Technology, Transparency and Traditional Media: How Weibo and Wechat Are Breaking the Information Monopoly

By Changping, Luo | Nieman Reports, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Technology, Transparency and Traditional Media: How Weibo and Wechat Are Breaking the Information Monopoly


Changping, Luo, Nieman Reports


As the profitability of traditional Chinese media plummets, journalists are increasingly beginning to transform themselves, with the acceptance of bribes for writing positive stories becoming more and more common among news outlets. Social media have displaced print and broadcast to dominate the Chinese news industry. Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and micromessaging service WeChat have brought a degree of freedom of speech and freedom of association, emphatically replacing the stringently regulated traditional media and becoming the main battleground of social discourse.

Sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability to compel obedience, even against the wills of others. Some may suggest that power is the same as brute force, but this is incorrect; a ruler can achieve complete dominion without violence, simply by controlling the flow of information. The Chinese government's monopoly on power can be represented by four objects: a gun, money, handcuffs and a pen. The gun and handcuffs show domination by force, while the pen and cash symbolize the rule of information. At times, all four elements may work in combination. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may still be in firm possession of the gun, handcuffs and money, but the Chinese people themselves are increasingly wielding the pen.

Information about the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood--for which Gu Kailai, wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, was convicted, while Bo himself remains under investigation for corruption-emanated entirely from sources other than traditional media. This was an important turning point. As the case of Bo Xilai shows, the gathering, dissemination, collation and analysis of news now takes place through processes completely different from those of traditional media, repeatedly breaching existing limitations on free speech in the process. In a desert of information, it is essential to gather information and professional knowledge through the Internet, piecing together a picture of each sensitive incident like a mosaic. …

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