The Aesthetics of Chinese Microblogging: State and Market Control of Weibo

in Asiascape: Digital Asia
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Microblogs, epitomized by Twitter in the West and Weibo in China, have attracted considerable attention over the past few years. There have been a number of optimistic accounts about their potential to stimulate political activism and social change, juxtaposed with suggestions that their networks are too weak and that they are too easily censored for such change to occur. Yet, in this debate, little attention has been paid to the medium itself; microblogs have too often been treated as mere conduits for information, and the practical and aesthetic experience of microblogging has been marginalized.

This article addresses this imbalance in two ways. First, it argues that the microblog is a distinctive medium with special potential for political communication. It applies Rancière’s ‘politics of aesthetics’ and Baudrillard’s ‘private telematics’ to microblogs, suggesting that the particularly immersive quality of microblogs provides new and distinct opportunities for the promotion of opinions and social movements. Second, it argues that by allowing, re-modelling, monitoring and censoring the Weibo service, the Chinese party-state, acting collaboratively with the key microblog companies and the market as a whole, is consciously manipulating the medium of the microblog to reduce the risk of activism, controversial use, and network formation. Thus, the medium of Weibo differs from other microblogs – of which Twitter is the key example – in several important ways, each of which, the article argues, are intended to maximize the cacophonous spectacle of entertainment and to minimize reasoned discussion and debate. Furthermore, while pure censorship of information can be evaded in many ways, it is more difficult for dissenters to evade state control when it is applied to the medium itself.

The Aesthetics of Chinese Microblogging: State and Market Control of Weibo

in Asiascape: Digital Asia



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Wallis (2012) points out the class differentials inherent in technology use in China: poorer and more rural citizens are far more likely not to use mobile technology or to use it mainly for simple interpersonal communication. Nonetheless with the cost of smartphones and of internet data rapidly decreasing this trend is gradually becoming less meaningful.


This feature was only changed in late 2013. Many third-party Twitter platforms (that is services through which Twitter can be accessed but which are not operated by Twitter itself including many phone and computer applications) still do not display preview images.


  • View in gallery front page, accessed 25 April 2014.
  • View in gallery
    The stream of Sina Weibo, accessed 25 May 2014. Many of the smaller emoticons are animated, and images are displayed inline. The ‘V’ icons indicate verified users. Note that the posts displayed on the screen are not from accounts actually followed by the author; they are ‘promoted’ accounts, generally focusing on entertainment or consumption. (Twitter now also does this, but to a lesser degree.)
  • View in gallery
    Weibo’s ‘PK’ page (, accessed 25 May 2014). The author (an infrequent poster on Weibo), is only at Level 2; other Weibo ‘fans’ are at Level 8 and Level 13.
  • View in gallery
    Forwarding and commenting on Weibo: User comments are integrated with posts, rather than being made in separate posts as on Twitter.

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