Minami Funakoshi senior contributor

Chinese Blogosphere Reacts to Japanese Hostage Deaths With Burning Candles — And Smiley Faces

The Chinese Web version of Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, posted the following image on Sina Weibo, China’s most active microblogging platform:

The screenshots shows two remarkably similar posts, the top from Sina’s Weibo platform, which has about 400 million users, the lower from Internet giant Tencent’s own Weibo platform, which, according to last year’s announcement, has about 540 million users. The two posts in the screenshot have the same headline, “Algeria: seven Japanese hostages perish.” They uploaded the same photo, that of Japanese Prime Minister Abe and other ministers in his cabinet, and link to the same Asahi Shimbun article.

The post refers to the Algeria hostage crisis that erupted on January 16, 2013, when Islamist militants seized a gas field complex in the Sahara dessert and held over 30 foreigners hostage. To resolve the issue, Algerian forces entered the scene; the ensuing four-day conflict between militants and troops left 37 foreign hostages dead. Of the 37 foreign hostages, ten were Japanese. (After the posting of this comment, three more Japanese deaths were confirmed.)

But even a reader with no Chinese language skills will notice a troubling difference: at top, commenters lit virtual candles of mourning; at bottom, reactions consisted of laughter and celebration.

The Chinese people have long had mixed feelings toward Japan. After the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake — the largest ever recorded in Japanese history — hit the island nation, some Chinese Web users expressed condolences, while others rejoiced in Japan’s tragedy. But why is there such a sharp divide between users of two different Weibo platforms? Are Chinese Web users on Sino Weibo more sympathetic toward the Japanese? Does anti-Japan sentiment really run stronger on Tencent Weibo?

Yet another digital divide — maybe

Some Chinese Web users certainly think so. “Sina Weibo users are obviously relatively mature,” posted one user, @卟懂_作业先森他不爱我, on Sina Weibo. “This is why I don’t use Tencent Weibo,” commented another user, @姬旦. Defenders of Tencent Weibo, however, attribute the difference in online reaction to the different degrees of censorship. “This is because some posts on Sina Weibo were ‘killed,’” argued @千树枯, “If you look at it from this perspective, Sina Weibo is truly tragic!”

The mechanics of Weibo chatter

According to reinforcement theory, people seek out information, discussions and forums that confirm, rather than challenge, their pre-existing views. With time, however, it is apparent that debates in these threads became more divergent and less black-and-white. In the case of the Asahi Shimbun’s tweets, Sina Weibo users with strong anti-Japan sentiments may have flocked to Tencent, and sympathetic Tencent Weibo users to Sina Weibo.

Over time, however, reactions of Sina and Tencent Weibo users, initially quite divergent, came to resemble one another. Over the five days following its initial posting on Sina Weibo, Asahi Shimbun’s tweet garnered more varied responses. Amidst posts with burning candles and expressions of condolences were malicious comments such as: “The Japanese dogs will finally become obedient and well-behaved,” (@微笑塞亚) and “It serves them right; little Japan should die” (@评论比内容更精彩).

This shift in user reactions perhaps points to an overall pattern in online activity on Chinese social media: an initial stage of uniformity and extremism, followed by gradual divergence. If this is the case, what causes opinions to deviate from each other? Does one outspoken user’s comment trigger others to express opposing views as well? The answer remains unclear in the chaos of Weibo chatter.

The dangers of reading Weibo at a glance

Asahi Shimbun’s observation not only highlights potential differences between the Sina and Tencent platforms, but showcases the danger of culling sentiment from Weibo posts by looking at only one point in time. No matter how uniform they may initially seem, opinions expressed on any one thread change over time, and are not necessarily representative of overall public opinion. Especially in China — where many netizens rely on Weibo as their first and main source of information — the volatility of reactions to information on the platform can plant skewed views in the minds of its users.

This should be something for foreign China-watchers who follow Weibo to keep in mind too. Netizen opinion is fickle, time-dependent, and unreliable — especially when viewed as a proxy for Chinese opinion.

So, icons of burning candles or smiley face emoticons — which truly represents Chinese reaction to the news of Japanese hostage deaths in Algeria? The answer is: both.

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Minami Funakoshi

After spending her childhood in India, Malaysia, and Japan, Minami moved to the U.S. to attend Yale University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Beijing and Taipei to improve her Chinese. She will work as an editorial intern at the Wall Street Journal Hong Kong Office through the Robert L. Bartley Fellowship Program.