At 3, Weibo Transforming Civil Society in China

Beijing-based journalist Mary Magistad assesses the impact of the Weibo era on state-society relations in China as the microblogging service celebrates its third anniversary this month:

“Before, it was very much one-way communication; the government disseminated information to the public” says environmentalist Ma Jun, whose Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs runs a popular website that maps, names and shames polluting factories around China. “But Weibo is different. It’s created, for the first time, a sort of equal two-way communication.”

Ma says Weibo has been a godsend for his website, both in spreading the word and collecting information about polluters, with people who see pollution sending details and photos to add to his map. He says the central government has been fairly supportive, even when local government officials have come to his office to try convincing him to remove embarrassing data.

That doesn’t mean democracy is about to break out. Ma says, for all the heady change Weibo has brought in its first three years, civil society in China is still in its infancy.

“For thousands of years, this country was ruled top down, and it doesn’t have a long tradition of transparency or public participation in decision making,” he says. “Now, it’s quite a critical moment, because the country is facing all these challenges. The environmental challenge is just one of them. There are many other social challenges. If we want to go through these smoothly, there’s an increasing understanding that the government alone cannot fully micromanage all these challenges. It needs the society to help.”