China's most social of networks, Sina Weibo, a global hit
BEIJING // Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and foreign minister, is for the moment taking a back seat in politics at home - but he is attracting plenty of attention in China.
A sinophile who speaks fluent Mandarin, Mr Rudd has become one of the latest celebrity hits on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, rapidly accumulating close to 200,000 followers.
The 54-year-old, who uses his Chinese name Lu Kewen and writes in Chinese, has found an audience for his commentaries on everything from the plight of Chinese students attacked in Australia to the minutiae of life as a backbench member of parliament.
Other foreign personalities, even when posting only in English, have proved even more of a draw on Weibo, which is the Chinese word for microblog.
Everyone who is anyone, it seems, believes that they must engage with China.
The Hollywood actor Tom Cruise has about four million followers who eagerly await posts about his latest projects.
The Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has an audience of close to three million as he promotes the work of the anti-poverty foundation he runs with his wife, Melinda.
Even the main candidates for the recent mayoral election in London set up Sina Weibo accounts and began posting messages in the hope of generating interest, as the incumbent and eventual winner, Boris Johnson put it, among the "the London Chinese community".
The former US president George W Bush's brother Neil, who has exstensive business dealings in China, is also a regular, posting messages about his favourite Chinese products, as is the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, whose sometimes less-than-thrilling messages detail her recent meetings.
Well-known names from elsewhere in East Asia are also proving popular. This month, the South Korean actor and singer Kim Hyunjoong attracted more than 230,000 followers within 24 hours of signing up for Weibo, said to be a record for a foreign celebrity.
The influence of Sina Weibo stems partly from the huge numbers involved. In the country with more internet users than any other, the microblogging site has 300 million account holders, who tend to be better-educated and in well-paid white-collar jobs. About 100 million messages are posted each day.
The fact that Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China helps increase interest in the site, which was launched in August 2009, a decade after its parent company, the Shanghai-based Sina Corporation, was founded.
In addition to celebrities, foreign and Chinese, companies have also taken to the format, responding to criticism in the press as well as promoting their products.
"McDonald's was exposed with some food-safety issues. They used Weibo to immediately reply and apologise. I think they handled it quite well," said Bill Bishop, an internet analyst in Beijing and publisher of the DigiCha blog.
Yet perhaps the real importance of Sina Weibo, and its rival Tencent Weibo, lies in the contributions from the ordinary users rather than the famous names or the international conglomerates.
The sites have become a lively centre for discussion of even controversial issues, a role China's tightly managed state-run press has tended not to fulfil.
"Weibo is the first [place] for pseudo-free speech for a lot of people here," said Mr Bishop.
"Because of the way information has historically been controlled in China and the way it flows, Weibo has a much more impactful role in disseminating information than even Twitter."
This was seen clearly after two high-speed trains collided in July last year near Wenzhou, a city close to Shanghai. Much of the information about the incident, which claimed 40 lives, spread on Weibo and there was little the authorities could do to control it.
Such unofficial information dissemination, and the use of the Weibo sites by those keen to express views on politics, means the authorities are "very concerned" about the medium, according to Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a Beijing media website and research company.
"Weibo is the most powerful tool for public expression China has ever had. It's a very real force that's changing public debate," he said.
The authorities try to restrict discussion, insisting on real-name registration and deleting controversial material or preventing it from being posted in the first place.
Users who breach rules, by spreading rumours for example, now risk having their accounts deactivated. Yet the sites remains a potent medium, allowing views to spread.
"It's certainly a force that's pushing China toward a more pluralistic environment in terms of the public expression of opinions and debates," said Mr Goldkorn.
Yet as well as allowing more diverse opinions to be aired, online discussion can also magnify hardline views.
In particular, extreme nationalism can dominate discussions when there are disputes with other countries, such as the recent spat between Beijing and Manila over the South China Sea.
"There was a lot of very angry nationalism on Weibo," Mr Goldkorn said. This is a potential concern given that a 2010 report, New Foreign Policy Actors in China, published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, warned nationalism was "a dangerous tool" that could harm the government if it is not tough enough with foreign countries.
Updated: June 27, 2012 04:00 AM