The Microblog Revolution of the Right to Self-Expression

Website of, Foto: Chen Jianhua © ImagineChina website, Photo: Chen Jianhua © ImagineChina website, Photo: Chen Jianhua © ImagineChina

According to statistics of the China National Network Information Center the number of Chinese microbloggers had reached 250 million by the end of 2011. Within only two years since its emergence Chinese microblogging thus altered the face of the Chinese internet, and is currently in the process of transforming the state of Chinese politics.
Chin. Weibo; now often used synonymously with China’s most popular microblogging site,

The prototype of microblog, the website Twitter, has been completely blocked in China. Chinese Twitter users only make up a mere total of a bit more than 200,000. Regardless of how much wealth of Chinese liberalist and democratic discussions Twitter converges, these are still basically a handful. Chinese microblogs Weibo, on the other hand, certainly sport the broader mass foundation.

The fact that stars and starlets are still the most popular among microblog followers, and that common Boyou entertain each other by relating mostly romantic stories, fashion news and petty items from everyday life may seem at first as if there really is no big difference between microblogs and “reality”, and as if the main theme of these blogs is still a “depoliticization”.
lit. microblog friends; colloquial term for microblog users

Yet a closer look easily reveals that microblog comments have already formed a “political correctness” with microblog characteristics. Any instance of a contradiction of social fairness, of repression of freedom or democracy, of justification of hegemony and political power, or of advocating Chinese reformist discourse easily triggers mass anger and boundless criticism, and even generates invitations to virtual duels.

Compared to these instances of “political incorrectness” microblog’s dominant rhetoric concentrates in grassroots appeals of sympathizers of non-profit organizations. An even larger part of entries express discontent with political and social phenomena, such as corruption, and argue that refraining from singing Hongge is a sign of. These microblog entries support a democracy of the common people rather than a democracy of elites, and advocate radical, defiant and comprehensive reforms as opposed to the gradual changes promoted by Chinese reformism.
lit. ‘red songs’. ‘Singing Red Songs’: Chinese Communist Party propaganda campaign, as part of which work units all over China performed revolutionary songs that praise Communist Party leadership in the Chinese revolution

The revolutionary potential of microblogs is not the first example of its kind in the history of humanity. The last incident so far was machine book printing, brought about by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press during the age of Enlightenment. In Mainz on the banks of the Rhine River, Gutenberg’s experiments with a press with movable type printing proved successful in 1450, and initiated a revolutionary era: Innumerable presses began printing Martins Luther’s German language translation of the Bible and his “Ninety-Five Theses” of 1517. Together with the proliferation of the new gospel, printing capitalism thus initiated the actual era of Enlightenment, furthered the formation of nation states, and laid the foundation for modernity.

Communications historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein found that, contrary to the hand-written copying of the Middle Ages, the standard of mechanically printed books since the 15th Century had generated an individualism in writing as well as an affirmative order for the creativity of this type of individualism, namely the patent and copyright protection system, which had a tremendous impact on advancing the production of knowledge, i.e. printing capitalism. On the other hand the horizontally repeated mode of reading, which books now offered created a silent, intricate relationship between thought and reader. According to Eisenstein this relationship produced a type of new-style public, which accepted the power of thought. This acceptance in turn determined the fact that the thoughts contained in books could have an impact even in distant places.
from: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Compared with the printing revolution the political potential of microblogs does not simply rely on the real political majority brought about by the sheer number of its users. Rather, it is inherent in its powerful internal potential for social revolution. The organizational ability of Web 2.0 social media already became fully manifested in the Arab Spring. Yet the proximity of this social revolution to the realm of books has not yet been widely acknowledged.

For example, Twitter and Chinese microblogs have, as simple interfaces that promote intensified exchange and advance the effects of social networks, fundamentally upset and impacted traditional modes of reading: Users no longer repeatedly read a given author’s monologue or become a believer by relying on their own dogmatic reading and understanding of the print version of the Holy Bible. Instead they await the continuous renewal of the Timeline, and those tens and hundreds of new microblog entries which come with each renewal. These are then quickly scanned from top to bottom for new perspectives, comments, news and items of interest, and are then shared with other users. Admittedly, 140 signs for each entry do not allow for much elaborate thought or for lengthy dialogue, but nonetheless the random combination of fragmented, individualized, and continuous messages, thoughts and knowledge enable each microblogger to a maximized sharing with others, and also create more room for the expression of self. In the process of this collective reading, during which new windows are continuously opened and quickly renewed, copyright issues of the book era or the question to whom a given thought belongs seem to be of little importance. Instead, “share-ism’s“ fragmentation of public reading has become most important.

The sharing of news and contents relies on the effective connection between each microblogger and the enormous blogoshpere. When a user posts comments or news bits, then they basically expect affirmations by like-minded users, but also indistinct feedback in the form of retweets and new bits of information. Through millions of bloggers who engage in it in the few minutes that lie between each refreshing of the status feed, the act of reading has thus advanced from a private affair since the era of Enlightenment, and from an expression of a reader’s reverence for the author, and from the business of publishers, to a type of identity-affirming movement, which is characterized by the fact that the refreshing of news feeds between individual user and microblog guarantees continuous and direct positive feedback. In this way, collective delight in sharing and retweeting is generated, which replaces a sense of self , and perpetually rises and falls like tidal waters.

As a result, practically every debate and every social event, however small, can bring direct feedback to users, who are hoping for change and who express this hope via their comments on microblog. These comments then experience an expansion and consolidation, which is based on the discursive approval of the network community, and thus advance to a positive feedback for all microbloggers as well as for the ever expanding group of Chinese netizens as a whole.

On the other hand, any type of negative feedback has the potential of sparking and intensifying individual and collective discontent, and of accelerating advanced participation and expression. The countless, so-called microblog affairs of the past two years, from the Yihuang incident of Jiangxi Province to the debts of Ai Weiwei, have repeatedly confirmed and reinforced the “polarizing” mechanism of microblog entries.

For an entire year the theme of “supporting Ai Weiwei” was continually renewed und intensified. Eventually, the participants of this thread, by means of their tweets and re-tweets on their Weibo timeline, and the money transfers to the online payment service Alipay, very quickly experienced an online donation of unprecedented scope, which symbolized a type of collective resistance unheard of in the past twenty years. Similarly, every microblog user who participates in discussions on sudden news can experience, by means of this participation, a direct feedback that is generated through the interaction between their appeal and the online response, as well as experience the results of this response.

It is for this reason that the discursive effect of microblogs is not based anymore on the former generations’ “biblio-faith” or “biblio-revolution”, which relied on the alleged power of thought. Rather, a crowd of internet users of tremendous scope are collectively riding the wave of a “new political majority” within a massive online tide of opinion. In the beginning, social networks, and the Web 2.0 in particular generated a potentially massive interconnectivity between microblog users, and then collectively formed (human) “waves of opinion”. These waves in turn are characterized by the coexistence of the support of various social campaigns and campaigns of resistance, the clamor of online intellectuals, and a chatterbox-ism and democratic-liberal idealism reminiscent of the “screen-refreshers”. Contrary to the so-called mob populism of earlier political eras, these waves have transcended different notions of class, social stratum, locality or ethnic affiliation. They have come to stand for the desire for various aspects of social change, and represent the maturing essence of the actual state of Chinese society.

Moreover, the process of knowledge production of Chinese microblogs is not anymore marked by the diachronic distance between author and reader during the printing press era but is instead political practice in the form of synchronic, collective online networking, with a strong sense of „being on-site“. These include surging waves of participatory gathering, reciprocal comments, and multiple sharing. It is also negligible how brilliant a comment is, or how famous its author. Those items remaining in the timeline of most microblog users are merely those opinions, pieces of knowledge and facts, which are based on common user consensus, and which can be shared, or which have already been shared. That way, not only the conservative, rigid clichés of the authorities have faded out. Even many renowned public intellectuals, who have matured as part of the Web 1.0 over the past ten years have lost their status as opinion leaders.

Thus, from the comments of controversies all the way to hot topics the political practice of this new majority is not a “silent majority” anymore, but embodies the right to voice its opinion within a brand-new discursive space created via the medium of microblogs Weibo. For the first time this new majority is providing China’s newly emerging civil society with the power to articulate and initiate protest based on a sense of “superiority as a new majority”. In waves this new majority is affecting public opinion on today’s Chinese internet, and is increasingly directing the course of events or movements of social resistance.
Text: Wu Qiang (吴强)
Associate Professor, Department for Political Science, Qinghua/Tsinghua University, Beijing
Translated by: T.S.
Edited by the editorial staff
May 2012
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