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China tries microblogging top political event

March 11, 2010

By CARA ANNA
The Associated Press (AP)
March 9, 2010

BEIJING -- So this is how you get through China's
biggest political event of the year: "Sit still,
stare toward the front, pretend like you're
looking but you're really not, pretend like
you're listening but you're really not ... make your brain blank."

As delegates to the National People's Congress
dip into the world of Twitter-like microblogging,
the Chinese public is getting a rare glimpse
inside the workings, and nonworkings, of power.

For the first time, some of the almost 3,000
delegates are posting brief online messages from
behind the scenes as they shuttle between vast,
largely immobile meetings and their hotels,
sealed off from the public with police tape.

China's political workings are so controlled and
opaque that some Chinese don't know who their
delegates are. But some representatives are now
being scrutinized, sucked into chats with
netizens and even breaking news on the social
network, where anyone can post notes of up to 140
characters and choose which people to "follow," or get updates from.

"Beauty Fashion" magazine publisher Zhang Xiaomei
is a member of the NPC's sister advisory
congress, also now meeting in Beijing. People
digging into her microblog posts before the
session started discovered her advice, above, on surviving meetings.

"When people in the meeting talk on and on, you
can take the chance to make your mind and body
more healthy," she wrote. "The longer the meeting is, the more you benefit."

But Zhang also posted a tidbit that Chinese state
media picked up and shot through the online world.

"When delegates show up, they get a laptop
computer. What's different this year is that they
don't have to be returned when we're done," she wrote.

The offhand comment quickly turned into an
investigation. Media and netizens estimated that
free laptops for Zhang and her more than 2,000
colleagues would cost Chinese taxpayers about 10
million yuan (almost $1.5 million).

Angry editorials and blog posts about the need
for clean government soon followed.

The microblogging experiment is the latest
hesitant step for China, where the central
government wants to stay on top of new technology
but guide the message as well.

Twitter is blocked in China, and two popular
China-based clones this month said they had shut
down for good. The delegates are using a service
by Internet portal operator Sina Corp., with the
apparent blessing of the government.

"Microblogs meet the practicable needs of the
masses and are in tune with the times of opposing
cliches and nonsense," the Web site of the ruling
Communist Party intoned last week.

Now the delegates just need to learn how to use them.

Ye Qing, the deputy director of the statistics
bureau in the central province of Hubei, has
seemed a bit rattled. When he mentioned his
delegation would take photos with central
government leaders, more than 50 responses
blasted him, saying he was being paid to do more than that.

"These criticisms are reasonable," Ye replied.
Other comments pointed out he had more than
24,000 followers but was following just two people.

"I only know what 'following' is after seeing
these comments," Ye said. "I'm inexperienced. Sorry!"

Some have used the tool to push, 140 characters at a time, for reform.

Wang Dewei, a professor and a delegate from the
eastern province of Shandong, microblogged about
his proposal that government officials disclose their personal assets.

More than 50 other delegates signed the proposal,
he said -- a grouping almost certain to draw
attention in China, where officials suspect
anything that might be seen as a collective challenge.

Some of the signees were scared, saying, "If I
speak too much for ordinary people, they might
not make me a delegate again," Wang wrote.

The microblogging experiment might raise
unrealistic expectations that delegates will
become permanently more accessible, said Yiyi Lu,
a Chinese politics expert and research fellow at the University of Nottingham.

"Once you start, you naturally have the demand
that it be a regular thing," said Lu, who herself
comes from Beijing but can't name a single
delegate. "This raises expectations. And people
who aren't doing it, others will ask, 'Well, why aren't you?'"

-- Associated Press researchers Xi Yue and Yu Bing contributed to this report.
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