Engaging the Critics of China’s Community Party on Social Media

By  Yiyi Lu

The full impact of social media on China’s political development may be too soon to tell. But one thing is already clear: they have made it more difficult for the Chinese regime to govern its population. Social media have created a sphere where public opinion is deeply distrustful and critical of the government.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images People sit around laptops at a cafe in Beijing.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
People sit around laptops at a cafe in Beijing.

Frequent Internet users know that they will be surrounded by “negative information” the moment they open websites or log into microblogging services, laments an article (in Chinese) in the Chinese Communist Party’s theoretical journal Seeking Truth: “Disasters, accidents, corruption and scandals are seemingly everywhere… unhealthy sentiments spread in all directions. Anything the government denies must be true. Any official announcement must have a sinister backstory. Any social problem must be attributable to flaws of the system itself.”

The Chinese government is obviously concerned about threats to its credibility and legitimacy posed by social media. It vigorously pushes social media censorship, tracks down and penalizes online rumormongers, and employs the so-called “50-cent party”—Internet commentators paid for posting pro-government comments—to try to influence online public opinion. While media coverage of the Chinese state’s effort to confront the challenges of social media has focused on these measures, they don’t constitute Beijing’s full response to the challenges.

People who have heard about Internet censorship but haven’t actually followed online chatter in China will be in for a big surprise once they do so. In fact, there is no shortage of direct and vehement attacks on Chinese authorities and the country’s current political system that are left uncensored.

To give a taste of such attacks, following the recent scandal in Shanghai where four judges were dismissed after being found to have patronized prostitutes. Cui Yadong, the acting president of Shanghai’s High Court, said in a speech that the scandal “provided an opportunity for hostile forces inside and outside China to attack the Party, the government and the socialist legal system.” His remark immediately drew condemnation from Chinese Internet users. Thousands of comments similar to the following were posted on the popular microblogging service Weibo:

“Another shameless guy. These fascists.”

“Which Party member doesn’t visit prostitutes?”

“It is you guys who are the biggest enemy of the Chinese people.”

“There is a disease called ‘the paranoia of dictators’…..Those who always shout about external hostile forces suffer from this disease.”

Many Weibo users also called for Mr. Cui’s resignation, or investigation into his qualification for his job and his record in previous jobs.

The Seeking Truth article is hardly exaggerating when it says “unhealthy sentiments” have spread all over Chinese social media. Under the circumstances, one has to give the Chinese authorities some credit for not merely using censorship and the anonymous 50-cent party to try to contain “unhealthy sentiments” in cyberspace. In addition to such measures, Beijing has also pursued a more proactive strategy: encouraging government agencies and individual officials to open social media accounts using their real names and to engage online criticisms of the government directly, in an effort to reduce negative feelings towards the government and gain more trust and support from Internet users.

The strategy isn’t without risks. Government agencies and officials have got into trouble and attracted more criticisms rather than understanding and sympathy after they made faux pas in their social media posts. The risk is even higher for individual officials. A single careless remark may irk Internet users, who may flood the officials’ social media accounts with vicious comments and curses, or even launch a “human-flesh search”—crowd-sourced online sleuthing aimed at digging up personal information, especially negative information, about the search targets—against the officials.

In a recent case, one of the most senior officials active on Weibo, Chen Mingming, who is a vice governor of Guizhou province, caused an online storm with a comment urging people who “abuse their motherland every day” to emigrate to the U.S. and a further post calling such people “scumbags.” Weibo users offended by Mr. Chen’s comments called for an investigation into the personal assets of Chen and his family. Defiant, Mr. Chen replied that he would welcome it. Many Weibo users then demanded that Mr. Chen disclose his family’s assets himself rather than waiting for others to investigate him. In the end, Mr. Chen apologized for his inappropriate language and said he could be more careful with his online remarks in the future.

The risks and challenges of interacting directly with social media users have not weakened Beijing’s resolve to confront its critics and doubters on the new battleground of social media. According to Sina, the Chinese online media company that operates Weibo, more than 70,000 government agencies and officials have become registered real-name Weibo users by the end of the first quarter of 2013, compared to 33,000 a year ago. Some agencies and officials have also formed Weibo alliances to retweet each other’s posts and come to each other’s defense when attacked by other social media users. While official social media users constantly face “pressure and misunderstanding,” their perseverance has paid off. Many have attracted a sizable following. Mr. Chen’s Weibo account, for instance, shows that he has 330,000 followers. The recent controversy won him more followers.

Will Beijing’s attempt to harness the force of social media rather than abandon it to its critics and discontents going to be successful and become another proof of the Chinese regime’s “authoritarian resilience”?  Only time can tell. For now, it is worth noting that some of the most popular official social media users are also the ones who are more outspoken than the average Chinese bureaucrat and who don’t shy from criticizing their colleagues and superiors in the government. If the Party’s propaganda system were to make a careful study of their success on social media, it may well be able to learn a new trick or two.

Yiyi Lu, an expert on Chinese civil society, is currently working on a project to promote open government information in China. She is the author of “Non-Governmental Organisations in China: The Rise of Dependent Autonomy” (Routledge 2008).

Source:  “Engaging the Critics of China’s Community Party on Social Media”  – China Real Time Report – WSJ

One Comment on “Engaging the Critics of China’s Community Party on Social Media”

  1. […] Engaging the Critics of China’s Community Party on Social Media (punditfromanotherplanet.com) […]

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