Weibo is the New Black: Media Trends in China


For the first eighteen months out of college, I was lucky enough to live and work in Hong Kong. Food, local customs, and celebrating holidays were the obvious areas that were so different to life in the US. And not to mention bargaining, which I came to see as a competitive sport.

Food was probably the easiest entry to the culture, and one of my favorite things about living in the region. Two months after ditching a university meal plan, I was ordering xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and shao siu bao (BBQ pork buns) alongside my colleagues. Through food, I learned important customs. Pour the entire table tea and yourself last. When fish is served in banquet-style, you offer the meat on the cheek to the dinner guest or most senior person present.


Four years later, I’m back in New York and I’m reminded more than ever about my time there. I joined Chartbeat this spring and spend a lot of my day researching and speaking with online publishers across the world about audience behavior. I’ve been exposed to varying media trends – from discussing how visitors consume a site’s content on different devices (desktop vs mobile) to the bright future for budding publishers in Latin America. Yet I still find China to have one of the most fascinating media landscapes. Both vast in number of users, and regions it touches, the internet in China has been rapidly evolving in the past decade with use patterns not yet seen in the rest of world. All things considered, years later, I’m still trying to grasp the makeup. So while I haven’t craved an egg tart in months (think creme brulee custard in warm pie crust), and sadly can’t remember the last time I’ve treated myself to Peking Duck (I’ll need to work on that), I’m often thinking back to the cool things in media I saw, read or heard about from my co-workers.

I thought it’d be fun to share some of the media trends (from changes in journalism as a practice to social media across the board) that I saw when I was in China and continue to read about today:

Social Media as hard news.

Half of China’s 1.1 billion inhabitants are online, and they rely on friends to get their news. China has the world’s most active social-media population, by leaps and bounds. 91% of Chinese respondents in a McKinsey survey said they visited a social-media site in the last six months, in comparison to 67% in the United States(1).  Microblogging, or “weibo” in Chinese, has become extremely popular in the last few years and refers to social chat sites and platform sharing like the US equivalent, Twitter (Twitter is actually blocked in China).

Not surprising, Sina Weibo ( is the seventh most visited site in China, providing news on an array of topics(2). One in every two Chinese netizens reported in 2012 that they owned a weibo account(3). Weibos are a major source of commentary and in some instances, a vehicle for free speech. After the 2011 high-speed Wenzhou train collision in which nearly 40 people died, online posting via Weibo played a key role in breaking the news and serving as a platform for netizens to express frustration with their government(4).

chinese media, china

Celebrity bloggers hold a key to unlocking consumer behavior.

Many famous Chinese – from pop stars to notable scholars, journalists to business tycoons – have formed substantial internet followings. Netizens across China check in daily with these larger-than-life personalities. Followers want to know everything about their favorite celebrities: what they’re eating, wearing and beauty products they’re using. As much as the internet has become an important political forum in China, it is an even more powerful entertainment medium. For more, here’s a good exposé from IBM following a netizen who opens up on the correlation between his purchasing decisions and what his favorite celebrities are saying online:

A female singer that I am ‘following’ in Weibo loves sharing her new cosmetics with us. She tries new products like lipsticks and eyeliners from different brands and makes comparisons. From her blog posts, I can learn which brand has a better product. – blogger, viviansiu

New media has opened the door to instant celebrity.

Just in the last few weeks, we saw the downfall of famous blogger Xue Charles Bi-Chuen in a classic Icarian tale. Hailed on Sina Weibo as an “online crusader for justice,”(5) the venture capitalist turned celebrity blogger was arrested in August along prostitution charges. With tens of thousands of followers (sometimes hundreds), these bloggers hold extreme power (Xue even referred to himself as “the king of the internet” before his September 15th fall of grace). But I find it interesting that people from more humble beginnings have also reached to the same level of influence.

In February, The New York Times reported on a story already widely trending in the region. Zhu Ruifeng, an ex-migrant worker without a university education, was able to climb the internet ranks after exposing a high-ranking Chinese official; Zhu leaked a video that showed the official escapading with a much younger woman. It’s important to note that for Chinese journalists legitimacy is gained through state-issued credentials. Since creating his blog in 2006, Zhu says he has exposed nearly 100 government officials. Although he is a modern day ambulance chaser, I admire his belief in the new process. He says, “We used to say that when you have a problem, go to the police, now we say when you have a problem, go to the netizens”(6).

Rather than turn this into a discussion on internet censorship, I hope to highlight the creative media that are emerging in China and Hong Kong. The country’s ever-growing economy has made room for greater diversity in media coverage and expression, and experts say the increasing Chinese demand for information won’t be letting up anytime soon. Demand equals opportunity, and there is incredible opportunity for anyone moving to digital: publishers (both old print and new), writers, bloggers, photographers, and with that related fields like public relations and advertising.

But I imagine microblogging is only the tip of the iceberg. As more of China becomes wired, how are people changing the way they report, express, and ultimately connect with each other? [Tweet this] What changes as technologies become cheaper and easily accessible? Will microblogging’s popularity keep on or will it be replaced by something new?


What did I miss here? Would love to hear from you. Right in below in the comments section, or you can reach me via Twitter and Email.

Works Cited

  1. “Social media is exploding worldwide, and China is leading the way”,
  3.  “Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Sampling Approach”,
  4.  “Chinese anger over alleged cover-up of high-speed rail crash”,
  5.  “Like a king on the Internet” — celebrity blogger Xue’s story,
  6.  “Chinese Blogger Thrives as Muckraker”,



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