The social media tool known by some as "China's Twitter" is becoming the community outreach tool of choice in some San Gabriel Valley cities.
It began in late 2013 when Alhambra police started using the Chinese microblogging site Weibo at the suggestion of a local resident, who suggested it might be a good way to reach the city's large Chinese immigrant community.
The cops were floored by what happened next.
“It absolutely took off," said Sgt. Jerry Johnson. "We had police departments from all over Southern California, Northern California, as far back as New York, back East, wanting to know how it was going, how successful it was.”
How successful? The Alhambra police department’s Weibo account has 41,000 followers. In comparison, its Twitter account has about 1,200 followers, and its Facebook page, which has been around for many more years, has about 8,000 followers.
Cities near Alhambra have noticed. Arcadia police launched a Weibo page earlier this year. San Gabriel City Hall launched Weibo last month. The police department in Monterey Park, a city whose population is 67 percent Asian, launched a Weibo page last week.
Weibo works much like Twitter, with a limited number of characters. It's immensely popular in China, said Clayton Dube, who directs the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. So what local cities are doing with it makes perfect sense, he said.
"Because the San Gabriel Valley has absorbed so many migrants from China," Dube said, "it’s natural that agencies, including police departments, would want to be able to reach out on a platform that many Chinese are already using.”
San Gabriel city spokeswoman Lauren Gold said that in the short time the city has used Weibo, the number of followers are now double the city's Twitter following.
"It's just a been a great response that shows us these residents are here, and they are hungry for communication in their language," Gold said.
Local police and city staff who use Weibo use it to disseminate much of the same information they send out via social media in English: Traffic alerts, crime prevention tips, news about city events.
But because it's interactive, it's also become a way for residents to get in touch and ask questions, like how to deal with a traffic ticket, or inquiries about parking rules.
Some of the Weibo followers are in China, and they also get in touch. Johnson said the bilingual staffers and volunteers who handle his department's Weibo account often get inquiries from prospective visitors to the U.S.
"We get a lot of questions about driving, rules and laws they might have to follow while they are here," he said. "It's almost like being in charge of a tourist agency to a degree."
A couple of months ago, a follower in China got in touch with the Alhmbra PD using Weibo because he was unable to reach his pregnant girlfriend, who had traveled to Monterey Park to visit relatives.
Alhambra cops contacted Monterey Park police, who followed up, contacted the family locally, and notified the man back in China that everyone was fine.
“It’s not just ‘don’t park on the street after 2 a.m. or you’ll get a ticket,’ " Johnson said. "It can really do good."
He has also noticed more cooperation from Alhambra's Asian community, which is predominantly Chinese and makes up more than half the city's population.
"After our Weibo account got up and running, we started noticing a significant amount of Chinese people calling our police department if they need police services," Johnson said.
Dube at USC, said that lately, Weibo's popularity has been challenged by another, more phone-friendly Chinese social media application, called WeChat.
Alhambra cops are on it: They've already begun using it.