BEIJING // It would be going a bit far to describe Zhang Shiping as the latest internet sensation, but he has certainly developed an impressive following online.
The 56-year-old community policeman from Taiyuan, a city of three million in China's Shanxi province south-west of Beijing, has attracted more than half a million visits to his posts on the sina.com microblogging website.
Giving tips on how to live safely and avoid becoming a victim of crime (one recent post warned drivers to be extra careful in the cold weather) and with a slightly fuzzy photograph of himself in uniform alongside each missive, he has attracted more than 40,000 followers.
Mr Zhang is, however, nothing out of the ordinary among China's police. State media have reported that at least 500 police departments have set up microblogs, partly with the aim of improving the image of a police force that often has a poor reputation because of corruption and human-rights abuses.
Each microblog is typically accompanied by a cartoon picture of a police officer saluting, or perhaps a photograph of a smiling policeman or policewoman.
The "Safe Guangning" blog, which represents a force in a county in Guangdong province in the south, reminds people to lock their doors and to avoid the drug ecstasy. It also gives reports on road conditions.
In Jiangsu province in the east, police microblog posts give details of recent offences and speak of the latest successes in clamping down on crime. The posts on sina.com (Twitter is banned in China) also give friendly advice, such as suggesting readers buy train and air tickets well ahead of a festival before they sell out. The main Beijing police blog is one of the most popular, with 330,000 followers.
Microblogging might seem an effective tool in a country with 450 million internet users, 125 million of them registered with microblogging sites. Senior officials certainly think it could be useful.
Meng Jianzhu, the minister of public security, was reported as telling a national police workshop in December: "We should master the use of microblogs to better interact with the people, to hear their complaints and criticism and to provide better services."
In the face of "a mounting credibility problem" the police in China are "very active in trying to ... improve their image", according to Borge Bakken, editor of the book Crime, Punishment and Policing in China and an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Hong Kong. The image problem stems from cases where police have been seen as corrupt and unjust, Mr Bakken said.
"Corruption is not effectively curbed in a system that is based on political favour and local power," he said.
The way in which a man named Yang Jia became a folk hero when he stabbed to death six policemen in Shanghai in 2008 after allegedly being beaten by officers showed how some felt about the force, Bakken said. There were public protests in support of Yang and supporters wore T-shirts bearing his image. Rock bands sang songs praising the killer, who was executed aged 28 in November 2008.
"Blogs are full of criticism of the police, and it is no longer socially popular to say you are a policeman, according to the police officers themselves," Mr Bakken said.
Pressure groups continue to highlight alleged abuses. Last month Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) reported that Li Mingguang, 63, from Guangxi autonomous region in the south of the country, had spent the past month in hospital after allegedly being beaten by police when he complained about land seizures by the authorities.
In another example, local media and the CHRD have questioned the police's explanation that an "accident" led to the death of Qian Yunhai, a village chief who was crushed to death by a lorry on Christmas Day while protesting about a development.
Standards of policing vary considerably across China, said Rod Broadhurst, a professor in the school of regulation, justice and diplomacy at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, and a former chairman of the Hong Kong Criminology Society.
Some major metropolitan forces, such as in Shanghai, were "pretty professional" and on a par with those in other major world cities, he said. But poorer provincial forces could be "pretty indifferent".
Prof Broadhurst sees cause for optimism, saying China's police were more willing to engage with foreign forces to share experiences. However, Mr Bakken said edicts from the top aimed at improving standards often failed to have an effect at the grassroots level.
In this climate, he said, efforts by police to improve their image through microblogging would probably have "a minimal" effect.
"Police microblogging can help, but not stem the criticism that comes from real existing problems in Chinese society, lack of accountability, the view of a partisan police directed against the common man instead of protecting him," he said.
There is also the question of how much of the public a microblog can hope to win over. Kan Kaili, a professor at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said the popular websites were primarily used by young people, suggesting they may have limited capacity to reach the rest of the public.
"Some of my students use microblogs, but not too many," he said.