Most Chinese officials acknowledge the potential far-reaching impact that the rise of Weibo microblogging services could have on Chinese society, according to a new study.

WantChinaTimes notes that a survey of over 2,000 officials by the party-backed People’s Tribune found over 50 percent are afraid of increased social unrest due to microblogs, while 70 percent of them were in favor of the use of Internet in combatting corruption. While it’s nice to see so many apparatchiks in support of online anti-corruption measures, it does make you wonder about the other 30 percent.

Weibo has been offering plenty of motivation for corrupt officials to clean up their act. Numerous party members with conspicuously expensive cars and watches have been outed on Chinese social media, and sex tapes released online have ended the careers of several prominent officials.

The central government exerts control over Weibo and other services, but savvy netizens quickly find slippery ways around censors. Former Google China head and Innovation Works founder Kai-Fu Lee ran afoul of the establishment earlier this week when his criticism of a struggling state-sponsored search engine elicited a three-day ban on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.

Lee himself has stated in a blog post that he believes social media in China is thriving.

“Regardless of any setbacks and obstacles, I am confident that China is building up a significant population of socially responsible netizens, who will make a difference to the future of China,” he wrote.

When I spoke with journalist Michael Anti last fall about social media and China’s censorship system, he said local government is the biggest loser with the rise of services like Sina Weibo. He posits that the central government is able to leverage its oversight of the domestic Internet to keep regional officials in check.

One recent exposé from Chinese magazine Caixin (summarized by Tech in Asia) details the insidious “black PR” industry that has arisen alongside the censorship regime. The firms offer to delete negative posts on the Internet, often by bribing Internet company employees, police or officials. Last August, three Baidu employees were arrested on allegations of having accepted bribes to remove posts from the company’s popular Web forum.

Interestingly, Caixin’s post, which has since been deleted by the powers that be, notes that local government officials themselves are some of the most loyal customers of these underground firms. One company, which was raided last year, reportedly made over 60% of its money from regional officials.

Elsewhere, we’ve seen the power of microblogging and social media in effecting social change (Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring comes to mind), and many China watchers are hopeful that Sina Weibo could do the same for its users. Given the power that China’s censors have, the odds certainly seem long. However, if the People’s Tribune’s survey is to be believed, most government cadres are worried about the possibility.

(Hat tip Sinocism)

Image via Flickr / bfishadow