World of Weibo

Peer pressure

Li Wenrong

“Hello netizens of Spring City! I am Kunming’s mayor Li Wenrong and today I opened a Sina microblog.”

It was a cheery opening for the mayor’s debut on weibo on May 17, although there was some suspicion that it might not really be Li himself, as he hadn’t posted a personal photo on his account.

Most netizens were willing to give Li the benefit of the doubt, says 21CN Business Herald, as he delivered his first message at 9am, the time at which government bosses in Kunming are said to start work.

Within 12 hours, Li had 40,000 followers. In part that was because he had promised to launch the weibo a day before, in response to a local angry mood at plans to locate a paraxylene (PX) plant near the city. The project, which was given the go-ahead in March, links to a pipeline bringing in natural gas from the Bay of Bengal. Local residents oppose the plant on health grounds and have protested on the streets.

True to his word, Li launched his weibo, doing his best to brighten the mood by keeping things breezy.

”I will carefully sort and respond to your questions as soon as possible. I hope we can offer support and understanding,” he promised, finishing his first message with a smiley face emoticon.

A short while later he was back in contact. “Today I have read a lot of netizen threads and most of them are very concerned about the PetroChina refinery project in Yunnan,” he confided. “Although in the May 10 press conference I explained this, I am now posting the specific content for everyone to learn more about it.”

Li isn’t the only public servant to try to communicate by weibo. His predecessor started one as well, promising followers he would “grasp your opinions and suggestions in a timely manner”. Others have made similar commitments. According to 21CN, a senior party boss in Shaanxi claims to read messages sent to his own microblog before he goes to bed every night. A vice-governor of Guizhou has also kept himself busy, earning headlines by responding to netizens on matters as mundane as why soldiers should get preferentially priced air tickets.

Even the most turgid of material seems to draw in an audience. A senior official in Zhejiang running the Party’s provincial Organisation Department has managed to rack up 9.1 million followers, according to 21CN, by sharing tidbits about GDP growth, training for local cadres and news on the development of a credit rating system.

At least the vice mayor of Nanning sounds like a more colourful exception – all 80 of his posts consist of photos of musical performances staged by the Zhuang ethnic minority in his city.

How about Mayor Li, whose early handling of the protests in Kunming seemed to indicate an impressive readiness to communicate with the local citizens, including speaking directly to demonstrators at the beginning of May?

“I am the mayor and also a citizen and I live here like anyone else,” Li told the crowd. “Your demands for the protection of Kunming are consistent with the government’s aspirations. If the majority of the people says yes to the launch of the PetroChina project, the government will approve; and if the majority of the people says no to the project, the government will not approve.”

Li has kept up the effort to win people over through his weibo account.

“Today we invited 23 citizens to discuss the PX plant. We had a nice chat,” he told his readers last Tuesday. The next day he was back on message, mentioning that the project could provide more than 3,000 jobs.

But reports in the Global Times this week suggest limits to how openly the local government wants the debate to get on the location of the proposed plant, including a ban on printing T-shirts that mention the controversy.

To discourage protesters, stores that print shirts are said to be asking for customer details and submitting them to the police. “If the customer does not ask for sensitive words like ‘health’ or ‘PX’, we will not ask for their information,” one printer reassured the reporter.

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