Tea Leaf Nation

The Chinese Communist Party Just Opened a WeChat Account

An eclectic social media debut for the world's largest political organization.

HONG KONG — It's a growth story that would make many Silicon Valley venture capitalists swoon: a once-tiny, secretive group of 13 members blooming into a network of around 86 million, plus a killer app that no other competitor can replicate -- near absolute political domination. The organization in question is the Chinese Communist Party, one that has recently decided to take its members, and messages, into the age of the social Internet.

In late August, an internal document of the Organization Department of the party's central committee -- a key organ that serves as the human resources arm of this party apparatus to manage member intake, assignment, and personnel issues -- surfaced on Chinese social media. Dated July 24, the document "urges the vast number of party member to subscribe to the official public accounts called 'Communist Party Members' on WeChat and Yixin," two of China's most popular mobile messaging apps with hundreds of millions of users between them. Chinese organizations, companies, and many independent "self-media" groups use so-called public accounts on these apps to push out articles and contents to users that choose to subscribe to them.

The goal of establishing these two accounts, according to the document, was in part to "open up a new front in party member education." Perhaps mindful of the fact that many party members are not tech-savvy, the document orders local departments to "hold meetings and seminars" to teach members how to use the accounts.

The welcome message of the party's new account, opened August 11, promises to "help [readers] understand party members from a new point of view." The collection of articles pushed out to followers has thus far been decidedly eclectic: on August 22, the top article was a snoozer taken straight out of party moutpiece People's Daily about the propaganda czar's edict to "deepening the understanding of Deng Xiaoping Theory and solidify our strong spiritual force to realize the Chinese Dream." But on August 25, one of the chosen articles waxed poetic about how one should "not to lead life as if it were a cup of instant coffee" and exhorted readers, "If at some point, you want to sit in the sun and listen to the sound of flowers blossoming, go ahead and do it." Meanwhile, the sign-off for new members --"Dear, please come visit me often" -- sounds like the type of Internet slang a teenage girl might use to address her friends.

The strange combination of propaganda and historical anecdote with web lingo and self-help tips marks another step in the party's attempt to jostle for a place in China's clamorous social media. On August 18, surely aware that censorship alone has been insufficient to bring the blogosphere to heel, Party Secretary Xi Jinping called for "new style" media organizations that integrate old and new platforms to form "strong, influential, and credible" voices that speak for the party. Time will tell whether this latest effort to give propaganda a Web 2.0 spin will reach beyond those already disposed to believe what they read.  

WeChat/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese People Are Also Horrified by the James Foley Video

Even on the country's raucous Internet, users are mourning the journalist's death and criticizing media outlets who do not.

On August 19, a grisly video of an Islamic State (IS) militant beheading U.S. journalist James Foley surfaced online. The brutal murder of a war correspondent, the latest in the terrorist organization's string of atrocities, has appalled worldwide observers. That includes many Chinese, despite the fact that one video screen near a subway station in capital Beijing included portions of the video in a larger montage, leading to a recent article on website Quartz headlined, "While Twitter is removing the James Foley execution video, China is broadcasting it in public."

China -- being, of course, a massively complex geopolitical entity with over 1.3 billion people -- is  doing no such thing. At least on Weibo, China's pre-eminent online discussion platform, users evinced widespread horror on Chinese social media at Foley's death and anger at the extremists who killed him. A recent Weibo search for "American journalist beheaded" yielded over 136,000 results. Some users posted pictures of lit candles; others wished for peace in the Middle East. Many comments expressed horror at Foley's murder, calling his killers "monsters" or asking for a moment of silence for war correspondents. The video of Foley's execution, which inspired an almost immediate campaign on Twitter not to watch or share the gruesome video, is now blocked on U.S. social media sharing sites. While a number of Chinese television reports show portions of the video, the full video itself also appears to be absent from major Chinese video sharing sites.

In contrast to Chinese media's largely straight take on the horrific news, three outlets did use Foley's death to take jabs at the United States -- only to be clobbered by outraged netizens. On August 20, Beijing-based finance magazine Caijing and Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media both published posts on their official Weibo accounts about Foley. "The American reporter beheaded by IS blamed the U.S. government for the tragedy," Caijing's post began. It quotes Foley saying, "I call on my friends, family, and loved ones to rise up against my real killers: the U.S. government," who ordered recent airstrikes targeting IS. Foley did utter those words, but Caijing crucially neglected to add that IS militants had forced him to read them aloud in front of the camera.

Chinese netizens were outraged at the mischaracterization. Of the more than 1,000 comments to Caijing's post, the most popular read, "This is just another example of Chinese media creating its own rumors." Another user accused Caijing of lacking "moral integrity." Phoenix Media's Weibo post echoed Caijing's, eliciting a similar response from netizens, with one user declaring, "Phoenix and IS are both shameless." It is unclear whether or not the mischaracterization was intentional, though neither of the news organizations have posted a clarification to their Weibo accounts and the original posts have not been removed.

Two days later, state-run Global Times, known for nationalist editorials, took another tack, intimating on its Weibo account that Foley's death resulted from U.S. government negligence towards its own citizens. The Times asked rhetorically on its official Weibo account, "No matter where you are, can you always rely on the U.S. military?" and followed with a nose-picking emoticon. (The post referred to a rumor that swept the Chinese Internet in 2011, which falsely claimed that U.S. passports contain the promise of U.S. military protection to bearers.) The post noted that IS had actually offered to release Foley if the United States would give the group tens of millions of dollars in exchange. "But the U.S. government refused," the post concluded.

That attempt to exploit Foley's death also backfired. "Global Times, how despicable," wrote one user. "All day you use a magnifying glass to look for dirt on other people." Another user asked sarcastically, "I wonder what the Chinese government would do if you, Little Editor, were kidnapped."

Weibo/Fair Use