U.S. politicians don’t just tweet, they also weibo

More than a dozen U.S. politicians are posting on China's Twitter

Yiping Yang By Yiping Yang

Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to China, has been a trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, which has 300 million registered users. Among other things, Sina Weibo’s netizens have chattered about Locke’s salary and his habit of carrying his own backpack.

Gary Locke may be U.S. Ambassador to China, but on Sina Weibo he’s viewed as a man of the people. (Reuters)

Locke isn’t himself active on Sina Weibo (weibo means, literally, microblog. We would pronounce it as something like ‘way-bou’).  More than a dozen other American politicians are, reports China Daily. Dave Heineman, governor of Nebraska, posted his first message “Hi, China!” on May 10th. The Chinese press said that a number of Chinese users greeted him, saying “Hi, Dave, welcome to China.” Fellow Nebraskan Jim Suttle, mayor of Omaha, is also on Sina Weibo, and posted his first message in Chinese. Three minutes later, his second Chinese message welcomed Chinese people to work, invest, study and live in Omaha. Chinese Weibo members responded enthusiastically with questions relating to visas, tourism and study.

The first U.S. politician on Sina Weibo was Daniel Wong, a former mayor and city council member of Cerritos, California who moved to the U.S. from his native Hong Kong as a youth. He’s known as Huang Jinbo on Sina Weibo.  He opened his account in August 2009 and now has more than 20,000 followers.The most popular U.S. politician on Sina Weibo hasn’t actually held political office — it’s Neil Bush, brother of former U.S. President George W. Bush. Bush, a businessman, has 120,959 followers at present (as compared to only 153 followers on Twitter). Edwin M. Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, posted regularly on Sina Weibo, though in English, during his campaign for mayor.

U.S. politicians are not the only ones adopting Weibo accounts. According to a Sina Weibo spokeswoman quoted on Xinhua.net, about 300 foreign officials and representatives from international organizations have opened Weibo accounts. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has 760,000 Weibo followers, versus 52,000 followers on Twitter. One follower, “Xiao Sha Jiang Fu” said “This is the closest communication between IMF Managing Director and me.”

The blog TeaLeaf Nation noted that a number of foreign politicians message regularly on Sina Weibo. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, used his Weibo account to encourage the Chinese community in London to vote for him. Others post personal messages discussing their thoughts on food, family and travel.

“Government officials have become more active on our portal these days, and we are glad to offer this kind of communication portal between officials and the Chinese public,” the Sina Weibo spokeswoman said.

Dave Heineman, governor of Nebraska greeting Chinese Netizens on Sina Weibo

Latitude News examined Weibo posts, and found that some members expect that having foreign politicians on Weibo will change the nature of politics in China. “Thinking positively, these politician’s blogs have an impact on China’s speech environment and will lead to freedom of speech here. But on the other hand, this is a new way of intervention to China and will put pressure on authorities. Just as Gary Locke has brought a lot of trouble (to China’s government), these people will bring even more,” Weibo user “Ka Zha Fei A” (that is, Gadaffi A) said.

Another posted that “China is now different from how it used to be, which was bullied by other foreign countries. When these (politicians) open Weibo accounts, they should please watch what they say,” said “Shi Bao Xiang Ge.”

For Chinese politicians and government officials, the use of Weibo quadrupled from 5,000 to 20,000 in 2011, as both individual officials and government agencies jumped onto the service. The best known is Zhang Chunxian,  is party chief of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the highest-ranking Chinese official to open a Weibo account. He sees Weibo as a way to connect directly with citizens. He began his Weibo with a promise to connect tightly with Xinjiang people on Weibo and received 5,000 responses that day. He is known as the “online secretary” by Weibo users and has 300,000 followers.

Sina.com, an online portal in China, ran a poll  “What do you think of Chinese officials opening Weibo accounts?” About three-fourths of respondents believe microblogging is an effective way to shrink the distance between government and public. The politicians’ Weibo posts are seen as playing an important role in supplying information, quelling rumors and reassuring the public.

According to Beijing News, world politicians posting on Weibo is more about work than personal interest. It encouraged Chinese netizens to treat them cordially, to help improve relations between China and other countries. One thing is clear: social media is definitely breaking down borders.