Are Chinese Web users discussing the U.S. election more than Americans are?

November 7, 2012

A woman works online in a Beijing office. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

American politics are closely watched across much of the world, particularly in China. The numbers are always impressive, but a just-released statistic is just staggering: Users on Weibo, a Twitter-like service, have posted 25 million messages about the presidential election.

We can't know for sure without more data, but it looks like Chinese Weibo users could have potentially discussed the election even more than their American counterparts did on Twitter.

Three pieces of context:

1. Chinese Weibo users send about 100 million messages per day. Twitter users, who span the globe, send 400 million. It's not clear how many of those come from the U.S., but 27 percent of Twitter users are American and 26 percent of tweets come from U.S. users, so the number of tweets per day appear to be roughly comparable between the U.S. and China. 

2. Twitter users around the world posted 31 million messages about the U.S. presidential race on Election Day. That's not so many more than Chinese users sent on Weibo. We don't know how many of those came from within the U.S.

3. Weibo might represent a larger share of Chinese public discussion than Twitter represents of American public discussion. After all, Americans are bombarded with blogs, traditional print and TV and radio media, talk shows, Facebook, you name it. Though China has its own media, it is a degree more restrained, naturally funneling more of the discussion onto Weibo, one of the freest and most raucous channels.

Assuming that all of these data line up cleanly, how do we know whether Americans or Chinese Web users sent more tweets about the race? Put it this way: If 84 percent or more of those 31 million Election Day tweets came from within the U.S., then that means Americans sent more messages than Chinese. But if the American share of those 31 million messages is less than 84 percent, then Chinese Weibo discussion will have outpaced the Americans. We don't know if Americans hit that 84 percent number, but it's worth noting that, under normal circumstances, Americans only make up 26 percent of tweets. It's America's election, so naturally the number would be higher, but 84 percent is a lot.

We don't know for sure, then, but it certainly seems plausible that China's Weibo audience – which is about the same size as America's Twitter audience – actually sent more messages about the U.S. presidential election. The fact that it's even possible is a reminder of how fascinated, maybe even obsessed, Chinese citizens, particularly young and Web-savvy Chinese, are with American politics.

In a great essay at TheAtlantic.com, Chinese journalist Helen Gao explored China's fascination with the U.S. race. American politics are viewed there with idealistic adoration, an envy rooted in rising cynicism about China's own leaders, and a much simpler love of the spectacle of it all:

The Chinese adoration for U.S. politics might surprise Americans who have grown frustrated with their politicians and cynical about their government. But it's a reminder of the wide gulfs between the American and Chinese systems, and of a growing Chinese discontent toward their own leaders. It also reflects the similarities in the economic and social challenges both countries face, and the hopes and concerns both citizens share; a possible explanation for the conventions' resonance in China is that the issues the campaigns are addressing also happen to be on the minds of many Chinese right now.

How many tweets do you think Americans will send about this week's Communist Party Congress in Beijing, which will nominate the country's next leaders for 10-year terms?

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Max Fisher | November 7, 2012