This article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
Sina Weibo, China’s most active and influential micro-blogging platform, has long been heralded as a revolution in the way Chinese interact with the state and with each other. But on the eve of a power transition taking place behind closed doors, many online are beginning to question what permanent change Chinese social media has truly wrought.
To be fair, there is no shortage of discrete examples of Weibo’s power. Some of the most significant events of President Hu Jintao’s second five-year tenure trace their genesis not to the Communist Party, but to the microblogging platform. It has been instrumental in revealing abuses of power and breaking scandals which would have otherwise been hushed up or airbrushed in China’s mainstream media. Weibo has also had an undeniable impact on decisions taken at the local level; just this year, governments in the cities of Shifang, Ningbo and Qidong all backed off from development plans after environmental protests broke out among smartphone-brandishing citizens.
While Weibo can on occasion help incite real change, even on the streets, the sheer number of injustices that flash almost daily across Chinese Web users’ respective feeds means that citizens, armed with social media alone, simply do not have the power to combat even a small portion of them. As a result, some measure of ennui and resignation has begun to set in. In late October, online personality Zuoye Ben (@作业本), a pseudonymous Weibo user known for original and often critical views, gave voice to a growing feeling of fatigue among social media users. In a post commemorating three years of using the Weibo service, Zuoye Ben concluded that “Weibo has not changed China, it has just changed you and me: I have gradually got used to being cold and indifferent, just like you have slowly got tired of Weibo.” These words have been re-posted over [30,000] times and have garnered over [10,000] comments.
Zuoye Ben continued: “When I see houses that have been forcibly demolished, normal people mysteriously disappearing, tragic car accidents, people on their knees, all sorts of projects made of tofu [slang for construction using shoddy materials]… I’m not really that angry any more. Instead I have a feeling like when you watch TV shows and see the same things happening over and over again. In the end I know that the only thing I’m left with is numbness. In the past I’d get so angry. I’d be cursing the fact that such shocking things could happen in China [...] now after three years I find that nothing shocks me anymore.”
Many of the users who read Zuoye Ben’s lament responded with similar sentiments. Among the [10,000] plus comments posted in response, @季末‘s is representative: “Weibo hasn’t changed anything; it just lets you find out about even more unfortunate and unfair things that are happening all the time. I know you [Weibo users] are gradually ceasing to be surprised by anything.” User @天上小云 added: “I reckon I don’t need three years to end up feeling the same as [Zuoye Ben]! These days my attitude to Weibo is like “chicken ribs” — flavorless, but a pity to waste.”
This increasing indifference toward the service may seem surprising in light of the growing official recognition of Weibo’s capacity to effect change. An August editorial in the English language version of the Global Times, a newspaper seen as having close connections to the Chinese Communist Party, put it this way: “Recently, China has seen a growing number of cases in which public opinions have triggered authorities to change their decisions. In other words, a ‘model’ has emerged in which actions by the public led to errors being corrected by the local government.”
However, a closer inspection reveals why, for many, this “model” can never be sufficient. Taken alone, Weibo is inadequate as a tool for delivering social justice because the service is not an open forum for comment — the Chinese government maintains firm control over how wide this window of free discussion is allowed to open. When debate grows too ferocious, authorities have the power to choke it off, banning keyword terms and strategically disabling functions to tamp down discussion. Just this week, according to the Hong Kong University based China Media Project posts merely speculating on who would fill the seats in the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese leadership’s inner circle, were deleted.
As a result the service finds itself in a position similar to that of the country’s legal system. In theory, Weibo is a platform for citizens to give feedback and raise complaints, but ultimately the Party has the final say on whether anyone can open their mouth or not. When authorities do on occasion respond to pressure online, they do so unilaterally after the fact; web users never gain the satisfying sense they have engaged in a true dialogue with their government, or have enjoyed the benefit of due process.
Worryingly, a common theme among many of those who commented on Zuoye Ben’s post was that feelings of helplessness have led to apathy, not just toward online life, but all of life in modern China. User @颍川陈wrote, “Society is getting colder and colder; it’s best to stay hidden away. It’s not about not hearing things, it’s about deliberately not letting oneself hear them.” @大头娃奋斗不息 added, “Keeping even just a little bit of faith in your heart is so very, very difficult. It’s impossible to change things; all you can do is stay silent and try to avoid them happening to you.”
Perhaps some have been guilty of putting too much faith in social media as a change agent. Going into a new era of leadership, what China still needs is real political reform if it is to give its increasingly well-educated and well-informed citizens a chance to do more than just react with horror to injustices they can ultimately do little to change.