Freedom of official speech
Global Times | 2012-12-27 20:49:05
By Zhang Zhilong
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The launching ceremony for the official Weibo of Panyu district, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, is held on June 16, 2012. Photo: CFP
The launching ceremony for the official Weibo of Panyu district, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, is held on June 16, 2012. Photo: CFP

Over the past two to three years, some officials have discovered their own methods for using Weibo, trailblazing a path to follow while others have become quite controversial after seeking fame and popularity.

Wang Tao, 35, deputy director with Yunyan township, Yichuan county in Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, has been using Weibo to build connections with the media and NGOs.

Using the help of new friends from the virtual world in reality, Wang has helped local farmers sell apples directly to Beijing supermarkets, while giving some profits to an NGO that fights to provide medical insurance for sick children.

Wang first realized the impact of Weibo in August 2011 when he posted about the deteriorating conditions of the provincial highway crossing his hometown, which had been left in disrepair for two years since the building of a nearby national highway. Because of his Weibo post, reporters rushed to report the story and the road was repaired within just three months.

Success and failure

"You are within the system, and you are supposed to keep this secret. Why do you 'pick up a microphone' and tell this to everyone?" Wang said, recalling what a close colleague asked him about his revelations.

Even today, some colleagues still don't understand what motivated Wang. Wang said he would never have known public reactions to official decisions if he had not taken these actions. Although Weibo's effect was an initial surprise, so was his boss' response.

Wang's boss seemed nervous and quiet when he first showed him the articles about the road that came from his Weibo post. The county's transportation chief invited Wang for a meeting and thanked him, explaining that Wang's posts helped his bureau quickly get funds to repair the road. "But I still don't know whether the director really meant what he said," he told the Global Times.

Wang ranked seventh on the ranking of influential Shaanxi officials on Weibo in 2012.

In October 2011, he tried to promote local apples in Weibo, and surprisingly succeeded. A businessman from Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, first purchased one ton of apples.

Through this exposure, Wang got to know Zhou Zhixing, chief editor with 21ccom.net, an online news portal, who helped him build connections with a supermarket in Beijing.

Wang came to Beijing to sell apples in the supermarket this early September, which netted him more headlines. He then pledged that 0.2 yuan for each kilogram sold would be given to the charity fund.

A screenshot of Wang Tao's Weibo, an official in Shaanxi Province, who has used the platform to help local farmers sell their apples far and wide. Photo: Sina Weibo
A screenshot of Wang Tao's Weibo, an official in Shaanxi Province, who has used the platform to help local farmers sell their apples far and wide. Photo: Sina Weibo

Now Wang's Weibo handle is Baixingdayutian (ordinary people are important), which works well for him as an official in touch with the grass roots.

However, all was not always rosy for Wang. Before July 2011, he faced a lot of criticism, as a director of the local family planning department using his real name. His predecessors had left a reputation for being rude and even Wang's posts about anti-corruption efforts met with hostile comments, calling him a hypocrite.

The effect of changing usernames was the opposite for a higher-level official like Wu Hao, 42, from Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province, who had once been very popular on the microblog service.

In early August, Wu changed his Weibo ID from his name to Wuhao Hongheweiyu (speak softly Honghe), which caused thousands of his followers to unsubscribe from him. He still has around 1.8 million followers but the backlash came because the change meant he had moved from thinking as an individual to representing a government department, according to the Yangcheng Evening News.

"I only followed Wu Hao as an individual, but now his account represents the government, I don't want to read tedious articles, so I deleted him," wrote one web user.

Other netizens believed that Wu made the change because he was forced to do so. "What we cherish is his attitude as an individual, not boring speeches made by government departments," wrote another one.

He began to use Weibo to make government affairs known to the public in 2009. "I'm trying to approach the goal of making government affairs public, but others think I'm just showing off," Wu told the Yangcheng Evening News after his ID change.

Wu is seen as a forerunner among high-level officials using Weibo and his account was a successful experiment. "With followers reaching over a million, Wu has made Honghe, a remote place, famous online," commented the Xinhua News Agency.

Wu tried to steer between three statuses, as an official, a media professional and a Web user, but this eventually dented his online following, Zhu Huaxin, secretary-general with the Public Opinion Monitoring Center under the People's Daily Online, told the Beijing News.

Weibo is a platform where people can communicate freely, but it only helps so long as public figures, like Wu, are willing to talk. "It is actually difficult to tell the difference between independent thinking and government speak, because officials are both State employees and members of the public," said Li Shuanglong to the Global Times, vice director of the School of Journalism at Fudan University.

Improvements needed

By October, verified government affairs Weibo on Sina numbered 60,000, an over 200 percent increase rate from the previous year.

Weibo users stood at over 320 million in September, according to the China Weibo 2012 blue paper, accounting for over half of the country's netizens.

For government Weibo accounts, the number of followers is not everything and other aspects of the microblog world are challenging. For example, many government departments register accounts because they are following a trend. But this does not mean they have any idea how to use the platform to communicate, Lü Benfu, an Internet expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Global Times. This has led to the existence of many "corpse" Weibo accounts.

Several important departments seem to treat Weibo in a very carefree manner. The department of civil affairs in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, only posted once in six months. Following public pressure and media complaints, the department apologized in November and promised to update it more regularly.

After it was exposed on October 8 that Cai Bin, head with a city management bureau in Guangzhou had 21 houses, Web users began posting proof on the Weibo of the Guangzhou discipline inspection commission. The accusations were proven true a couple of days later, according to Workers' Daily.

An investigation on October 13 found that the education bureau of Nanchang, Jiangxi Province had only posted 23 pieces of information this year, despite having 37,000 followers.

The government of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, seems to be particularly light on Weibo updates after reporters from News Express found 30 corpse accounts belonging to the city's departments.

However, the definition of corpse accounts may be slightly too rigid since a Weibo account can be classified as a corpse if it does not post for two consecutive work days, according to Zhang Zhi'an, a communications professor from Sun Yat-Sen University.

Given the rapid growth of government Weibo accounts, Lü said some steps should be adhered to. "Departments related to people's livelihoods or those providing people with the chance to be a part of  the decision-making process should register accounts first, along with public security departments," he said.

Popularity contest

Officials with public security departments are the most popular on Sina Weibo. Chen Shiqu, director of the Ministry of Public Security's anti-trafficking office, is most popular among all government officials. The next two are both top policemen, according to a report ranking the popularity of Sina Weibo users in 2012, issued in early December by the Public Opinion Monitoring Office of People's Daily Online.

Chen's followers now stand at over 3.2 million. Popularity is judged by several criteria, including numbers of followers, frequency and details of posts and the ability to be an opinion leader.

Weibo's ability as a problem-solving platform has also played a part in the popularity of certain accounts. The petitions office of Hainan Province, which only registered in April, has put up over 800 posts, concerning various petitions, and attracted over 130,000 followers.

Government Weibo accounts should explain clearly what they are supposed to speak about. "But it doesn't mean they can talk about everything," Lü said, explaining that they should have rules to follow, similarly to other countries that have guidelines for officials to follow when communicating online.

For example, Britain has issued a handbook since 2009, providing rules on Twitter for government departments. It is not a compulsory guide but is handy as a reference tool.

Opinion leaders are also important in a different way. What they post online should be of high value, according to Lü, and they should take care to maintain good relations with their followers so as to help government policies go down well.

Furthermore, any evaluation of Weibo's effect should be carefully weighed up and its contents should be of high priority. Similar rules are already in place for US officials, who also take active security measures into consideration.

For Wang Tao, Weibo is not the end-all of government communication and remains a simple tool.

"The most important thing is not what officials say, but what we do to improve our job efficient or make changes," he said. As a Weibo user for over two years, what has impressed him most is that people can communicate freely online.

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