Weibo Offers an Alternative Olympic Narrative

//CGCS presents Part 2 of our post-Olympic Games special report on the implications of Social Media permeation at the 2012 London Olympic games.This time, we get an in depth look at Weibo – a microblogging platform from inside China that stands separate from state-controlled media. For Lee Humphreys with part 1, click here.

Leshuo Dong, was a CGCS visiting scholar from 2011-2012, and currently holds a MA in Journalism from Tsinghua University, and a BA in media communication from China Agricultural University. She provides us with the second part of this discussion:

Since exploding in 2009, one year after the Beijing Olympic Games, Weibo has become one of the most popular social networking sites in China. Now, several leading protocol sites in China, like Sina and Tencent, have over three hundred million registered Weibo users. The social media site (which translates literally to microblog), generated just under 120 million posts during the 2012 games – an astonishing number when you think about the millions of networked people in China. Not only were they sharing news about the London Olympics, but opinion as well. Moreover, scattered among the millions of posted status updates were the critical voices that chose to not echo state media coverage. Mainstream, state controlled media offered Chinese citizens the official discourse of cheers and celebration over Chinese athletes ‘winning honor for the country’, while Weibo addressed alternative ways of looking at Olympics.

As one of the more tumultuous discussions on Olympic-related issues, many Weibo users exchanged their views on what an athlete’s role truly should be.  The state-owned media is known for placing immense pressure on Olympic athletes, demanding that Olympiads put state honor before individual interest. On August 7th, after the famous Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang failed to win the 110 meter race, Weibo participants reacted en masse.

Liu Xiang stirs Weibo users

Xiang’s mother garnered international attention when interviewed about her son’s involvement in the games. The world champion’s mother explained that she understood her child, like other Chinese Olympic athletes, was a “son of the state” and that they would only be reunited after the games were over. She then asked her fellow Chinese citizens for forgiveness in the event that her son lost in the Olympics. Within 140 Chinese characters, this Weibo post shed some light on a lesser known side of being a state sponsored athlete- not being able to fulfill a normal role as a family member.

When Liu had to withdraw from competition at the last moment because of an injured tendon, he was met with the mainstream Chinese media blaming him for letting down his country. These statements angered Weibo participants, who took to their cellphones and computers. A post on Weibo reading “please give back Liu Xiang to his mother” was forwarded tens of thousands of times.   With a more deliberative way to address and discuss these issues, there is a stronger and clearer call for respect and humanity of the athletes.

The value of winning a gold medal has also been deliberated on Weibo; the Olympic culture in China places winning a gold medal as the only worthwhile achievement. Athletes that have walked away with silver or bronze medals after years of intense training go greatly underappreciated or even ignored. Xiang’s case, however, led to an outpouring of online sympathy and support for athletes who have fell short of reaching the top in London. Wu Jingbiao, a Chinese weightlifter, sobbed uncontrollably to a National TV camera and apologized for ‘shaming the motherland’ even after winning a silver medal. Jingbiao caused thousands of commenters to rethink and question the relationship between self-fulfillment and state honor.

Discourse and discussion can lead to change

The shift was perhaps more personified by the outburst of a female weight lifter, 17-year-old Zhou Jun, who was tagged as a “national disgrace” by a provincial newspaper after she failed to succeed.  This piece was forwarded so many times on Weibo that the paper later apologized after  the firestorm of indignation raged across the Internet. Without the increasingly influential social media wave and the power of the networked, the value of trying one’s best would not have been recognized for its own merit.

While those traditional narratives in China saw the Olympics as a sublimely teachable moment about nationalism, patriotism and collectivism, Weibo seems to have provided an alternative discourse: addressing other values and ideas, especially in China where the mainstream voice is usually dominated by state-owned media. Social media like Weibo provide alternative discourse and narratives, opening the gate for millions of people to access more information and ideas. However, with more and more sophisticated state control over social media — for example, the new real-name verification and registration regulation of Weibo has already been implemented for months — there should be concern about how long and how far social media in China will be able to go in terms of providing an alternative story.

//Leshuo is a PhD candidate specializing in international communication and comparative media studies at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Her research interests lie in public diplomacy, comparative media policy and global internet governance. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. At CGCS, she works on China’s public diplomacy in United States, with a special focus on China’s “going out” media policy. She has published several papers in leading Chinese academic journals, including the Journal of International Communication, Chinese Journalist, and Introduction to Journalism Research.

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