The Blog

Can Online Protests Change China?

By David Wertime, Tea Leaf Nation co-founder and editor

What would a world without Weibo, China's Twitter, look like? It's increasingly hard to fathom one without it. Earlier this week, Mark MacKinnon of The Globe and Mail called it "the largest national public square in history." But he also noted the oft-repeated refrain of blogger Michael Anti, who argues forcefully that Weibo is "yet another tool of control."

Weibo can, of course, simultaneously be both a platform for debate and a steam valve for citizen discontent. But one of the most crucial questions about Weibo's social role has remained relatively unengaged: Can Weibo change China? Has it already?

The question is impossible for a mere mortal to answer

The question is so intriguing precisely because it can never be definitively answered. It requires what lawyers call a "counterfactual": If there had been no Weibo, what would have happened in the alternative? In particular, is Weibo acting as a steam valve-that is, siphoning off the energies of those who would take "real action" but are now content to complain online? Or, has Weibo drawn in Chinese who would otherwise never have become involved with political discussion at all? Or both?

Instead of resorting to abstractions, we must work backwards, looking at high-profile political events in China and searching for evidence that Weibo played some role. Certainly it is hard to believe Weibo has has noeffect on the world around it. The real question is, how much of an effect? Has it tilted in the direction of greater political participation, or, perversely, in the opposite direction?

One tempting case study-among many-is the reversal of fallen financier Wu Ying's death sentence. Ms. Wu was condemned to death by a provincial court earlier this year for "illegal fundraising," but when the Supreme People's Court conducted the required review of her death sentence, it essentially converted the sentence to life in prison. What happened? In the hours after Wu Ying's death sentence was announced,millions of tweets decrying her sentence flooded Weibo, at least before censors reduced that number to a mere 600,000.

Weibo as social proof

Some observers argued it was China's legal scholars and high-level opinion makers who tipped the scales, and not Weibo. But that's a false distinction. Many scholars, opinion makers, and government officials read Weibo tweets, and many tweet actively themselves.

While it may have been the final word of a scholar or official that saved Wu Ying, it's not hard to imagine high-level decision makers reading Weibo at some point in the months between Wu's death sentence and its reversal. In China's recent past, those who had an inkling Wu's sentence was wrong might merely have shared their feelings with friends in hushed tones and let the matter rest.

But in the age of Chinese social media, a quick visit to Weibo would have instantly proven those instincts to be widely shared. Opinion-makers and decision-makers privately opposed to Wu Ying's sentence may thus have felt more confident pushing for a reversal in the traditional, "real world" ways-in person, on the phone, over dinner.

That's "social proof" in a nutshell. When in doubt, people look at the behavior of those around them to ascertain what's appropriate conduct. In China's political arena, where ambiguity reigns, social proof's importance is only magnified.

Gather 'round! There are "shadow protests" every day

This all sounds like good news, but it's too much to say that Weibo thus functions as a "shadow democracy." At best, it's a weak simulacrum shot through with exceptions, deletions, and danger.

But, there is at least the ability to conduct a "digital protest," or a "shadow protest." In netizen parlance, it might be called "wei guan," (围观) or "gathering 'round." Netizens use the term broadly to call attention to the trivial, but also to the profound.

"Gathering 'round" perfectly captures both the power and the passivity of online protest. On one hand, netizen commenters or re-tweeters are doing nothing more than bearing witness to injustice. And yet, the number of witnesses is itself a projection of power. It sends the message that a large number of Chinese find a behavior, or an outcome, unacceptable. This remains true even if censors move to delete comments after the fact.

But it's not enough for netizens to express themselves; the government has to pay attention. The evidence suggests that it does. In the last year alone, the number of government officials or government organs with official Weibo accountsspiraled from 5,000 to 20,000. Surely, those using these accounts sometimes read as well as tweet.

And let's not forget those censors. Their overall influence is surely anti-democratic. But how do they receive their marching orders without telling someone high in the firmament where online sentiment is trending? It's likely high officials want at least a basic overview of political chatter on Weibo, even if it's to help them issue a gag order.

A new kind of protest

To be sure, famous Chinese blogger Han Han would not be impressed with all this "gathering." As he said in a 2011 interview with The Economist, "You feel like you could go open the window and you would see protesters on the street...but once you open the window, you realize that there's nothing there at all."

But a street protest is not the only way for citizen outrage to lead to change; it is just one manifestation of discontent. When people take to the streets, they both present, and expose themselves to, the possibility of physical confrontation. They provide a visible counter of how many people are deeply aggrieved, although protesters must take care to reach broad agreement on why they are dissatisfied and what they hope to accomplish.

Protest assumes a different form online. Protesters online may not be enraged enough to take to the streets-they may be only mildly annoyed. And they need not be unified in their complaints, or even think of themselves as protesters. The protest will look different from different angles, depending on what term is searched (or, as An Xiao Mina recently wrote, which memes take hold). It may also reach into the millions, or the tens of millions, far exceeding the scope of a street protest. It can touch on issues of broad, diffuse national interest that would be unlikely to manifest themselves in physical protests limited to a precise place and time.

So does China's government care when millions of people are upset-perhaps for different reasons-as opposed to knowing that thousands of people are outraged? In all likelihood, it does. Its response may simply be to censor the tweets, or to offer insufficient window-dressing, but that is still a response.

Is talk cheap?

"But talk," some may object, "is cheap, especially online." Indeed, Tea Leaf Nation recently covered the perverse "one-upsmanship" that can cause online sentiment to become artificially extreme. As netizens strive to be noticed above the fray, they tend to make increasingly acidic statements-even if their own views are actually more subtle.

Weibo-savvy government officials must be aware of this dynamic when they log in to have a peek. The question is whether they appropriately account for this effect: Do they overreact by not taking anything that gets said seriously? Do they under-react by taking netizen sentiment at something near face value?

Sometimes, they may not care what netizens really think. Every so often, a netizen is expelled from Weibo, or invited to meet with authorities-to "drink tea"-or is simply disappeared altogether in retaliation for a sufficiently heterodox tweet. In one recent example, The Economist reported that former Weibo power user Li Delin was apparently detained for issuing a tweet that inadvertently led to a coup rumor.

These incidents, while isolated, prove that online speech isn't always cheap. Political speech online carries the risk, however slight, of real-world consequences. And that means netizens are showing their own kind of courage when they strive to be heard. It's small wonder, then, that netizens are affecting their own kind of change in China.

This article originally appeared at Tea Leaf Nation.