Weibo’s Influence on Collective Action Participation in China Master‘s Thesis
Supervisor: Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, Ph.D.
Study Field: Sociology
Year of Enrollment: 2010 Brno, 2012
I hereby declare that this thesis I submit for assessment is entirely my own work and has not been taken from the work of others save to the extent that such work has been cited and acknowledged within the text of my work.
Acknowledgement A number of people deserve an acknowledgement of appreciation for their considerable efforts in helping me make this thesis better than it would have been without them. I owe my special thanks to my advisor Dr. Nadya Jaworsky for taking the time to read and give me enormously useful comments on this thesis. I could not have completed this thesis without her help. I benefited tremendously from the extensive feedback I got from her. Her guidance throughout the process of writing has not only enlightened my academic career, but also influenced my life beyond. I would also like to give special thanks to my friend Xu Shuangping and Xiaoxiao for the great help and support they offered me as I was writing this thesis. Zhou Qin, a true soul mate, supported me tremendously with the initial research. He has continuously provided me with personal encouragement during the whole process of writing. I would like to thank Mark Pharris for taking his precious time to proofread my thesis and correct language mistakes. A final word of deep appreciation and gratitude to my parents, for giving me unconditional love and care throughout the year of working on this thesis. I shall always treasure their unfailing faith in me throughout this time.
1.1Research Context: Internet and Weibo Use in China 8
1.1.1Internet Use in China 8
1.1.2Weibo use in China 9
1.2Conceptual Framework 13
1.2.1Weibo Use Motives 13
1.2.2Weibo Activism 14
1.2.3Collective Action Involvement 17
1.3Research Question 19
2THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK & METHODS 19
2.1Theoretical Framework 20
2.1.1The Four-way Interaction Model 20
2.2Research Methods 22
2.2.1Online Questionnaire 22
2.2.2Online Synchronous Interview 23
2.2.3The Validity & Reliability of Methods 24
3DANCING IN SHACKLES? WEIBO USE AND COLLECTIVE ACTION INVOLVEMENT 26
3.1Research Hypothesis 28
3.2.1Who uses the Internet? 28
3.2.2Who uses the Weibo? 31
3.2.3Weibo Use Frequencies 32
3.2.4Is Weibo Used Primarily as an Information Platform? 32
3.2.5Who are Weibo Activists? 39
3.2.6Does Weibo Use Affect Collective Action Involvement? 44
4ONLINE INTERVIEW WITH CHINESE MICROBLOG USERS 58
4.1.1Weibo Use Patterns & Weibo Activism Use 59
4.1.2Collective Action Involvement 60
4.1.3Weibo Slacktivism 61
5.1Summary and Significance of the Findings 63
Name Index 70
APPENDIX A SURVEY QUESTIONNAIRE 72
Using individual-level data collected from an online survey of Weibo users’ demographics and Weibo use patterns, this thesis examines whether Weibo use will affect their collective action. I find that Weibo is used by most people as an informational source, and that Weibo activists differ significantly in terms of Weibo use patterns, but not in terms of socio-demographic backgrounds. Informational use and Weibo use frequency will affect Weibo users’ collective action participation. However, Weibo activism use has no significant association with any form of collective action participation. The findings suggest that using Weibo is likely to increase users’ participation in online protest and Weibo-driven events; however, it has no predictability of involvement in boycotts and petitions. Weibo is principally promoting “slacktivism” among Chinese netizens. Weibo users are more likely to join in online protest instead of becoming involved in offline protest. I discuss these results in light of two focal problems: that Weibo’s limited offline protest mobilization impact is due to state-based constraints, and that online slacktivism still has an offline impact that challenges the authoritarian state and information control.
Time magazine’s choice of the person of the year in 2011 is the protesters. Indeed, from the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, to recent Russian election protest, protesters are “redefining people power” around the world. Meanwhile, China’s most famous outspoken dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who was held in detention for 81 days last year, came in third in the person of the year contest. Some are wondering; when will the Arab Spring come to China?
In September of last year, protests took place in a village called Wukan in Guangdong province China. It was targeted at local village officials who illegally sold land to real estate developers without consent from villagers. Unlike protests in other places, the Wukan protestors were well-organized with a clear purpose. Most important of all, they knew how to use “microblog” (better known in Chinese as Weibo) to call for help when they were cut off from the outside world.
Even though foreign microblogs are blocked in China, the Chinese netizens did not miss the social network site (SNS) revolution occurring worldwide. Thanks to state censorship, the local Chinese microblogs, Weibo, are filling the vacuum left by Twitter. According to CNNIC (China Network Information Center), until the end of 2011, there are 513 million internet users in China (more than the US population of 313 million). About half of them, 249.88 million, were Weibo users. Within two years of its launch, Sina Weibo became the largest microblog website in China (or the second largest microblog site in the world, only after Twitter) claiming to have 250 million registered users, 10% of active users, and almost 100 million posts every day (Wang 2012).
Even though Wukan was listed as a sensitive word in Weibo and other social network websites, gossip still spread among netizens. Meanwhile, the incident attracted a lot of international reporters that raised worldwide attention. After one of the protest leaders was suspiciously died while in detention, simmering anger erupted among the villagers as well as on Weibo. According to authorities, his death was due to a “sudden heart attack” on the third day of his detention, but netizens furiously questioned the real reason behind his death, and demanded that the authorities return his corpse to his family. A picture of the victim’s daughter, crying in the wind, spread through Weibo and was named by netizens the face of the year. In December, provincial officials of Guangdong province finally sent an investigative team to the village to address the villagers’ demand. Even after the dispute was settled, netizens still closely followed the democratic village leader election on Weibo.
One of the misleading images of Chinese Internet-use created by the Western media is that strong state control stifles all dissidents’ voices. However, 2011 witnessed many contentious, internet-driven events calling for social justice and equality. This outcry of Internet events created a collective force dedicated to compelling the government and related institutions related to make a difference. As Guobing Yang (2009) argues, the most important and yet least understood aspect of the Chinese Internet is its “contentious character.”
Weibo has incorporated the features of Twitter and BBS (Bulletin Board System); it offers an interactive platform that allows users to share information within a 140-character limit and have open conversation and debates with each other. While English-speaking Twitter users often have to edit their thoughts extensively in order to meet the word limit, 140 characters in Chinese is enough to tell a whole story detailed story. The result is that a vast amount of information is able to be conveyed via Weibo. This information flows at unprecedentedly high speeds, and Weibo has come to present a direct challenge to state efforts to control content. The sheer volume and speed of information transmission on Weibo makes it impossible to censor everything. Moreover, the netizens have come up with creative and skillful forms of contention to circumvent censorship. For example, they transform long microblog posts with sensitive words into image files to avoid censor detector.
Yet questions remain. Is Wukan’s case an indication of an ongoing trend brought about by the advent of Weibo? Does the rise of Weibo provide more opportunities to the Chinese public to participate in collective action, online and offline? In order to understand Weibo’s impact on collective action participation, this thesis relies on first-hand data from an internet survey and online synchronous interviews to analyze how Weibo is used by the public, and what changes it could bring to the Chinese society.
First, I introduce the characteristics of the Chinese Internet population in general, and the Weibo population specifically, to reveal the main actors behind the contentious “Weibosphere.” Then, using data from my online survey results, I explore users’ motivations for using Weibo in order to find out if Weibo is primarily used as an information platform. It is predicted that the informational use of Weibo is related to Weibo activism and involvement in collective action. Third, I examine the relationship between individual factors, Weibo-use patterns, and Weibo activism use patterns to determine what kinds of users are more likely to be Weibo activists. Finally, the Weibo-use factors that lead to Weibo activism are used to predict collective action involvement as an outcome. Questions that were difficult to explore or overlooked in the online survey were explored in online synchronous interviews, and I present some details from the interview data to further explore and build on my survey findings. A summary and the significance of the findings, as well as the limitations of the research are discussed at the end of the thesis.