November 15, 2013, by Editor

Searching Guangzhou: Regionalising Weibo

Written by Wilfred Yang Wang.

“Known to many in the West as ‘Canton’, Guangzhou is the first city most travellers to mainland China visit. Wrapped in a perpetual haze of pink smog and flashing neon lights, the city overwhelms with its energy, colour, and sheer size. Influenced by neighbouring Hong Kong, consumerism has swept up the city in a head-spinning frenzy, but scratch away Guangzhou’s glittery surface and you’ll find a place quite special among China’s major urban centres. It just takes some time to grow on you”

This quote taken from the travel guide Lonely Planet on Guangzhou, the capital city of China’s southern province of Guangdong, is interesting because it foregrounds a journey of exploration, and asks its readers to look beyond the urban capital’s economic prosperity and glamour surfaces to where true excitements can be found.

The proliferation of weibo (micro-blog) services in recent years has attracted rich scholarly and media attention and many commentators focus on weibo’s prominent role in state-public contestations in China. While the political dimension is not to be disputed, learning about a region’s (or city’s) distinctiveness and how it is practiced and manifest through weibo can help us to further appreciate the techno-social integration of the platform.

This post reflects on regionalising Chinese Internet: how the geo-identity of a city/province shapes and is also being shaped by developing communication technologies in China. A city is not merely the administrative unit that is part of the nation, but a city’s transformation and experience over time offer the realm to manage one’s sense of self and belonging. Weibo taps into this process and mediates the tension and conflicts between regions and nation.

Two national projects in recent Chinese history merit attention for contextualising weibo in Guangzhou: the project of economic reform and the project of national identity. These two projects come hand in hand as economic reasons can justify the legitimacy of a national identity that is constructed by the CCP, and it can be achieved through standardisation.

The policy of tuipu (推普), ‘promoting Mandarin’, has been one of the most consistent and determined initiatives by the CCP since the 1950s. [1] Guangzhou media, however, was largely exempt from this policy as the government was hoping the preservation of Cantonese broadcasting (radio and television) would attract Hong Kong investors during the 1980s. This is no longer the case today as the mainland economy is increasingly independent from Hong Kong’s investments. In July 2010, the Guangdong provincial government proposed to replace Cantonese broadcasting on Guangzhou’s major television networks with Mandarin. The proposal triggered public anger and a street protest was organised on weibo and took place on 25 July 2010. The provincial government was forced to drop the initiative.

It is not new for weibo to play a critical role in local disputes, but the display of ‘Guangzhou characteristics’ throughout the online mobilisation was intriguing. For example, the majority of weibo posts were typed in Cantonese expressions and Cantopop songs (from Hong Kong) were uploaded as ‘protest anthems’ to mobilise popular engagement. The use of the language, which was a performance of the Cantonese identity, was both personal and political: it was politically subversive because it confronted the governments’ will of tuipu; it was personal because it speaks to Guangzhouers’ culture and daily life. Moreover, the social tension between local and outsiders (migrant workers in particular) are entirely avoided in the online discourse; it looks like Guangzhouers were trying to manifest a frame of ‘social diversity and equality’ to support the course of their protest.

This protest provides an interesting lead to think about regional specifics of the Chinese Internet rather than seeing online protest and discontent merely as ‘class action’ or ‘generational shift’. Instead, the specific past of Guangzhou and its cultural uniqueness, such as the Cantonese language, its proximity to Hong Kong, and its local-outsider discourse, frame and guide the formation of public opinion and popular mobilising tactics.

common concern about the political capacity of China’s Internet has been its momentary empowerment rather than ongoing democratic practices and values being engaged. Informed by the above observations, I have conducted a longitudinal study by collecting weibo posts over a period of twelve months (20 July 2012 to 30 July 2013) from a weibo group. The group mainly provides news and information about leisure and entertainment in Guangzhou. I am interested in how a Guangzhou identity is reinvented and renegotiated through consumerist tastes and lifestyle preferences. More importantly, how everyday carries politics on weibo.

Some primary observations include the celebration of local food, tourism, and Cantonese popular culture, first confirm the kind of subversive sentiments found in the pro-Cantonese protest; in particular, the main protest slogan, ‘I Love Guangzhou, I love Cantonese’, appear repeatedly in the weibo group’s posts. It suggests the political sentiments of the pro-Cantonese protest did not fade away but the popular sentiment has transformed into the online consumption of material and immaterial goods.

Second, a celebration of post-colonialism through the appreciation of Guangzhou’s historic architecture is emerging. Guangzhou has hosted multiple Western powers’ administrative and consultative zones during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Guangzhou buildings display obvious European aesthetics. This past, however, is largely erased by the process of urbanisation and the CCP’s unwillingness to acknowledge China’s semi-colonial past in a positive and non-imperialistic rhetoric. It seems like the online revisit of Guangzhou’s past can be seen as a re-narration, or alternative narration of the country.

While I make a case of Guangzhou here, I mean to put forth a possible way to reassess and rethink China’s Internet: through the lens of everyday consumption and routinised practices in a city. Through Guangzhou, we can learn more about the revitalisation of sub-national regions within China’s Great Firewall, and how weibo helps to articulate the re-narration of a region, which can potentially become the re-narration of a nation (China).

Wilfred Yang Wang is a PhD candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. 

[1] Wang Peiying. (2001). Discussing the regulations in the constitution of ‘Nation wide promotion of Putonghua’ (Lun Xianfa Guanyu ‘Guojia Tuiguang Quanguo Tongyong de Putonghua’ de Kuiding). The Journal of Beijing College of Politics and Law, 27, 9-11.

Posted in Chinese internetCulture and Media