India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s debut on China’s social media site Sina Weibo has sparked a flurry of interest and even debate over territorial issues and the prospect of cooperation between the two Asian giants. But it remains to be seen how much real interaction the site will provide with the Chinese public.
China has more than 300 million estimated users of social media sites. That massive audience is increasingly attracting the interest of business leaders and even politicians trying to reach a broader spectrum of the Chinese public.
Despite the big numbers, there is a big difference between social media in China and other parts of the world. China’s Internet is tightly controlled and seen by authorities more as a means of manipulating the masses rather than promoting open debate.
“The perception is that Sina Weibo is an important tool for talking to China about what various foreign governments and foreign leaders are doing,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project in Hong Kong. “Of course it is the only media tool that is available [in China] because all the other non-Chinese services such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked.”
Prime Minister Modi’s postings have been in Chinese. And so far, it was his first "hello China" post that has received the biggest response, with more than 18,000 likes and 12,000 comments. Most of what Modi has published on Weibo focus on his trip to China this week and stops in Xian, Beijing and Shanghai. He has also talked about Buddhism and how the religion is a powerful force for peace in Asia.
In a posting late Wednesday, just shortly before he arrives for a three day visit, Modi talked about the enormous potential of China India relations and how the two together could help promote development and eradicate poverty.
“Everyone admits that the 21st Century is Asia’s century,” Modi wrote.
So far, the responses to Modi’s postings have ranged wildly, with some welcoming his visit, praising his comments about religion and others mocking his belief in Buddhism.
Others raised issues such as the treatment of women in India, sexual assault on buses, the problem of poverty and urged New Delhi to grant Chinese citizens free visa status.
A large chunk of the comments, however, seemed to be fixated on the contentious issue of territory in India’s Arunachal Pradesh that China claims as its own and calls South Tibet.
One Weibo user named “Average Nighthawk” said: “Prime minister, China and India are both victims of colonialism and you should sympathize. Southern Tibet is a problem that the British created. South Tibet should be returned to China!”
But not all agreed. One Weibo user argued that if the criteria for claiming South Tibet was that it was ruled by a Chinese king long ago, then “India should claim Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan where an Indian king also ruled.”
Another argued that India’s economic and technological development was more important than squabbling over far off lands where very few people live.
Although it is common for world leaders to have social media accounts on Twitter or Facebook, few so far have ventured into the world of Chinese social media.
In addition to Modi, British Prime Minister David Cameron has an account with more than 800,000 followers. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is fluent in Mandarin is also an avid user. All of Modi’s postings have been in Chinese and already he has gained more than 47,000 followers, a number that is still a far cry from his 12 million plus on Twitter. But that account was started way back in early 2009.
Unlike social media overseas, China routinely scrubs social media sites of any content that Beijing feels is politically sensitive, blocking keywords such as Tibet or the names of President Xi Jinping’s family members.
China also uses pro-party commentators online to amplify its views and correct opinions that stray or question the government’s position.
“The difficulty with Weibo is that you’re not always having a conversation. It’s obviously monitored and key words are blocked,” said China Media Project’s David Bandurski. “Foreign diplomats and embassies, consulates, etc have to be creative to find ways … to get their messages through.”
The one advantage they have though, he adds, is that authorities tend not to block such accounts because of their high profile.