Discussing International Law in China’s Social Media
As part of my new research interest in China and its relationship with the international legal system, I opened a Sina Weibo account a couple of weeks ago. And it has been quite an adventure.
Weibo is China’s version of Twitter and Facebook. Since both Twitter and Facebook are blocked within China, Weibo is the main social media platform for users within China. And use it they do. Although the data is somewhat unreliable, it is estimated Weibo has nearly 500 million registered users (that’s not a typo). As a point of comparison, Twitter has about 175 million registered users worldwide and Facebook has about 1 billion. There are some questions about whether many of the registered Weibo users are spam bots, but there is no question that Weibo has an enormous usage within China.
What fascinates me about Weibo is that it seems to facilitate more interaction and discussion of public affairs within China than most Chinese media organs do. Perhaps realizing this, the United Nations has opened an extremely active Weibo account. The UN Weibo has a mere…3.5 million followers (UN Twitter has “only” 1.3 million followers). Even accounting for zombie bots, that’s a lot of followers in just one country.
And even better than the number of followers it the discussion the UN has used Weibo to facilitate discussions of interesting and even sensitive international subjects. For instance, today, the UN account posted a link to an address by Chinese representative Liu Zhenmin to the UN Human Rights Council. In that address, the Chinese delegate appeared to give China’s standard party-line against countries using “human rights” as an excuse to interfere in nation’s domestic affairs and to advance political agendas. That posting drew hundreds of often tart comments from Chinese Weibo users. Many were critical of their own delegate: “He does not speak for me,” said one commenter simply. “What about [Liu Xiaobo] sentenced to prison for 12 years?” said another. Or another simply quoted the line : “We know they are lying, and they know we know they are lying, and we know they know we know they are lying…” So kudos to the UN folks running their Weibo account. And could some of them shift over to running their Twitter account?
Of course, not all is rosy for intellectual and expressive freedom in China’s social media. When, for instance, I tried to post a link to my Opinio Juris post earlier this week about calls within China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I received a message from Weibo explaining that my post had been deleted. As I later learned, many (but not all) posts about China ratifying the ICCPR had been deleted at the behest of the ever-present Chinese censors. Which is ironic because my post actually was skeptical about the value of ratifying the ICCPR.
If it weren’t for those pesky censors (and my still sketchy Chinese writing skills), I actually would prefer Weibo to Twitter or Facebook. It’s easier to use, and has more amusing emoticons :-D (Although I do wonder why Weibo asks me to list my blood type when registering). China seems to have the best of both worlds: a first class social media platform, and the power to control its usage when it seems to touch on sensitive subjects. I wonder if this is sustainable, but it sure looks pretty strong so far.