Written by Zixue Tai and Xiaolong Liu.

Like everywhere else, social media is an increasingly pervasive presence in Chinese society. Leading the market are the three behemoths QQ, Weibo and WeChat. QQ, the PC-based instant messaging service lately crossing over to the smart-phone market, is the oldest (debuted in 1999 by Tencent) and boasts over 800 million active accounts. Weibo, the primary microblogging service and often referred to as “China’s Twitter”, was launched by Sina Corp. in 2009 and has about 600 million registered users. WeChat, a mobile text and voice messaging platform that thrives on social networking, has been the fastest-growing app since its release by Tencent in 2011, with a regular user base of over 500 million. WeChat is undeniably the new big thing in China’s social media revolution.

The Chinese state has adopted a two-pronged approach to embracing the emerging information and communication technologies (ICT). On one hand, it has enthusiastically supported a robust high-tech industry in order to reap its economic benefits and maximize its potential for national development. On the other hand, the Chinese authorities are quite wary of the rebellious nature of the network culture, and are reputed to have developed and operated one of the most sophisticated online surveillance mechanisms in the world (aka the Great Firewall). As a result, popular sites such as Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, which are most likely to contain content considered contentious by the Chinese government, are bluntly blocked out of Chinese cyberspace. Incidentally, this practice has created a fertile ground for home-grown applications to fill the void in satisfying the needs of Chinese users.

It is no secret that information distributed either online or offline by the state media carries little credibility among Chinese readers. Chinese netizens’ penchant for alternative content – often called user-generated content (UGC) in the research community – has no rival, as manifest in the vast popularity of BBS, blogs, Internet forums, blogs, and the latest social media waves. Because social media content is generally considered organic and more effective in connecting to users, the government views this territory as a vital “opinion battlefield.” Within the last three years, the State Council, China’s top executive body, has issued a number of directives urging government officials and agencies to win the war of propaganda in swaying public opinion and gaining people’s trust through new media outlets.

In particular, highlighting the Party emphasis on cyber propaganda by the current regime, the Office of the Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs was founded in December 2013 under direct supervision by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee and chaired by President Xi Jinping. In September 2014, the Office issued an ordinance specifically demanding that all Party, government, and state-owned enterprise bodies and organizations mobilize resources and make sustained efforts in propagating propagandist information and rallying public support behind government initiatives via popular instant messaging services (i.e., QQ and WeChat).

A survey report by the Communications University of China revealed that WeChat accounts fulfilling certain aspects of official communication roles surpassed 6,000 as of June 2014, and that number has continued to skyrocket. Incorporated into various capacities of facilitating government-public communication tasks are three main distinct types of WeChat entity: accounts that are operated by formal Party/government agencies, state media platforms, and accounts owned by individual functionaries.

While these three account types resort to different strategies in terms of form and content in reaching out to the public, they all thrive on a core set of features that define the WeChat space: perspectives reflecting the viewpoints of everyday citizens; storylines centering on commoners; language building on humorous, outspoken and often acerbic put-downs and jingles. The commonality through all these messages initiated from these accounts is the unmistakable unison with, and supportive tone echoing government doctrines and state positions on relevant topics and issues.

Understandably, a major function among the first type of WeChat accounts (from government bodies) is to interpret official policies and explain government actions. Take the example of the official Chinese state government WeChat account (born in October 2014). It maintained an active presence during March 2015 when the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC) were in session in the capital (per routine in every March). Devoid of political jargon and bureaucratic clichés found in official documents and government reports, the WeChat messages, updated regularly every day in tune with scheduled session events, explained in plain terms to the general populace key portions and pivotal themes of speeches delivered by top officials.

The climax was reached on the day when Premier Li Keqiang read his annual government report, as multiple WeChat releases were sent out accompanied by visually appealing charts and graphs in conveying key points covered in the report to a wide base of followers. Additionally, users were also asked to participate in a WeChat quiz in which they could submit their answers to various questions on the content of the government report in order to win mobile data.

More and more government entities at the regional and local levels are also utilizing WeChat to reach out to their constituents and establish channels of communication with the public. A leader in this category is Guangzhou’s Public Security Bureau, which has maintained a welcome presence via WeChat. Its official WeChat account affords three menus: traffic updates (offering map service, real-time traffic conditions, and traffic rules/regulations), online services (a multitude of errands that can be processed over WeChat), and citizen guidance (instructions and road maps on how to seek help on a variety of everyday tasks).

WeChat proves to be handy in connecting government bureaucracies to the general public at times of unfolding crises and disasters. On 30 April, 2013, a 7.0 magnitude fatal earthquake took place in Sichuan’s Ya’an region. Nineteen minutes later, the first official WeChat release with important information concerning the earthquake was sent out by the account operated by the Chengdu municipal government, the first of its kind in the country specializing in earthquake-related communication. Shortly after the earthquake, the propaganda department of Ya’an opened its WeChat account to coordinate first aid and resource allocation, directing citizens to government-operated shelters, and updating casualties and damages as well as helping people to find their loved ones. A survey later found out that 72.5% of local WeChat users subscribed to the government account, and 45% of them agreed that WeChat was an important source of communication for them during this crisis.

Social media has also revitalized the state media by magnifying its presence and maximizing reach. All national media such as CCTV, Xinhua News Agency, China News Service, and People’s Daily, and an increasing number of local media outlets have established their own WeChat voices. The rise of social media coincides with an era when print media has started to see a gradual decline of readership in China. WeChat has been used as a viable platform to resell and repurpose stories packaged for legacy media. This also helps the conventional media to target a brand-new audience base that otherwise would not be accessible to them. Tactically, the state media has resorted to commonplace practices like using pithy slogans, catchy phrases and comical lines that dominate the WeChat culture to disseminate their content. The reformatted content, however, still hinges upon steadfast adherence to official stance and government principles.

The number of individual WeChat operations by government officials pales dramatically before the other two types of accounts mentioned above. In the individual category, a leading example is Chen Junqing, the Party boss of Shangrao city of Jiangxi province, who has been nicknamed the “WeChat secretary” in China. Chen regularly uses WeChat to communicate with the rank and file in his jurisdiction (thus forcing his subordinates to become WeChat adopters), and claims to have fallen in love with the “zero-distance” mode of WeChat exchanges with the masses that allow him to gauge unfiltered opinions and receive instantaneous feedback. During the CPPCC and NPC sessions in March 2015, Chen conducted an interview via WeChat with the People’s Daily (the chief mouthpiece of the CCP), the first of its kind among Chinese officials. Likewise, a small number of CPPCC and NPC representatives have made splashes on WeChat by soliciting input from the public in preparing for motions at their annual conventions in the past two years. However, in a polity that is deeply rooted in information control and opinion manipulation, the risk level stands high for government officials, and there is an excruciating demand for craftiness on the part of politicians to homestead unchartered WeChat territories. This is primarily why only a handful are willing to give it a try.

To sum up, social media penetration of all corners of Chinese society has resulted in sweeping changes in the country, and the political arena poses no exception. The Chinese authorities will in all likelihood spare no efforts in battling the rising tide of information diffusion while building their own fortresses of propaganda and opinion molding. What changes over time are the specific tactical approaches not the ultimate goal. 

Zixue Tai, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil SocietyXiaolong Liu is completing his Ph.D. at Sun Yat-sen University, and is Associate Professor of Political Science at Guangdong Pharmaceutical University. Image Credit: CC by Cheon Fong Liew/Flickr.