Comments from China’s microblogs have become a common element of news coverage as concise but colourful illustrations of the popular mood. At Asia Society’s ChinaFile, however, Amy Qin points out that Weibo offers an incomplete reflection of Chinese society:
The numbers show that the Internet user base is still dominated by younger, urban, highly-educated Chinese who reside in the more highly-developed eastern provinces. It is very likely that this characterization is applicable to the Weibo user base as well, which leads me to make the next simple point: Weibo-sourced reportage is useful insofar as it provides a glimpse into the conversation among a certain segment of the Chinese population. There are still millions of Chinese people who have yet to join this “national conversation.” And yet these unheard voices are often those of the people most affected by the social and political issues netizens discuss. They are the rural citizens, ethnic minorities, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged. There is no question that the emergence of Weibo platforms and the Internet more generally has amplified the voices of the laobaixing—the ordinary people. But in order to know what the Chinese people are really talking about, it is not enough to just follow the viral videos and microblogs on Weibo.
A Weibo post translated by The Atlantic’s Yuxin Gao during Saturday’s anti-Japanese protests summed up the problem:
Weibo user: “Get onto Weibo you think China is not far from democracy. Go onto the streets you realize the Cultural Revolution is not over.”
— Helen Gao (@Yuxin_Gao) September 15, 2012
The Diaoyu protests may demonstrate the social divide that Qin warns about. Tea Leaf Nation noted on Saturday that Weibo users, though generally supporting China’s claim to the disputed islands, “for the most part condemned the vandalism and the violence against Japanese nationals“. At The Financial Times, Jamil Anderlini suggests that social class accounts for much of this online/offline divide:
A superficial observation of the crowds of mostly young people that have turned out in Beijing and Chengdu over the last week left me with the impression that the majority of them were not the upwardly mobile young folk who make up the country’s new middle classes.
Those people, with their spending power, Japanese-made cars, Nikon cameras and possibly even a few years of education in the west were at home tweeting on their microblogs about what a loss of face it was for China to have citizens burning and looting in the name of patriotism.