Are the Days of Political Techno-Optimism Over?

The 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in November 2012 ended with a major blow for former President Hu Jintao as he could secure only one seat in the Politburo’s standing committee for his allies.  At least five members owe their promotion to an alleged force of the past; former President and Party chief Jiang Zemin, who stepped down in 2002 (read the article). The disappointment over a “lost decade” with no significant reform progress leaves the new leadership with a major challenge; how to convince the growing chorus of voices calling for political reforms to sing the tune of one-party-rule. This task is enormous as the newspaper protests at Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) demonstrated. On January 1st employees of the newspaper demanded in an open letter to the Guangdong propaganda department the resignation of its highest-ranking official Tuo Zhen after he intervened in an editorial article advocating a constitutional form of governance (read the article). Public support from intellectuals and celebrities followed swiftly. Things got even worse when Liu Qibao, the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda department threatened to “dissolve” Beijing News, another major newspaper, if its publisher Dai Zigeng refuses to print a hardline editorial supporting government control of media (read the article).

Reporters Without Boarders ranked China’s freedom of the press at number 174 out of 179 countries in 2012 and Freedom House at 187 out of 197. In such an environment censorship can hardly come as a surprise. So what made people so upset? Wu Si, editor-in-chief of Yanhuang Chunqiu, provides in an illuminating article part of the answer. According to him China has no strict news censorship system but any article featuring “major topics” need to be reported and registered (报备) prior to publication. There is no need to seek approval but publishers of newspapers, magazines or websites will receive regularly calls from local propaganda departments to “just say hi” (打招呼) – an expression for administrative orders and bans that specify what can be said an what cannot be said. Chinese media control relies to a large extent on self-censorship and, as Wu Si puts it, “if everyone is perfectly honest, they know in their hearts where the boundaries are. If you’re a good and well-behaved editor-in-chief, editor, or reporter the two sides co-exist in harmony”. From this perspective the uproar at Nanfang Zhoumo or Beijing News is not so much about censorship in general but the feeling that the propaganda department has crossed a line.

Apparently the delicate balance between the media and censoring authorities has tipped due to a general disagreement of where to draw the invisible line of politically correct reporting. This confusion is not something that came over night but was gradually enabled by the rapid adoption of Internet and social media applications. A recent article from McKinsey provides some glimpses where China’s digitization stood in 2012: 513 million Chinese citizens are using the Internet and more than 300 million people are active on blogs or social-networking sites. 80 per cent of Chinese netizens have multiple social-media accounts and online users spend about 40 per cent of their time on social media. Of course (micro)blogging is a far cry away from uncensored freedom of expression but in contrast to other media types there are no gatekeepers to pass in order to make a statement or opinion public. Marina Svensson wrote a nice introduction to the (micro)blogging landscape in China with links to even more information.

Despite all restrictions that may prevail, China has become home not only to the largest online community but also the most active. This astonishing development under an autocratic government would have been impossible without the techno-optimism of the previous standing committee of the Politburo under Hu Jintao. The New York Times is citing a secret document of China’s State Council Information Office published by Wikileaks in 2010 stating that the Chinese leadership considers the Internet as “fundamentally controllable”.  This trust in technology lead to the widely hold political believe that surgical censorship is possible; that is to say promote useful information sharing and cut off whatever appears to be inappropriate. Some political leaders even see social media as a solution to the vexing problem of corruption and bad governance. Since July 2009, for instance, the People’s Daily Media Opinion Monitoring Office is publishing a quarterly report on local governments’ capacity to respond to “online mass incidents”. And social media play also a crucial role in Xi Jinping’s quest for a transparent and honest government.

Yet the last months showed an increasing unease of Beijing officials with the Internet in general and social media platforms in particular. On the administrative side a draft on Internet regulation and a second on online publishing indicate tightening control. This move is accompanied by harshly worded front-page editorials in the People’s Daily and Guangming Daily (read the article) with the main theme “a healthy Internet needs more regulation and relies on self-censoring users”. At the same time the Great Firewall of China got a significant upgrade enabling it to automatically detect and block virtual private networks (read the article). What is more Sina Corp.’s CCP committee started to organize its members asking them to send information on any problem they encounter at the company (read the article) and officials start to mobilize against the online disclosure of corrupt party cadres (read the article). The list could be continued with more news, all pointing towards an increasingly troubled relationship between the central leadership and a technology savvy nation.

The technocrats under Hu Jintao may have been right that the Internet is fundamentally controllable but they probably underestimated how hard it is to manage its users. Pushing back the boundaries of free expression appears to be tricky as many netizens are prepared to resist any infringement of their gradually acquired rights through pushing and pocking at the boarders of free speech. The most shocking news for the new Politburo, however, is not the occurrence of another online protest as this has happened so many times before, but that the stream of critique is moving inexorably from local governments, to provincial authorities right into the centre of power in Beijing. Even though the Nanfang Zhoumo event won’t trigger much discussion in a few weeks time the underlying issue will not simply fade away.

The party tune played by the Hu administration was built on simple harmonic chords, which are suitable for feel-good ballads. Long lasting masterpieces however provide the excitement of advanced dissonances and frictions. Xi Jinping will have to compose a new melody that is appealing enough for the ears of his audience. The difficult thing is that this time it must not be a Party solo but a symphony written for a gigantic orchestra. For many people this is good news. The Nanfang Zhoumo protesters made clear that Xi Jinping will not get away by reforming the CCP with “four dishes and a soup“. From this viewpoint Hu Jintao’s reign unintentionally could have laid the fundament for a new era; maybe not a lost decade after all.

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