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Social Media Brings China New Challenges, Opportunities

China has more people online than any other country in the world despite strict government controls on the the web. As China marks National Day, October 1.

Using social media to share information

Published videos and images are examples of how social media have an impact in China - both in helping the masses mobilize and in giving voice to frustrations.

In mid-August, thousands rallied in China's northeastern city of Dalian, demanding the closure of a chemical plant over safety concerns.

Some photos and videos - of a Communist Party official addressing the crowd - were quickly taken off Chinese websites, but the government agreed to close the plant and relocate it.

Luo Xiaopeng, a Chinese economist and analyst, says the old way of doing things in China is coming to an end. "The new kind of media is really powerful. Nobody can stop it from playing a role in the political process in China anymore," Luo stated.

The aftermath of a wreck on a high-speed rail line in July also highlighted the power of Chinese social media. There was an outpouring of criticism of the government on China's Twitter-like website Weibo. Chen Kuide is with the Princeton China Initiative: "The government saw the big role Weibo played in the wake of the July 23 high-speed rail accident. Information was released so fast on Weibo that it posed a big challenge to the government," Chen said.

Since then, there has been talk of tightening control of Weibo, but analysts are skeptical how far the government can go without damage to China's economy and international reputation.

Blocking access to the web

China currently blocks its citizens from accessing overseas web sites such as Facebook and YouTube, and topics the government deems sensitive.

But China's leaders are trying to be more responsive to public complaints. Earlier this year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met with petitioners in Beijing.

And when another train wreck occurred recently in Shanghai, updates were posted regularly on the Shanghai metro's microblog.

Luo Xiaopeng says the tensions that are playing out locally and online reflect the crisis of government China now faces and its upcoming leadership reshuffle. "I think that everybody realizes the crisis is coming," Luo said. "And the new leadership has to deal with it no matter what."

Analysts say that crisis of governance has been building over the past decade while President Hu Jintao has been in office. And next year, when Xi Jinping is expected to take over for Hu, that will be a major challenge. "The new leaders will certainly will be more open to public opinion. But the challenge is that I think that we (China) have no kind of tradition of so-called rational communication or dialogue," Luo noted.

And because of that, analysts say, China - and the world - is really moving into unchartered waters.