This paper documents basic facts regarding public debates about controversial political issues on Chinese social media. Our documentation is based on a dataset of 13.2 billion blog posts published on Sina Weibo - the most prominent Chinese microblogging platform - during the 2009-2013 period. Our primary finding is that a shockingly large number of posts on highly sensitive topics were published and circulated on social media. For instance, we find millions of posts discussing protests and an even larger number of posts with explicit corruption allegations. This content may spur and organize protests. However, it also makes social media effective tools for surveillance. We find that most protests can be predicted one day before their occurrence and that corruption charges of specific individuals can be predicted one year in advance. Finally, we estimate that our data contain 600,000 government-affiliated accounts which contribute 4% of all posts about political and economic issues on Sina Weibo. The share of government accounts is larger in areas with a higher level of internet censorship and where newspapers have a stronger pro-government bias. Overall, our findings suggest that the Chinese government regulates social media to balance threats to regime stability against the benefits of utilizing bottom-up information.An interesting finding. The Chinese have adopted an economic system which thrives on openness and competition but still operate a political system which is closed and constrained. There is an inherent contradiction in the two systems. So far, the economic system has grown fast enough to benefit everyone enough that they accept the closed political system. But how long will that last? The more successful their economy, the greater is the paradox. For several decades they were able to achieve annual growth rates of near 10%. They are now down to around 7% which is still stunning, but lower than past expectations.
The research seems to indicate that the government is walking a tightrope that seeks to reconcile the paradox. They are allowing greater communication freedom in order to garner and incorporate the feedback which it generates as well as to tamp down opposition by government participation in the dialogue.