China's leaders, the media and the internet

Li Datong
8 July 2008

Hu Jintao, general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and thus the country's most powerful leader, has once again been lauded by the official media for a performance which "received worldwide attention".

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

"China's leadership: the next generation" (3 October 2007)

"China's communist princelings" (17 October 2007)

"China's Youth League faction: incubus of power?" (31 October 2007)

"China's age of expression" (14 November 2007)

"China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

"Taipei and Beijing: attitudes to historical truth" (12 December 2007)

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

The occasion for this encomium was a visit made by Hu to the People's Daily on 20 June 2008, to mark the newspaper's sixtieth anniversary. One of the pre-planned features of the visit was that the general-secretary would go online at the newspaper's website, www.people.com.cn, and have a short "webchat" with members of the public. This was the first time that a senior party official had publicly engaged with internet users. There was no real substance to the online conversation, but it was symbolic: it showed that the party has finally and formally acknowledged that the internet is an important source of public information and opinion.

An internet user made the point well: "It's great that Hu has gone online to look at what the public think. It shows the country's leaders know that newspapers, television and government reports don't represent true public opinion. Wen Jiabao has criticised the misappropriation of grain by officials during an inspection tour in Henan; journalists have revealed that actors are employed specifically to impersonate everyday citizens in TV interviews. After such revelations, all Chinese people know that you can't find out what people ‘really' think even by interviewing people at the grassroots. To really understand the public's views, going online is the best choice."

Indeed, there has been a sudden increase recently in the number of senior officials claiming to be regular net-surfers. Wen Jiabao says he goes online everyday; Hu Jintao himself said during his webchat that "through the web I want to know what netizens are thinking about and what their opinions are" and that "we pay great attention to suggestions and advice from our netizens". In the wake of the "black kiln" case in Shanxi, where children were found to be working as slaves, former Shanxi governor Yu Youjun ordered his subordinates to go online every day to observe the public mood. The new party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, has even posted in forums using his real name and has invited people to criticise him. All this is refreshing to hear.

The opinion virus

It seems uniquely Chinese that true public opinion is to be found not in newspapers or on TV, but online. In western democratic countries, where internet usage became widespread far earlier than in China, it is rare to hear of officials and leaders needing to go online to see what the public thinks. Why is this? Because in the west, television and newspapers are full to the brim every day with opinions. Criticism of the government and politicians comes in a constant stream, and protests and demonstrations are commonplace. There is therefore no real need for a leader to go online specifically to find out about public opinion.

In purely numerical terms, the media in China are quite developed. There are over 3,000 newspapers, 10,000 magazines and at least 100 television stations broadcasting on several hundred channels. Why is such a vast media apparatus incapable of representing public opinion? The answer is simple: the censorship departments do not allow the Chinese media to fully reflect public opinion. Public opinion exists, but it needs to find other outlets. As the nature of the technology makes control of the internet difficult, the net has became the most effective arena for the Chinese public to comment on national affairs (see David Bandurski, "Information openness' a growing topic for China's media", China Media Project, 3 July 2008).

However, even the internet is facing a troubled future in China in the face of controls from the propaganda department. This department has ruled that no website has the right to gather news on its own account; websites can only publish news collected by the tightly controlled traditional media. Even reports from some traditional media outlets are not allowed to be reproduced online - there is a list of approved outlets whose work can be used. This means that the news reports online are no different from those in the traditional media.

There are forums in which people post information and articles from various sources of their own. These posts are able to criticise the powers that be. As long as the authorities could not come up with a way of controlling these forums, Chinese internet users enjoyed a happy period of freedom of expression (see "China and the Internet: Myths and Realities", Chinese Internet Research Conference, 13-14 June 2008).

The party's voice

This freedom is now under threat. China has established a huge online police force, which patrols the net, issuing orders for removal of all information or opinions that it believes to be "harmful" (see Mure Dickie, "China Orders Tighter Media Controls", Financial Times, 24 June 2008). The police do not have the resources to inspect all of the vast mass of online information, so they make use of modern technology which will not allow posts containing "sensitive" words to be published. The list of sensitive words changes constantly, and posts containing the words are automatically blocked. Hu Jintao is probably not aware that his own name is often classified as sensitive. To get around the problem, internet users are forced to replace the characters of Hu's name with similar-sounding, but different-looking, characters. One such variation on Hu's name has the unfortunate meaning, "tight condom".

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008) Websites, unlike traditional media, are not "the voice of the party" and most do not receive government investment, so how can the authorities deal with those that break the rules? (see James Fallows, "'The Connection Has Been Reset'", atlantic Monthly, March 2008). One way is to threaten to shut them down - regardless of whether or not this is legal. The government has also employed large numbers of "internet commentators": people who pose as ordinary internet users and post comments aimed at "guiding public opinion". These people are paid per post, earning themselves the nickname "the fifty-cent party" See "China hires Net squad to sway opinion", Times of India, 20 May 2005).

A newspaper from Henan province, the Jiaozuo Daily, recently reported that the local government had mobilised 120 such people to comment on a single online post, and in the end had "succeeded in guiding public opinion" (see "Guidance of Public Opinion", China Media Project). If that was not enough, it was later discovered that the people who chatted to Hu Jintao were in fact stooges. Hu himself was tricked by the internet police, and only saw two or three sycophantic questions from planted sources. I have seen many of the questions from internet users that did not reach Hu, and can confirm that many contain sharp criticism. These questions represent true public opinion, but did Hu ever get to see them? I strongly doubt it.

The media trap

Senior Chinese officials have an extremely tiring job - so tiring that some in the foreign media have called them "supermen". One of the main reasons for this is that leaders often cannot get hold of accurate information, and therefore find it hard to make effective policies. The only way to find the truth is to make a personal tour of inspection at the grassroots. However, not even this method is reliable. As soon as local officials hear that national leaders are coming to visit, they carefully plan every last detail of the trip. They make sure that all locals are singing from the same song-sheet, and sometimes officials even camouflage themselves as members of the public.

Almost every member of the current leadership has been tricked in this way. The only way around it is to unleash "surprise attacks". Wen Jiabao has been known to tell drivers that he needs to use the toilet so that he can be let out of the car and walk to poverty-stricken villages which have had no time to prepare for his visit. In fact there is no need to resort to such measures. If the government gave the media the right to report and investigate effectively, leaders could read the truth in the newspapers while sitting in their offices. This would be far easier and more accurate than making hurried trips to areas where a veil of obfuscation is drawn over the truth.

For China's leaders to go from seeing the internet as a dangerous "unstable element" which needs to be tightly controlled, to seeing it as a source of truthful information on public opinion, is a form of progress. But there is a paradox here: leaders are aware that a clear understanding of public opinion improves their legitimacy, while at the same time their own censorship departments are twisting or shutting out true public opinion. If this paradox is not reolved, the authorities will never really know what the public thinks, and will become an object of public ridicule again and again.

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