Society

It’s a weibo world

Not heard of it? China’s latest online phenomenon…

A victory for the web: Peng Wenle, kidnapped boy, saved by weibo users

Peng Wenle is officially China’s most famous six-year-old. The child – kidnapped in Shenzhen three years ago – became headline news last week when he was reunited with his father, after a student living on the other side of the country had matched Wenle’s face to a picture he’d seen online.

The boy’s father, Peng Gaofeng, told the China Daily that the child was kidnapped in 2008. Desperate to find his son, Peng started posting pictures online. The story caught the attention of a reporter for Phoenix Weekly magazine, who told Peng’s tale and posted pictures of the young boy through his own Sina weibo account, a Chinese Twitter-like microblogging service. Thousands of users reposted the photos.

The student, from the city of Pizhou in coastal Jiangsu province, saw the pictures and thought he recognised the boy. Details of the case remain unclear and a DNA test is pending, but videos of Peng’s tearful reunion with his son have become a nationwide sensation in the local media.

“It’s a miracle, a miracle that could not be true without the help of netizens,” the father told the Chinese press.

Peng’s story says much about how microblogs are used in China.

Weibo (blogs capped at 140 characters) are a tool for celebrities to connect with their fans. The most popular is written by actress Yao Chen and has 5.9 million followers (see WiC50 for our first mention of her weibo). Another celebrity convert is Mark Roswell, better known locally as Dashan. The man still regarded as the “the most famous foreigner in China” (see WiC83) has just started out in the weibo world but has already lured 166,000 followers. Dashan offers everyday commentary (and also gives occasional English lessons).

But weibo – the majority of which are currently hosted by web giant Sina – are far more than a celebrity phenomenon. China’s internet users are now using them for everything from accessing news and information to fighting social injustice.

In fact, one of last year’s most prominent stories, the family in Jiangxi province that set itself on fire in protest at the demolition of their home, used Sina Weibo to broadcast their story. Thousands of microbloggers relayed the post, which was eventually picked up by domestic media. Government officials were forced to react and two local officials were sacked as a result.

“It’s not a revolution,” Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, told TIME magazine. “But this takes the ability of the internet to generate public opinion and the scope of information a big step further. It’s facing censorship, just as before. But political participation, among other things, has taken a big step forward because of microblogging.”

The ability of weibo (which directly translates as ‘microblog’) to disseminate information widely and quickly has proven a headache for China’s censors, which explains Beijing’s mixed feelings towards the service. Twitter was blocked in China in the days following the ethnic riots in Xinjiang in July 2009.

But the government clearly believes that weibo can be useful too. According to the Economist magazine, mid-ranking officials in Beijing are being trained in the art of weibo communication in an attempt to connect with the country’s younger, tech-aware population. Police officials are also leveraging social media as a means to solving criminal cases, and hundreds of public security bureaus in China have launched their own microblogs, said Xinhua in January.

Take the police force in Xiamen. It says that its microblog helped it catch the murderers of a three year-old girl after they used it to release details about the case, as well as offfer a Rmb5,000 reward. The message was forwarded more than 10,000 times, says the China Daily, leading to the uncovering of crucial information used in solving the case six days later.

The country’s microblogging population is already so big that it’s hard for Beijing to ignore. Hudong.com released a nationwide survey late last year indicating that around 25% of China’s 450 million internet users are micro-bloggers. Pick-up has been rapid. Analysys International, a market research firm, said there could be 145 million people using weibo by next year, up from eight million in 2009. And because weibo are easy to use on mobile phones, the target market goes far beyond PC penetration to the 850 million mobile phone population.

Sina Weibo, the leading microblogging service in China launched only two years ago, says it has so far attracted 50 million users who collectively post 25 million comments per day. The company says an average of 10 million new users have signed up for the service each month since last August. In comparison, Twitter, launched in 2006, had more than 160 million users worldwide as of September. It shouldn’t be long before Sina overtakes its US peer in user numbers.

One reason for Sina Weibo’s popularity is that it isn’t just a knock-off of its American counterpart. The Chinese site hosts voicemails, photos and videos, unlike Twitter, which relies on third parties for these features (so a Twitter user would be directed to a different location in search of this functionality – not the case for Sina). Charles Chao, Sina’s chief executive, claims his product is very much a homegrown champion, with features specifically designed for a Chinese audience. “When it was launched it [Sina’s weibo] was a much more advanced product than Twitter.”

Weibo fans can also comment on other user messages, and not just relay them, says TIME. Still, to appease the censors, Sina filters content for sensitive subjects before allowing posting. The word “Egypt” has been one of those blocked recently (see page 5).

Its success has also attracted the attention of investors, and Sina’s share price jumped to a record on speculation that Baidu and Alibaba.com, two of China’s most visited websites, were thinking about co-investing, technology consulting firm Marbridge Consulting reported in January. The company’s stock continues to trade close to its all-time high of $93.89.


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