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China's Secret Oil Spill and the Power of Weibo

Chinese authorities along with ConocoPhillips and CNOOC kept two offshore oil leaks secret from the public for nearly a month. And the general population might have never known, had it not been for two increasingly powerful Chinese social media tools -- Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like Chinese microblogging site, and QQ, a free instant messaging computer program owned by Tencent.

An oil leak was first detected June 4 near drilling operations at Penglai 19-3, China's largest offshore oil field. ConocoPhillips (COP), which holds a 49 percent stake in the field and is the operator, has said it immediately reported the leak to the State Oceanic Administration. The company found the source of the leak June 12. On June 17, Conoco reported another leak after a surge occurred while drilling at another platform in the same oil field. Both oil leaks were "under control" by June 21.

Neither Conoco or CNOOC, China's larger oil and gas producer and the majority stakeholder in the field, notified the public. Nor did Chinese regulators. Instead, the first reports of the spills circulated on Sina Weibo and QQ -- more than two weeks ago. According to Global Times, a microblogger using the name Sun Shubing, who claimed to have taken part in marine rescue efforts, said June 17 on his account:

Not sure how serious the Bohai oil spill accident will be. The pollution will be enormous.
Other media outlets, including China Daily and the NYT, have reported the spills since they were first made public June 21 on Sina Weibo. Whether the first news broke on QQ or Sina Weibo matters little (except perhaps to the two competing companies). The point is that the word first spread about oil spill not through state-controlled media, regulators or big oil -- all tight-lipped to varying degrees -- but via the Wild West world of the "weibo," or microblog.

This isn't the first instance of weibo power. Heck, even Radiohead has joined a growing legion of Western celebs, including Bill Gates and Tom Cruise, to test the weibo. Most of the time, sensitive topics are quickly deleted by moderators and the majority of folks never see the commentary. In this case, government authorities eventually acknowledged leaks that have polluted more than 320 square miles. Perhaps regulators realized that the oil had spread too far to keep quiet for long. I like to think the microblogs, which tipped off mainstream state-run media, forced their hand a little bit.

If so, this could mean a new era of weibo scrutiny for big industry. Consider for a moment the sheer number of Sina Weibo users -- 140 million as of March. And then there's Tencent, which claims 200 million users of its microblogging site and legions using its flagship product QQ. That's a decent set of eyes watching (and writing) about local happenings.

Even though Sina Weibo is censored, comments and reports critical of Western companies operating in China might squeak through. Environmental catastrophes such as oil leaks and chemical spills may become more difficult to keep under wraps and whistleblowers might become more prevalent on these sites, offering us a whole new insider's view on how the Chinese and Western companies really operate.

Photo from Wikicommons

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