Social media observations of the “vacation-style treatment” case

Another new term gets extremely popular in the past 24 hours: vacation-style treatment, or 休假式治疗 in Chinese, due to the abrupt news of an Chongqing official’s mysterious disappearance. It is the bigest political news for China today (Wednesday Feb 8), and gets great media attention, both nationally and internationally.

I won’t list the details of the story here (see links to media reporting at the end of this post), especially given that the disappeared official could not be reached by any media at the moment so lots of details yet to be confirmed. However, there are some interesting phenomenon from the social media perspective, from which you may start to understand how Weibo, the Twitter-like service in China, is starting to change the way the government works and the expectations that the public holds.

1. Chinese government learning using Weibo as a way to publicize announcements

The news came from the official Weibo account of Chongqing’s information office. The microblog message goes: “According to information, because of long-term overwork, vice mayor Wang Lijun is highly stressed and in poor health condition. Upon approval, he is now receiving vacation-style treatment.”

Interesting facts to notice here:

A. This news is officially out by Weibo only. Chongqing’s information office does not have its independent website, so their Sina Weibo (more than 790,000 followers) and Tencent Weibo (more than 1 million followers) become the main channel to communicate the news to the public. For this piece of information, the Sina one got forwarded (same sense as retweeted) almost 74,000 times (adding up 50,000 for the first message and 14,000 for the second same one) and the Tencent piece got almost 18,000 forwards. All other media outlets, including Xinhua, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, sourced this weibo message in the news.

B.In the message, literally, it started with “according to information”. It is nothing better than “it is said that”. That is rare wording in official statements, because it indicates uncertainty. Who is exactly the source for this information? Why would the government’s information office cannot disclose detailed information about its local official? There are many questions to be answered.

C. For the Sina Weibo message, it was first published at 11:06 am, Beijing time, today. Within short time it was spreaded crazily. According to a People’s Daily web story published at 11:28am, the message already got forwarded 11608 times. However, before noon, the original message was deleted, and later got recovered. The official account explained that it was due to “mistake by staff”. Their account has published more than 1000 messages before this one, so it is hard to believe that it is simply a “mistake”.

2. Sina Weibo experimenting the bottom line for political news on its platform

I personally noticed this: around 10ish in the morning, “Wang Lijun”, the name for the sick official, was searchable on Sina Weibo. Sometime between 11am to 12pm, it got censored, which means it was no longer searchable. But now, as of 11pm the same day, it is unblocked again. It is very unusual.

C. Custer on has a better post explaining his similar experience in a more detailed way. He said, “I’ve never seen a blocked term get unblocked so quickly, not to mention a term get blocked, unblocked, blocked again, and then unblocked all in the space of just a few hours. So what’s going on here? Was it some kind of bug? There’s no way to know for sure — Sina is never going to comment on this sort of thing — but it seems possible that with the basic story still up in the air, the folks at Sina aren’t really sure whether this term should be blocked or not, and are doing their hemming and hawing in public.”

Meanwhile, the deadline for real name registration on Weibo platforms is approaching. By mid March, Chinese netizens would be required to register using their real name on microblogs, otherwise they would not be allowed to post messages. People are getting anxious about whether this mandatory disclosure of personal identity would infringe their freedom of expression online – well, assume we still have some for now. Balancing winning more users and controlling what they say is a difficult task. And apparently Sina is still experimenting and trying to minimize the political risk to itself.

3. Chinese public demanding more information about officials via social media

The limited information that people can get led to lots of speculation about Wang Lijun: especially that he had sought refuge inside the U.S. consulate and was intending to defect. More rumor is about how this incident will affect Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai’s political career. Public figures like Kaifu Lee was openly talking (or joking) about the vacation-style treatment, which made more people, who may not be really following political news, noticed this official and his story.

Lots of the speculations are waiting to be verified. The unusual thing is that, for deputy mayor level officials, the government does not necessarily post their sick leaves. Also, for a local official, his “vacation” received nation-wide attention within 24 hours. And people are still requesting more details about his leave. How much voice from the microblogs will be heard by the leaders is unknown, but the demand for a more transparent political system and a more efficient communication channel is expected to push the country forward – it’s a personal observation, and hope, at least.


English media reporting:

Chinese media reporting:

One Response to “Social media observations of the “vacation-style treatment” case”
  1. Eirene says:

    very interesting to hear things from an insider

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