China's dissidents and rights activists have often used social media to champion their causes and escape online censors. But the Communist Party's deft handling of disgraced politician Bo Xilai's recent court trial through the Twitter-like Weibo shows it is a fast learner in using it to advantage.
In an unprecedented move, the Jinan court that tried Bo skilfully disseminated details of the proceedings on a live micro-blog, as it attempted to shape public opinion over one of China's most politically charged trials in decades.
The sheer volume of information released on Weibo, for instance - including more than 40 lengthy transcripts, pictures and updates that at times came just a minute apart - was designed to show a transparent process.
The public was hooked from the get-go with the number of followers on the Jinan court's Weibo account swelling to over 590,000 as charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power played out against Bo over the five-day trial late last month.
Observers say the trial's treatment shows that the party is increasingly viewing online tools like Weibo as things it can use to buttress its rule, rather than only as weapons used by others against it.
"Weibo, like the fax in the 1980s, is just a communication tool that can be used either way," said University of Nottingham analyst Steve Tsang. "A revolver is a side arm for defence but if you are at the wrong end of it, it is a very offensive weapon."
There are signs of late that the Chinese government is embracing online platforms more keenly.
A report by Study Times, a weekly newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party, last week urged the authorities to pay more attention to the role of technology such as Internet whistle-blowing in supervising officials and curbing corruption.
Some were willing to give credit to the party's online forays during Bo's trial. China University of Political Science and Law professor Xiao Han said in a commentary published in Caixin, one of China's more independent media outlets, that the trial showed positive steps towards the rule of law. "(The court) released information in a timely manner, something that was never seen in the past."
But others were quick to criticise or downplay Beijing's use of social media. "Clearly the Weibo releases (of the Bo trial) are censored. This is just a different and more clever way of managing the news, there's not much to be impressed with," Prof Tsang said.
The mixed response makes it hard to predict the extent to which Beijing will use social media, say observers, though some think it is likely to continue doing so.
Professor Russell Leigh Moses, dean at the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies, said local governments have been more responsive to citizens' concerns on social media, with the central government "less quick off the mark". But that is changing, he added. Prof Moses believes Beijing could be more active in using it for events such as natural disasters, to ensure its relief work is appropriately portrayed.
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