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China Forced to Listen, 140 Characters at a Time

"They think they can control it but we are not stupid," says a woman who I'll call Alice. "We see what is happening through [Sina] Weibo."

It's a week after the crash of two bullet trains in China, which killed more than 40 and injured 191, and Alice and I wait for a table at a busy restaurant in a posh Beijing shopping mall. A hostess gives us cups of jasmine water then hovers nearby, bored. Alice, however, is heated.

People don't trust travel in China, she says. Those flying domestic airlines joke that they "never know if this will be their unlucky one." Then there is the train bureaucracy, well known to be corrupt. She tells me about Xiang Weiyi, a two-year-old girl who was trapped in a twisted rail car after the crash. She didn't die from the impact, she says, but nearly died anyway, she claims, because railway rescue crews didn't bother to look for her for hours. "This is unacceptable," she says. "Something is going to happen."

So callous appeared the response to the July 23 crash that, for however short it may last, it has roused many Chinese to raise hell. And amazingly, power has listened. While traditional media was, at first, mostly kept in check, forced to bury news of the crash the following day and instructed to report "touching" stories afterward, the collision has underlined the emergence, and influence, of microblogs, or 'weibos' as they're known in China.

For the past week, weibo sites Sina Weibo, QQ and Baidu, among others, have been filled with so much citizen-journalism, calls for officials to be held accountable and unvarnished criticism of the status quo -- one estimate says there are now 26 million posts on the crash -- that not only have the country's infamous censors been unable, or unwilling, to stem the flow but the government has uncharacteristically apologized, increased compensation for victims and even, if you can believe it, dug up train cars from the ground.

That's likely where the online backlash went viral. Following the crash, China's railway ministry, which heads the world's largest rail network, wanted to cut short rescue efforts and bury wrecked cars so that it could re-open the rail line. A torrent of anger and amateur video, allegedly showing bodies falling from cars being moved caused the ministry to backtrack. Now, it has further emerged (and thus far has not been censored) on a popular blog that an argument ensued between railway officials and locals after the crash. It's alleged the local police threatened to arrest anyone trying to bury rail cars.

Of course, one of the cars was buried -- the lead car of the train that crashed into the other, which was stranded due to a power outage at the time. So aware of the public's distrust was railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping at this point that he said, "This was the explanation offered. Whether you believe it or not, I certainly do." An online poll asked, "Which reason do you believe for why the train was buried?" Nearly all respondents said, "Destruction of evidence."

Eventually, the ministry buckled against the tide and dug the lead car back up. By this time, China's mainstream media had joined in. Even The People's Daily, a parrot for the Communist Party, had a few choice words about the crash. In the end, the outcry has led the government to suggest an investigation into the crash and calls for heads to roll.

Such public criticism of the government, however short lived and warranted as it may be, isn't supposed to be possible in China. Microblogging sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned for this reason. Type the word 'blog' in any URL here and your browser stalls. In place of all this, the homegrown weibos allow 140-characters to be posted, but also China's own brand of paranoid government supervision (there are several security cameras on light posts in Tiananmen Square).

The problem for China's government is that the weibos have grown insanely popular. While many in the West likely haven't heard of Sina Weibo (or for that matter YouKu, China's replacement for YouTube, also banned), thanks to China's massive population and its newfound wealth putting smartphones in many people's hands, they are far bigger than we might imagine: the total number of users on Sina Weibo: 140 million. The amount of users on China's QQ: about 600 million.

In fact, Chinese actress Yao Chen (ever heard of her?) has more followers on Sina Weibo than Barack Obama or Katy Perry do on Twitter.

Zhan Jiang, professor of international journalism and communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, described the rise of weibos in China as a "revolution" to the New York Times.

But few noted that this week, as the weibos became known outside of China for their potential to stir the pot, that Sina Weibo announced its latest development -- Weibo 4.0, which will reportedly attempt to combine social media services into something resembling Twitter-meets-Facebook.

China may not have Twitter and all the rabble-rousing powers that come with it. But if things continue like this, it probably won't need it. As Alice said, "something is going to happen."

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