The Power of Weibo: Bringing Transparency to Concealed Truth

Written on July 29, 2011
(Translated by krizcpec)

Those who want to have full understanding of the Wenzhou train collision that happened on July 23, 2011 may find the most comprehensive source of information to be microblogging (Weibo), instead of print media. I believe it is the unique function of information dissemination that made everything more transparent, and thereby revealing, to the extreme embarrassment of the Chinese government, the opacity of the country's social management.

Evolved from Twitter, Weibo has long been turned from a social tool into a media platform. Reputed to be the most diligent of their kind, Chinese netizens make use of Weibo's special features, bringing fully into play its function of aggregation of like-minded people, giving Weibo its transcendence over Twitter, both in terms of functional diversity and information capacity. The whole story of that train collision was gradually pieced together with bits and pieces of information circulated across Weibo.

Weibo played an important role in restoring the true death tolls. First, it enabled relatives of the victims to learn quickly about their loved ones. Xiang Yuyu, whose elder brother and sister-in-law were among the dead, managed to locate his niece, Xiang Weiyi, alive by accurate information he gathered via Weibo. Second, from the details shared on Weibo, the world learned that the official death toll at thirty-nine was not accurate. Guo Yao, a mother whose child was killed in the crash, questioned the Ministry of Railways why did her child's name not appear in the list of victims, and exactly, how many others were not included in that list?

Weibo played an equally important role in revealing the Ministry of Railways' swift burial of the locomotive. After the collision, the wreckage was cut, dismantled, and moved from the scene in less than four days; the damaged locomotive of D301 was even subjected to rough treatment of being buried first and dug up later. The speedy clearing of the scene of the accident; the sloppy handling of the cars and the locomotive; all these invited questions and criticism from the public. Photos taken at the scene, and the powerful waves of questions emerged first at Weibo, forced the related department to dig up the buried locomotive.

Weibo has been in close interaction with the mass media. I am aware that in the last two years, information on many of China's emergencies was published first in Weibo. Many journalists would stay nights and days on Weibo to find all sorts of useful leads, follow them, conduct interviews, and then publish the stories as fast as they could. But in this incident, the rapid interaction between Weibo and traditional media still make one feel the power of this form of social media. Information distributed by heavy users of Weibo became the earliest information source for the special feature on this tragedy; with micro-interviews, stories that would be difficult or impossible to publish in traditional media were presented in their entirety to the world in a swift and timely manner: from what relatives of the victims had gone through, to skepticism from journalists on scene and advice from professionals such as lawyers. These interactive processes didn't just help victims in seeking social assistance, they were also conducive to raising civil rights awareness.

Besides, Weibo has shown the world train-crash-related details that were lively but would definitely not make their way to appear in traditional media. For instance, when premier Wen Jiabao arrived at a press conference, an incident that “made the Chinese people feel most ashamed” occurred: Japanese media practitioners placed their cameras in the front and foremost position, when urged by their Chinese counterpart to lower their cameras, they refused, “What use would that be of? [Your footage] won't be aired anyway.” A remark that left the Chinese media practitioners lost for words. It was also first published on Weibo the story that Wang Qinglei, current producer of China Central Television news channel “24 hours”, has been suspended over her critical and frustrated remarks about the current situation of the country and the comment that the locomotive was buried too quickly. All this help the world see the ugly side of media control in China. 

Yang Feng, a man whose five relatives were killed in the crash, has been acting as the representative of the families of the victims until he completely changed his attitude after a meeting with officials. It was revealed on Weibo that Yang had been forced to keep quiet by the threat that he would lose his sixth relative. Subsequently, an essay entitled “Who is threatening Yang Feng? (是谁在威胁杨峰?)” was published in the BBC Chinese column of Let's talk about China (大家谈中国) on July 28, bringing the readers to the understanding of the illicit nature of the Chinese government.

As a form of new media, Weibo has its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of Weibo are: in terms of the speed in dissemination of information and the ability to organize and mobilize people, Weibo has a revolutionary role and impact; because of its low threshold for people to join in and the absence of watchers, anyone can publicize breaking stories that happen around them. These are why foreign media would see Weibo as “a real-time polling system to find out what's going on in China”. Besides, the amplification effect of Weibo, which traditional media and pre-microblogging online media are lacking, can help generate attention to the incident rapidly.

However, Weibo has the following weaknesses: being the first place where news stories are published, the reliability of their sources of information will need to be examined; the character limit of Weibo makes it impossible to go into details, thus it can only be a source of additional information and leads for traditional and pre-microblogging Internet media. Fortunately, many Chinese media professionals are on Weibo, their tips in using Weibo and experience sharing are able to promote information transparency in Chinese society. 

Through up close observation of the information dissemination function of Weibo, I feel that apart from the control of the Internet, there is another problem that would become a barrier for China's information transparency in future—the “intellectual fissure” resulted from the unequal share of network resource among members of Chinese society. This fissure would hinder the full play of Weibo's social intervention capacity. For example netizens are mostly concentrated in the eastern part of China; groups that have bigger say are mostly those possess, among other things, more political, cultural, and economic resources. In this incident, those families of the victims who could use Weibo clearly enjoyed an advantage in terms of obtaining information and seeking social assistance.