China seized $14.5 billion assets from family and associates of ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang, possibly the biggest “tiger” so far in China’s anti-corruption war. Tens of thousands of Taiwan protesters took to the street to protest a trade pact with mainland China. Residents in Maoming, Guangdong province, clashed with police during a protest against a local petrochemical plant project, resulting in several alleged deaths. And of course, Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 is still nowhere to be found.
These are the big China headlines during the weekend, and yet, China’s leading social media Weibo has been all about popular actor Wen Zhang’s affair and his endangered marriage with actress wife Ma Yili. The possible “uncoupling” of this once “model celebrity couple” got everybody’s attention.
Within 10 hours, Wen’s apology letter to wife and the public (for cheating) has been shared more than 1 million times and attracted over 2.5 million comments, breaking both retweet and interaction records on Weibo. “Cherish what you have at the moment (且行且珍惜)”, response by wife Ma Yili, is now already a new Internet meme. This celebrity affair is literally the most viral story since the start of Weibo.
The story is perfect proof to the argument that China’s social media, depicted in many western media as primarily a platform for freer political expression, are not always politically charged. In fact, like Dashan, a Canada native who is a household name in China for his mastery of the Chinese language, commented last year: “The vast majority of social media users in China are non-political, or shall we say de-politicized.”
This is not to say that the political discussions happened on Weibo, including those that have been covered in this blog, are insignificant. Quite the contrary, no one could deny the important role played by Weibo in fostering grass-root activism, encouraging political involvement, and raising civil society awareness in China. But the bigger picture has always been that those who actively participate in political conversions on China’s social media are the few.
Other media observers in China also call attention to the fact that despite all the hype about how the rise of Wechat (China’s most popular IM app) has brought to an end to Weibo’s popularity, Weibo is still the No. 1 social media platform for reaching a broad audience in China.
Chinese sociologist 陈里 commented: “Wechat, as a social app, wins over users because it allows private and personal networks. Weibo, however, is an open platform that makes use of weak social links to spread news like wild fire.”
More interesting is the bitter realization that traditional media in China don’t stand a chance to beat social media.
It was the journalists from Southern Entertainment Weekly who first captured evidence of Wen’s extramarital affair. The original leak last Friday was only that the magazine will release an exclusive report on a celebrity scandal in its Monday issue, stirring up a ton of speculations online. #See you on Monday# was once a most searched keyword on Weibo.
Posts from journalists and editors from the magazine told stories about how they have refused requests of early peeks, and resisted bribes from Wen and his friends to block the exposé. In one word, they’ve been building up the suspension. But details about what’s supposed to be in the Monday issue started to circulate online not soon after. By Sunday night, before any release by Southern Entertainment Weekly, Wen already posted his apology letter on his Weibo account.
Caijing, another Chinese magazine, commented: “There is no need to wait for the Monday issue any more. This is more than celebrity gossip. This is another showdown by social media that traditional media need to reflect on their business models.”
In this era of social media, it’s impossible for a weekly entertainment magazine to profit by reporting celebrity gossip. “What a victory of social media. There is no such thing as exclusive news for traditional media any more,” one netizen 萤九_牛小懒 commented.