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When social media meets socialism: China challenged

As China prepares to anoint its leaders for the next decade, freelance journalist Monica Tan assesses the impact of runaway social media on the government of the Middle Kingdom.

Before the US election, Chinese television host Li Jiajia took to Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging site, to tweet: ”Only two days before November 6, and Americans still don’t know who their next president will be. So weak!”

In contrast to the American elections, the key results of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the 18th Communist Party Congress were orchestrated long ago (the big announcement is due in the next two days). According to blog Tea Leaf Nation, “news outlets have known for months that Xi Jinping is to succeed Hu Jintao as president of China, while Li Keqiang will be taking the reins from Wen Jiabao as premier. The predetermined outcome has become something of a joke on Chinese social media.”

The process may not be different to China’s previous leadership transitions, but one thing is: social media. This is the first Congress that has been accompanied by Weibo, which only launched in the country three years ago. With over 300 million users, the micro-blogging site has become a platform and amplifier of the opinions of an all-too-often disgruntled public, eager to see political reform.

Weibo is the Chinese word for “microblog” and with Twitter blocked in China, Weibo (a generic term for microblog) is provided by several large internet companies, including Tencent and Sina. These companies often cooperate with the government over matters of censorship.

Chinese internet users, dubbed “netizens”, showed characteristic cynicism as they drew out key differences between the US and Chinese leadership changes. When Chinese newspaper Global Times posted a story titled “A Seven-Hour Wait to Vote; This Election Is Shameful” in regards to long lines at Florida polls, netizens were incensed. “The vast majority of Chinese people would say they should try waiting for over 5000 years,” tweeted one Weibo user.

Another Weibo user called “Pretending to be in New York” went so far as to create a map of China with simulated “red states, blue states”, and the inevitable swing states. With over 9000 reposts, users were delighted by the prospects of an election that pitted the current Chinese Communist Party against the Kuomintang, who fled the mainland in 1949 and are currently the elected party of Taiwan.

Last week, Financial Times editor-in-chief Zhang Lifen took to Weibo to gather questions users would like presented at the Congress press conference to be held the following day (see his tweet below). With almost 900 replies, key issues raised were government corruption, media censorship, political reform, the growing gap between rich and poor, education and healthcare. But user “hongliholly” posted: “There’s nothing to be asked, because the answer will be fake anyway.”

Weibo tweets from Zhang Lifen (top) and Xu Xiaonian (bottom)

And as the masses talk up a storm on Weibo, the silence from the government is deafening. The political maneuvering that accompanies Chinese leadership transitions — with different factions jockeying for space, and leaders attempting to trade enemies for allies in key positions — all happens behind firmly closed doors. In fact, much of the vital decision-making was probably made months ago.

But China’s future leaders would be foolish to ignore the changes taking place in Chinese society, in which the digital revolution — and in particular Weibo — has played a large part. The censorship that has long muzzled the traditional media is also present online, but is a much messier affair. Stories spread quickly, before red flags can be thrown up. And keywords morph into countless variations sending censors racing to put out endless spot fires when the “damage” has already been done.

The result is a vibrant space where stories, rumours, ideas, opinions and jokes make for one big Chinese party in which everyone is invited. A party that includes unprecedented scrutiny and criticism of that other, much more exclusive Party.

Last year, when two trains collided in Wenzhou killing 40 people, the Department of Propaganda ordered media directives to contain the amount of coverage. But the public was hungry for answers, and had a place to ask them. As Evan Osnos wrote:

Instead of moving on, the public wanted to know what had happened, and why. This … was dozens of men and women dying on one of the nation’s proudest achievements — in a newly wired age, when passengers had cell phones and witnesses and critics finally had the tools to humiliate the propagandists.”

And one of the more unique results of microblogging is crowd-sourced investigations and a kind of digital manhunt called “human flesh search”. By posting photos and details of a particular event, the collective knowledge of microbloggers identifies perpetrators and uncovers key details. Not only has this led to kidnapped children being reconnected to their families, and the identification of hooligans at anti-Japanese riots, they have also helped push out two government officials over possible corruption charges.

The critical question is, can the new leadership manage to reform and keep pace with this society whose ‘netizenry’ has given them a real hunger for citizenry?”

But the trend that must be of greatest alarm to officials is the increasingly common “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) environmental protest. This year saw demonstrations in Shifang, Qidong and Ningbo shut down plans for plants and mills that threatened human health and the environment.

Digital tools not only helped disseminate the information that instigated these protests, they also aided in their organisation and subsequent broadcast, turning local incidents into nationwide events. Together they make the threads of a broader narrative that is quickly taking shape: too much has been sacrificed in the name of economic gains, and no longer will the people of China sit back and let their fate be determined for them.

The critical question is, can the new leadership manage to reform and keep pace with this society whose “netizenry” has given them a real hunger for citizenry?

Last week the country’s State Council opened a Weibo account, acquiring over 300,000 followers. So far, other than a friendly opening post the account has 14 automated links pointing to articles on its official website, and the usual Weibo commenting feature is disabled; an indication that the government has a long way to go before establishing a healthy public dialogue.

For the most part it’s “government as usual” giving the people of China little choice but to speculate as to what direction their new leader Xi Jinping will lead their country. And if online reactions to the droning, 100-minute reading of a work report from outgoing President Hu Jintao at the Congress are anything to go by, expectations for reform are low.

One unusual quote has been reposted over 2000 times; the President is paraphrased as having said that in 30 years of the country’s “reform and opening up policy”, the nation has unswervingly held up the flag of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, neither stubbornly walking old paths, nor taking an evil path under new flags. China news blog Ministry of Tofu picked up on a Weibo comment by Fu Jun, dean of the political science department at Peking University, who summarised the quote as “neither old way nor odd way.”

In other words, ‘no way’,” was the pithy reply tweeted by Xu Xiaonian, a finance professor at China Europe International Business School.

*Monica Tan is a freelance writer who is based in Beijing, and is spending the summer in Australia. She tweets at @m_onicatan.

2
  • 1
    Mike Smith
    Posted Wednesday, 14 November 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    It must be nice to know who your next president will be, without even having to vote! Well done, China.

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 14 November 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff. Tea Leaf and Tofu are very useful sites, especially for those of us whose Mandarin is non-existent. The other place I recommend for lots of netizen input is Global Voices Online. Everyone should follow them on Twitter: @globalvoices Our North East Asia editor, Oiwan Lam, has her finger on the mainland pulse.

    Weibo is almost too big to control bar shutting it down, which China seems to have done to Google during the congress.

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