Liz Gannes

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Sina CEO Charles Chao on How Weibo Is Changing China

The microblogging platform Sina Weibo has brought transparency to China, according to Sina CEO Charles Chao, who can reel off example after example of Weibo acting as a democratizing force — loaded as that term may be.

Sina CEO Charles Chao

Sina CEO Charles Chao

“It’s a check and balance in society, which makes Chinese society much, much better,” Chao said.

“Before, if anything happened, any accident or disaster, the information can be withheld or contaminated by government media control; but now it’s impossible, almost, to withhold information,” Chao said in remarks at the Stanford University China 2.0 conference on Thursday.

Sina Weibo has 56 million daily active users in China, who spend an average of one hour per day with the service. It’s an extremely valuable property; in April, Alibaba bought an 18 percent stake for $586 million.

“One hundred forty Chinese characters means a lot more,” Chao joked. “It has more stickiness than the social media platforms you’re familiar with here.”

However, Sina Weibo’s growth has suffered due to the rise of Tencent’s mobile messaging service Weixin/WeChat, which has reportedly gained usage during government crackdowns on online rumors that affected Weibo. (See our story on the ascent of Tencent from yesterday.)

Chao recalled many recent incidents of Weibo driving national conversation. For instance, rising attention to the terrible Beijing air quality, which has played out in public over the past two years, started with the U.S. Embassy publishing pollution measurements on its official Weibo account.

“Initially the government said this is wrong, then they said it would take years to report, then they said they would start to report,” Chao said. “That pushed the entire environment issue in Beijing, and now it became one of the highest priorities of the local government.”

In another example, a woman started a Weibo account under the name Guo Meimei with accounts of her luxury lifestyle, while saying that she worked for the Red Cross of China. While the user turned out to be fake, Chao said, it set off a nationwide discussion and review of charity organizations. “For a period of time of six months there was a low point where [charity organizations] could not get fundraising because people thought it was not right to give these people funding,” Chao said.

Weibo has changed public discussion but also government itself, Chao said. “There’s no way of going back, so I think officials and the government have to react to that.” Sina offers Weibo setup help to government officials, and now more than 60,000 of them have their own Weibo accounts.

Meanwhile, over in the media industry, Chao bragged that 30 percent of breaking news in China is now reported on Weibo first. Chao, who started his career as a news reporter, explained, “The biggest impact social media has brought today is the impact on the media itself. The impact on society is indirect; the impact on media is direct.”

But can there really be freedom of information in such a censored society? Chao downplayed those concerns, saying most people in China know what they can say, and censor themselves willingly. “There are certain things you cannot say on the Internet either in the United States,” he noted.

For Chao, it’s all relative. “We see a lot of progress in terms of freedom of media in the last 15 years. We have to put these things in historical context.”

Will Weibo’s influence wane with the rise of WeChat? Chao hopes not. “There is a fundamental difference between a public network and a private network,” he said. “I think these two products will have different directions and you will see that for quite a long time.”

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