The country's government is known for closely regulating web activity -- but it's also using Weibo to reach out to citizens.
At 11:51 AM on July 21, the Weibo (Chinese Twitter) account called "Safe Beijing" (平安北京) advised its three million followers to "take caution outdoors today!" Over the course of the day, the falling rain would grow into the worst rainstorm to hit Beijing in 60 years, eventually killing over 70 people and causing millions of dollars worth of damage.
Throughout the storm, Safe Beijing posted thirty more messages detailing road closures, traffic updates, safety information, and news stories. These posts were forwarded on by Safe Beijing's readers, with one post -- detailing the heroic actions of a Beijing police officer -- forwarded over 5,000 times.
Notably, Safe Beijing is not the account of a concerned Beijinger or of a citizen watchdog group. It is managed by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB), the city's primary police force.
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The Chinese government's use of Internet technology most often serves to impede free speech, open society, and progressive thought. Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern that the Chinese government uses Internet technology as a tool for suppression.
Less discussed are government programs like Safe Beijing, which seek to increase the use of Internet technology as a tool to promote citizen-state interaction and to increase the availability of social services through what is known as "e-government," which refers to web-based interaction between government officials, citizens, and businesses. While e-government has become standard in the Western world, it is also a valuable tool for developing country governments to become more efficient and responsive.
Although China is not among the top 50 in the United Nation's 2012 ranking of national e-government performance -- it ranks 78th -- Chinese leadership has increasingly encouraged e-government programs, which have outpaced China's economic and demographic peers. In 2012, a U.N. survey labeled China's e-government gains "impressive."
China's embrace of e-government is particularly interesting because e-government has the power to inform and empower Chinese citizens, yet China currently controls what is almost certainly the world's most sophisticated Internet monitoring apparatus. Some critics would argue that e-government in China is simply another tool for the Chinese Communist Party to keep a close watch on its citizens. But the party's motives may be less nefarious. "China's long-term and sustainable economic success hinges on government transparency that helps provide a level playing field for both foreign and domestic business," said Mei Gechlik, an e-government expert with the non-profit Good Governance International (at which this author volunteers). As a result, Chinese policy-makers have a real stake in seeing e-government in China succeed on multiple levels.
Movement in the Right Direction
Following the lead of the Beijing PSB, a variety of government officials and agencies--including tourism, public health, and even the State Council -- have established Weibo accounts both to inform subscribers of relevant developments and to establish a new avenue for interaction. Some officials have even taken to liveblogging government conferences, political meetings, and other official events, offering a unique glimpse into the traditionally closed-door world of Chinese policy making.