Weibo: Between State and Society

Vanity Fair’s Rachel DeWoskin explores Sina Weibo, the most popular of China’s microblogging sites and “the belle of the global microblog ball,” which has given the Chinese masses perhaps their freest form of expression yet:

Weibo can be used for frivolous socializing and celebrity watching, but what has caught the world’s attention is the site’s powerful twin forces of subversion and surveillance. “Weibo is a magnifying glass for China’s social issues,” says Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent analyst who follows China’s Internet market. “It’s raising the pressure, adding some catalyst into an incredibly volatile mix.”

Hung Huang, an outspoken writer and publisher with 3.9 million followers and the nickname “China’s Oprah,” puts it simply: “Freedom of speech was repressed for so long, Weibo is an outburst. People want to express themselves and before social media, they had no way to do it.”

“I’m in denial that I’m in a totalitarian society,” Huang told me over lunch in Beijing. “I’ll pretend I can function how I want to function and see how far I can get. I get messages from my followers whenever I state the obvious, saying, ‘Huang, be careful! We want you around!’”

Huang once posted the entire text (in 140-character excerpts) of a letter by controversial artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained by police last year and was allegedly tortured and intimidated before being released. As Huang weiboed, she and her millions of fans watched the posts go up and then, within seconds, come down. “It was fun,” she said. “It gave me adrenaline. In China you can be naughty and Big Brother still cares. In most countries, no one cares what you say.”

DeWoskin also discussed Bo Xilai, Ai Wei Wei and online satire in a CBC interview about this month.