Micro blogs open a world of communication

Updated: 2011-11-24 07:31

By Wang Huazhong (China Daily)

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BEIJING - It has been less than two weeks since Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, launched her account on Sina Weibo, and already she has more than 140,000 followers.

She is in fine company, too, as China's micro blog services have seen a host of foreign celebrities, athletes, political figures and organizations sign up this year.

At the last count, there were 8 million accounts "based overseas", according to figures provided by Sina. These include 97 foreign government agencies, embassies and consulates, as well as many less-authoritative groups, such as 75 tourism bureaus.

Micro blogs open a world of communication

With an estimated 40 percent of China's 458 million netizens using micro blogs, it is not hard to understand the reasons behind the demand: it is a chance to speak directly to the masses.

Lagarde, one of the world's most influential people, has so far posted simple messages in English, rather than in Chinese or her native French. She provides links to transcripts of her speeches and details on her jet-setting schedule.

Yet, other users, such as Brian Davidson, the British consul-general in Shanghai, have taken the opportunity to reach out to the Chinese public.

"I worked in Guangzhou previously, and I was keen to learn about East China directly from its people. I also wanted an informal way to introduce myself and my work," said the diplomat, who took up his post in January.

"It's good to have a way in which to share the human side of the work we do. Many Chinese colleagues in positions of influence use (micro blogs) to deliver messages, so by interacting with them through this service I can understand better their views," he said.

Sina and Tencent, the country's biggest social network companies, both forecast even more foreigners and organizations will start posting on Chinese sites in the months to come.

"It's become a trend," said Xu Yangfan at Tencent. "Compared with social networks overseas, our micro blog is a window for foreigners to understand China, rather than something that merely meets the basic demands of social interaction and information exchanges."

Mao Taotao at Sina added that although figures from the worlds of entertainment and sport remain the most popular, more people in the political and commercial arenas are opening accounts.

Media analysts say foreign micro-bloggers show how effective the new channel can be in direct official-civilian communications.

A recent example is the appeal from environmental authorities for suggestions on how to revise air quality standards, which came just days after a controversial post by the United States embassy claimed Beijing's air is poor because of an unreported concentration of particulate matter.

"Whoever uses micro blogs can gain the advantage in an argument," said Tian Zhihui, a professor in new media at the Communication University of China.

"There are no restrictions on foreign organizations using Chinese micro blogs, yet to followers these services can be as influential as newspapers or TV channels."

She said she believes foreign organizations "carefully select" the contents of their posts "to provide services and spread their values".

However, Davidson, at the British Consulate, sees it a little differently.

"I don't think it's so much about facilitating diplomats as about facilitating dialogue and understanding," he said. "Micro-blogging tools are a great way to share information and ideas between different organizations. If they can encourage honest, open and fact-based debate, then that's a very good thing."