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Expert: Social media helping China

By Ned Seaton

An expert said Tuesday that online social media is having real-world effects in China, where people are able to express minority views, call out government corruption and share news and information.

This all could have profound effects in the emerging superpower, and “could be very promising developments” in terms of the future direction of the country, according to David Wertime, co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language online magazine that synthesizes and analyzes Chinese social media.

Wertime’s visit to Manhattan coincided with news that the Chinese government had announced it would require a “social risk assessment” for all major industrial projects. That was viewed as an attempt to prevent the types of large protests that had stopped developments in the past year of chemical plants, coal-fired power plants and a copper smelter.  Young people in China used social media to coordinate protests, according to the New York Times. So, in effect, the government has acknowledged the power and importance of social media.

The big dog in Chinese social media is an outfit called Sina Weibo, which is sort of a cross between Facebook and Twitter. It is owned and managed by a Chinese company, which launched it three years ago after the Chinese government shut down Twitter there. It plays a larger role in society than the social media sites do here, Wertime said, because it’s “the closest thing to free speech that China has.”

It is censored, Wertime said, but the government has chosen to allow a degree of freedom to its users. People use it to talk about their cats, popular music, the Los Angeles Lakers and other dreck familiar to American social-media users, but also about things that can become political. As such, Wertime said it is a “very valuable source of public opinion.”

There are about 300 million Sina Weibo users in Chian, Wertime said; internet penetration generally is at about 40 percent of the population.

Wertime was careful not to say that the blossoming of social media would automatically lead to more freedom and more pro-American policies. There are “plenty of people who share core American values” expressing themselves on Chinese social media, Wertime said, “but there is also virulently anti-American rhetoric.”

There is also “wit, bravery and resistance” and a “series of human stories,” Wertime said. The main thing is that it’s important to pay attention, he said, because this new phenomenon is sort of a new “early warning system” in the “most important bilateral relationship in the world” between the U.S. and China.

Wertime spoke in what’s called the Political, Diplomatic and Military Lecture Series at Kansas State University. That series is coordinated by Political Science Prof. Dale Herspring.

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