As China’s new leaders take over this weekend, they face one growing challenge which didn’t exist at all the last time power changed in China 10 years ago: social media.
China has its own version of Twitter. It is called Weibo and it seems to have remarkable power.
To understand that power, you only need to spend a few moments at one of the thousand or so small but determined protests that take place across the country daily.
The protests may be motivated by a wide range of issues: corruption, pollution, censorship and more.
But at all of them will be scores of people quietly taking photos on their smartphones and typing furiously.
They are posting what they are seeing on Weibo and they are known as “netizens”.
Late last year, the Sky News Beijing team went to the southern city of Ningbo to report on a protest taking place there that we had only heard about because it was being ‘reported’ on Weibo.
On arrival, the team was cheered by the crowd for reporting their protest but then quickly and forcibly removed by the authorities.
The local media, who are controlled by the state, were not coveting the protest and our team had been stopped from covering it.
But the netizens were there. Not only did they photograph the protest, but they snapped shots of the Sky team being carted away.
Within seconds these images – of the authorities stopping the coverage of a protest – were around the country on Weibo.
In January in the city of Guangzhou there was a rare protest by journalists from one of the country’s most progressive newspapers, The Southern Weekend.
The netizens were there before the traditional media. Around the protesters were scores of people snapping away on their smartphones.
Among them, we chatted to Zhangkun. He calls himself a citizen journalist and he says he is doing the job that the traditional media won’t or can’t do.
“I think Weibo has been a major change to people’s lives in China,” he told me.
“With traditional media, a lot of news gets suppressed. Using Weibo, everybody is a leading actor, everybody can be a journalist.”
I watch as he uploads footage he has filmed of the protest onto his Weibo account.
Weibo works on exactly the same principle as Twitter. In a limited number of characters you can send a message to your followers. You can add photographs, video or internet links.
Intriguingly though, because of the nature of the Chinese language, far more can be said with a limited number of Chinese characters than can be said using English characters.
“I hope Weibo can give us freedom of speech and can allow ordinary Chinese people to express their opinions freely. When the day that people can have the freedom of speech comes, China will start a new era.” Zhangkun says.
Interestingly, he believes that the government takes close interest in what’s happening on Weibo. It reveals the pressure points and allows the government to react or relax; whichever is more conducive to their continued grip on power.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all banned in China. It’s impossible to access them without a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which very few people have.
China’s authorities can’t control posts on foreign owned companies like Twitter. So they block them altogether. They can control posts on Weibo because it is Chinese.
A report last week suggested that 100 million Weibo posts are deleted by the authorities every day.
On occasion entire accounts are blocked.
Yu Haochen is a musician and a blogger. When we met him he was in the process of setting up his second Weibo account as his first was shut down by the authorities.
He had gathered nearly half a million followers on his first account writing about his struggle to get his father freed from jail on treason charges for exposing corruption.
He explained that through Weibo, people across China are discovering that their individual problems are shared by others.
“A lot of netizens discovered, that actually the world we live in is not as a good place as it is shown on TV, through Weibo.” he told me.
“But our wish is to spread these dark sides, [then] we make the society better. To expose these dark sides, in hope of getting rid of them, would make our world a better place.” he said.
I ask him why he thinks the government doesn’t just ban Weibo entirely.
“I often think about this question too. A lot of netizens have been worried about it. Weibo exposes all the dark sides of society; top officials can then react to them and improve accordingly, in order to maintain their regime. [They] allow Weibo to continue developing, but try to delete everything they don’t like.”
The protests, online and on street corners constantly challenge the ruling Communist Party’s overriding objective to stay in power.
And so every level of society is subject to Communist Party control.
It isn’t usually obvious. But quietly, in the background, the state is monitoring its people to prevent any simmering restlessness from turning to boiling anger.