What’s the one thing you can trust on the front page of the People’s Daily? A: The date.) 

Predictably, netizens responded to this first tweet with their usual skepticism and sardonic humor. Many simply commented on the first tweet to see if the comment functionality worked–after all, the recently-launched Chinese version of the New York Times does not permit commenting on its site. @马雪斋 scoffed, “You came? Are you ready to get insulted?” @悬崖中山楂树 sighed, “The big cheat’s here.” @司马逸云 joked, “The People’s Daily is my favorite print media, the most conscientious, the most truthful…why do I suddenly feel ill?” 

Others just wanted to be part of history. @azheng_258 wrote, “This is a historic first tweet, I’m leaving my name. No matter what, this shows an open attitude, and that’s a good thing.”

Indeed, a surprising thing has happened over the last two weeks: The People’s Daily Weibo account has remained, well, something that looks like it was written by a human being. Over the course of over 490 tweets to its now 347,000-plus followers, it has demonstrated an unexpected degree of social media savvy. It has, for example, apparently let unfavorable comments stand, and has tweeted about the food for reporters at the London Olympics (the verdict: not good). 

According to media reports in China, the social media division at People’s Daily has a six-member staff made up of graduates of elite Chinese universities in their early 30′s or late 20′s. Perhaps reflecting the views of this relatively young staff, the People’s Daily’s Weibo account has also proven surprisingly liberal. Through tweets tagged “micro comments” (微评论) and daily “Hello, tomorrow” messages posted just before midnight, it has repeatedly called on various government organs to show more transparency, or even to apologize for their mistakes. The People’s Daily recently criticized the [Tianjin city] government’s unwillingness to be more forthcoming about the number of dead in a recent fire, writing: “In some places, the numbers of dead have in the past become sensitive topics, which ultimately [only] reduces public trust.” {{2}}[[2]]【微评论:让死亡人数“脱敏”】“因灾死亡人数及时向社会公布”,北京市委书记郭金龙的要求,是一种负责态度。在一些地方,灾难死亡数字往往成为敏感话题,最终消解了公信力、稀释了凝聚力。让死亡数字“脱敏”,人们才会看到敢担当、能负责的政府,才能相信政府痛定思痛、浴“水”重生的决心。[[2]] When addressing a report issued on the state of China’s social security finances, they wrote, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant; disclosure is the best regulation.” 

Recently, the People’s Daily even jumped into the massive ongoing Weibo discussion about the fate of Tang Hui, a street vendor who was sent to a labor camp because she protested for justice after men kidnaped her 11-year-old daughter, raped her, and forced her into prostitution. A recent “Hello, tomorrow” tweet argued angrily, and eloquently, that “Today, the Hunan province legal committee has dispatched an investigation team to Yongzhou to investigate; the Tang Hui case awaits a just resolution. Wide and sustained attention proves that this much is a fact: In today’s China, a kind of ‘positive energy’ is growing fast, and that is the safeguarding of the rule of law, the guarding of truth, and the defense of justice. This, right here, is where our power to change things for the better lies. Let’s keep paying attention, and work together! Goodnight.” Netizens responded by re-tweeting the comment over 14,000 times.  {{3}}[[3]]【你好,明天】今天,湖南省政法委成立调查组赴永州调查,唐慧案等待一个公正的结果。广泛而持续的关注,证明这样一个事实——今日之中国,一种“正能量”在旺盛生长,那就是对法治的捍卫、对真相的护卫、对正义的守卫。这,正是我们改进的力量所在。继续关注,一起努力!晚安。[[3]]

The People's Daily is all of a sudden not entirely un-hip

Disclosure? The “positive energy” of social media? It’s hard to believe that this is same publication that once ran long, hagiographic tributes to brutal Chairman Mao Zedong (not to mention General Stalin, when he was in town for a visit and the two nations were still simpatico). And in some ways, it isn’t; the paper has faced declining governmental subsidies since the mid-90s, and has responded in part with online products that often are more candid (and interesting) than their staid print counterparts. Nonetheless, the contrast between the People Daily’s web presence and reader expectations has given many observers a pleasant surprise.

This may be why netizens are now more likely to praise the People’s Daily Weibo account than condemn it; in Chinese Internet code, it has gone from being an “sb” (dumbass) to an “nb” (badass). This doesn’t mean the account, or the underlying newspaper, has stopped showing a pro-China point of view, but it does mean that China’s own people at least feel the publication is thinking about their interests, not just the wishes of powerful bureaucrats. That’s a good thing for People’s Daily, but also a good sign that the power of Chinese social media continues to make the Middle Kingdom a more just place–even if it’s only one tweet at a time.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.