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This Could Spark China's Arab Spring

Thursday, 7 Mar 2013 | 11:12 PM ET
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With half a billion and counting registered users on China's Twitter-like micro blogging website Sina Weibo, the country's increasingly vocal army of netizens could be among the biggest challenges facing the world's second largest economy's new leadership, which officially assumes power this month.

The Chinese people have taken to the internet in a big way in recent times to protest against everything from corruption, pollution to food safety, posing a never-seen-before problem for President Xi Jinping and his team who are going to rule the country for the next 10 years.

"This is the first government that has come into power with social media being a force in society. While, it emerged over the last Hu [Jintao] government, for this new government it's a set stakeholder that has to be taken account of," Dane Chamorro, director, Asia Pacific at Control Risks, a consulting firm specializing in political security, told CNBC.

(Read More: Is This the Start of China's Tightening Cycle?)

"It makes the job of being a Chinese government official more difficult - much more like jobs of governments in other more open economies. This is a game changer because people are watching what they do," Chamorro added.

The most significant consequence of this growing, powerful online force is the speed at which the new government will need to respond to citizen discontent, said analysts.

"They will have to tackle issues faster. Social media rings transparency; we certainly saw that in Arab Springs and what we are seeing right now is no different," said Michael Netzley, academic director at Singapore Management University.

In the absence of websites like Facebook and Twitter, local microblogging websites have boomed in popularity in recent years, emerging as the primary platform for citizens to engage in discussion on political and social issues, communicate with government officials and obtain local news.

Stringent censorship in China has led to widespread mistrust in traditional media sources, placing more importance on microblogs as an alternative news source. "Weibo is like the new Xinhua of China - social media plays a much bigger role than you might expect," said Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific director of social media at global advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather. Xinhua is the country's official news agency.

(Read More: China: Time of Transition)

Subscription to accounts on Sina Weibo, and competitor Tencent Weibo, has seen unprecedented growth since their launch just a few years ago. Registered users on Sina Weibo, for example, jumped from 400 million to 500 million between the third and fourth quarter of 2012, according to media reports.

While the nation's social media outlets are under heavy surveillance, users have developed creative ways to evade censorship restrictions by using code words, puns and images.

Ben Cavender, associate principal, China Market Research, added, "People are much more willing to push the line, they have come to the realization that there is power in numbers and people expressing the same view point."

"We're at a tipping point at where the government can't control the flow of info to the same extent, and this will change the way they respond to things," he said.

Pressure to Fight Corruption

For many months, discussions around corruption or the misuse of power have dominated social media platforms across the country, and China watchers say this is the one issue the new government will need to address most urgently.

Chinese microblogs have given rise to a group of self-proclaimed "investigators," who are taking to these websites to single out local government officials abusing their authority or living extravagantly.

Last November, for example, a series of photos of a government official from a poor province in China's northwest sporting several luxury watches - that would have been difficult to purchase from an official's salary - were posted on Sina Weibo. Within days, the post generated over 6 million comments, Australia's The Daily Telegraph reported, leading to a government investigation into the case.

(Read More: No Hard Landing for Luxuries in China: Pro)

Other hot button issues that have recently generated a significant amount of chatter online have been food safety, following reports that chicken supplied to local U.S. fast food chain KFC contained excess amount of antiviral drugs and growth hormones, and urban pollution concerns after air quality in cities such as Beijing reached hazardous levels. This put pressure on the government to publish real-time air quality monitoring data at the start of the year, which was previously unavailable.

Don't Get Your Hopes Up

Shanghai-based social media researcher and internet activist, Isaac Mao, who wrote China's first blog 11 years ago, however, said he is not getting his hopes high that the government will react positively to online public opinion.

"Social media is getting more important, and while the new government can't escape this, I'm not going to take for granted that the government is going to be better," Mao told CNBC.

(Read More: China Oks Sweeping Tax Reforms to Tackle Inequality)

Mao, whose Sina Weibo account with over 50,000 followers was shut down by the government last year, said policymakers have a way of "pretending" that they are listening.

"They pretend they are building up channels to talk to people, but they are very selective in the questions they chose to respond to," he said.

China is estimated to have tens of thousands of "internet police" monitoring online activity, and, there is unlikely to be a loosening in censorship any time soon, Mao added.

(Read More: China Bans Ads for Pricey Gifts in Anti-Corruption Push)

"The government doesn't want to easily give up power to society - it isn't easy to see that change," Mao said.

Catch the CNBC TV Show 'Inside China' over March 15-17 at different timings.

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