The next month, Sina Weibo introduced a new user-credit system that experts suspect is a government censorship ploy. Now users receive 80 credits when they sign up, and they lose points for “untrue information, invasions of privacy, personal attacks, plagiarized content, the assuming of others’ identities and harassment of others.” Bergstrom reeled off a list of other government attempts to censor the site: deleted users, deleted posts and censored comments.
But Sina Weibo now “has too much momentum and too many users,” she said. “It would be dangerous to do anything to it.”
Chinese youth also are using the website to undermine government messages that try to disguise national events that might be embarrassing.
Bergstrom described how Sina Weibo challenged the adequacy of the official statement that was released when two new high-speed trains collided in July 2011 in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province in China’s southeast, killing dozens of people and injuring nearly 200. The Railway Ministry held a news conference to say that it was burying the trains, because they contained national technology that needed to be protected.
Sina Weibo users were unhappy that the trains wouldn’t be investigated first for possible defects, and they expressed their outrage in the thousands, posting pictures and firsthand accounts that criticized the Chinese administration’s handling of the accident.“They are able to decide what they care about and help drive those causes forward,” Bergstrom said.
Jessica Weiss, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, agreed it’s unlikely that youth will rebel in the same way the world saw in Tiananmen Square in the late 1980s.
She argued that Chinese youth, having been exposed to a hard-hitting government strategy of nationalist education and propaganda, are less politically motivated than their parents were.
The best-selling book “China Can Say No,” released in 1996, encouraged youth to embrace their national identity after what the authors – former government critics – saw as a fickle abandonment of it in the 1980s.
“The government’s attempt to distance the public from the admiration of American political ideals has to some extent been successful,” Weiss said.
As Zhong and classmate Jiyao Tang discussed China’s political future in a private room of their university building, they agreed that rejecting the nationalist system isn’t at the top of their agenda.
“We were born in the new era of China,” Zhong said.
Added Jiyao: “In the time my parents were born, the country was in total chaos. All they wanted to do is survive.”Jiyao patiently explained the importance of youth being politically motivated, while also understanding the framework within which they have to work. He said it was important to take advantage of the system of nepotistic connections known as guanxi, or “relationships between people.”
“We have to make the most of it,” Jiyao said. “The right thing to do is to try to adjust yourself to this structure. You lift yourself to a higher level without forgetting your initial wish to change things.”
But it’s this wish to change things that experts are less sure about.
“I think that there is no question that Chinese youth has the potential to change Chinese culture and society,” Weiss said. “The real question is whether they will choose to do so.”