Social media in China redraws old battle
lines between left and right

Social media like
Weibo is helping China have the type of debate it hasn't seen in decades

Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 5:11am


off and go abroad” is an insult that writer Li Chengpeng faces every day.
Many conservatives want the former soccer commentator to leave the country and
don't shy away from telling him so on microblogs or to his face at book

reactions, blunt as they are, show how much political debate in China, beyond
the rigid lines of Communist Party discourse, has changed and how hip writers
like racing driver Han Han and Li are in the thick of it.

The leftist wumao
[government-paid online commentators] are looking for a fight with
liberals,” he said. “That's why that group seems to be bigger than it
actually is


who took to the streets in support of the government during the Olympics have
not turned into conservatives,” said Xiong Wei, a Peking University law
scholar, referring to the 2008 protests in Beijing by hundreds of students
opposed to “foreign interference” in Tibet.

Much of
the change has been driven by Sina Weibo, the Chinese social network similar to
Twitter that had 500 million users last year. Officials have been able to pull
down controversial posts and block search terms on sensitive topics, but posts
spread fast before being removed.

has changed the opinions of many people. Back then, many people supported the
government in what they saw as an attack from the West,” Xiong said.
“Many have now realised that they had been wrong.”

The lines
have been redrawn between left and right, or what others call conservatives
versus liberals or patriots versus the West, he added.

values Li talks about are not Western, but universal,” said Hu Yong, a
Beijing-based liberal media scholar. “In this sense, it's

appeal of new social critics like Li – handsome, funny and fierce – is their
stark contrast to an older generation of academic dissidents and traditional

Those on
the left recognise that they are losing their appeal. Some commentators on
Weibo “have millions or even tens of millions of followers”, Ren
Xianliang , a vice-chairman of the All-China Journalists Association, said in
an article last week in the party journal Red Flag.

Xiong, the leftists are a small but vocal minority.

leftist wumao [government-paid online commentators] are
looking for a fight with liberals,” he said. “That's why that group
seems to be bigger than it actually is.”

moment the debate changed, said Xiong, was a brawl at Beijing's Chaoyang Park
last July. Leftist microblogger Wu Danhong, who posts on Weibo under the alias
Wu Fatian, confronted a group of liberals who were in the company of the
Sichuan Television journalist Zhou Yan and the prominent artist Ai Weiwei .

altercation, though little more than pushing and shoving, became more
significant online, where insults continue to be traded in a way they would be
hardly tolerated on the streets. It culminated in an assault on Li at a book
launch in January.

book, The Whole World Knowsbecame an instant bestseller to
the chagrin of leftists “who see social criticism as unpatriotic”,
said Hu Yong, an associate professor at Peking University's school of

renewed debate on values and the direction of the country is taking is a good
thing, said Hu, adding that “China hasn't had such a debate for

right and left want to change the course society is taking,” he said.
“The most frightening thing is neither the left or right, but vested
interests seeking to maintain the status quo.”

This article first appeared in the South China Morning
Post print edition on Apr 17, 2013 as Old battle lines recast between left and



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