Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Eye of the People


Last week the Chinese National Bureau of Corruption Prevention issued a statement saying that 72.7 per cent of the population was satisfied with progress the government was making on tackling corruption, an endemic problem in the country. It caused a virtual tsunami. People went on line in their thousands, creative in their derision of a figure that doubtless sprung fully armed from the head of some bureaucrat or other. One individual said “Public opinion poll? Did they conduct it inside the Politburo? Poor old public opinion – raped once again.”

I say ‘said’ but the comment was actually tweeted, except it wasn’t tweeted because Twitter isn’t allowed in China! No, but people do have access to a microblogging service called Weibo.com (weibo simply means microblog). It’s hosted by Sina, a state-controlled internet service provider which regularly censors content, but Chinese bloggers are amazingly versatile, getting around restrictions in all sorts of imaginative ways.

In a country where the people have rarely had a voice at all Sina Weibo is a remarkable development. Let a hundred flowers bloom, it might be said, to drag up one ghost from the Chinese past, except that’s a huge underestimate. In all there are some 300million microbloggers in China, people who greet official statements - traditionally received in silence or reverence or else - with cynical derision. When the Beijing Daily recently demanded that Gary Locke, the US ambassador, declare his personal assets, the bloggers responded by saying that the real scrutiny should be on the assets of the country’s own elites.

Chinese officialdom has never been subject to such detailed and critical attention. Traditionally information is power and the flow of information has been tightly controlled. Not any longer. Quoted in the London Times, Zhan Jiang, professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign Studies Service, said of Weibo that it “Has given a voice to 300 million Chinese and that has never happened before. It has taken on the role of spreading information when news is breaking and that is a big challenge to the government and media.”

It certainly is, when one considers that the most popular bloggers have followings far in excess of even mass circulation newspapers. Attempted cover-ups have been blown wide open by a rapid flow of information. The most recent example of this was a fatal train crash in Wenzhou, news of which officials attempted to bury. Exposure on Weibo forced a change of tactics.

Superficially Weibo is like Twitter. The latter has a 140-letter limit, just as the former has a 140-character limit. Ah, but you see, that makes all the difference in the microblogging world! For in Chinese, as the Times reported, every character is a word. Also in the absence of prepositions users can say much more in a single post than on Twitter. Yu Jianrong, an academic noted for his exposure of child trafficking, has in excess of 1.3million followers. This is one recent communication of his;

On May 16, 1966, the Chinese Communist Party started the Cultural Revolution which caused 10 years’ turmoil. I suggest that we mark the day as a “Day of Reflection”. My reflection is that blind belief in an organisation or leader cannot bring real democracy or the rule of law. Without democracy that people can take part in, everyone may turn violent.

Now, who would ever have believed the expression of such sentiment possible in a land where the repellent Mao Zedong still stares balefully down on Tiananmen Square?

The whole phenomena, this virtual democracy wall, might very well be pulled down, though some believe that things have gone too far for that. Uncomfortable as it is for the communist authorities, it actually provides greater intelligence on the mood around the country than they ever had in the past.

There are forms of censorship, certainly, and clear dangers in modes of expression that become too free. After all, the service only allows real name users, so there is no hiding. But, notwithstanding the risks, the authorities are still subject to forms of scrutiny and ridicule previously unknown.

The Weibo users are also highly creative in getting around official gags. When particular words are blocked by the censors, euphemisms appear within moments. No sooner was an interdict placed on naming premier Wen Jiabao that he reappeared in the far less dignified form as ‘Tellytubbie.’

I do not think that democracy will come to China any time soon. But the old days of silence, deference and intimidation are being overwhelmed by politically meaningful chatter.


18 comments:

  1. China is a microcosm of the trends of propaganda. It is an interesting study in an alien headset.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. An interesting study indeed, Richard.

      Delete
  2. "I do not think that democracy will come to China any time soon."

    I don't think that it will ever come to China, not in the way that we understand democracy. But I think that we will begin to see "democracy with Chinese characteristics" sometime during the next but one iteration of the Chinese leadership.

    It's a mistake to think that all China's leaders are the same. Mao Zedong was a vain, arrogant mountebank, and so were Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, but my impression of Zhu Rongji and his successor, Wen Jiabao, is that they are decent men who actually care about the welfare of their fellow countrymen.

    Yes, they're communists, but the Communist Party of China isn't going away anytime soon, and I detect a gradual trend towards a more liberal form of governance, culminating in the "democracy with Chinese characteristics" that I alluded to earlier.

    I might mention that lecturing China in public about its human rights record, as Hillary Clinton is wont to do, is seriously counterproductive. I would have thought that the head of foreign affairs of the most powerful country in the world would know about the Chinese and the importance of face.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not just the importance of face but the sensitivities of Chinese history, particularly the nation's experience at the hand of Westerners in the era of the Unequal Treaties. Thanks, Dennis; I respect your insight here. The thing that amazes me about Dame Hilary and others of her kidney is that they are allowed to occupy such a sensitive high office knowing nothing at all about the world in general, and nothing about China in particular. Only historians should handle foreign affairs! Some hope.

      Tony Blair took a advice from a panel of experts on the history and politics of Iraq before the disastrous invasion of 2003. Sorry; he did not take advice; he ignored the advice.

      Delete
    2. Dennis, you must heard the "communism with chinese charactertics", a slogan that government use to shut up people's voice since 1949. one of contemporary chinese philosopher said, that the unparalleled "strange" political "happenings" during new china was really a sick fetus of the marriage of communism and confucianism. i take "confucianism as what they mean "chinese characteristic".

      ana, democracy will never come to china, that's right. and china will still survive for very long time, with its chronic fatigue syndrome, which never will be cured, bmho.

      Delete
    3. Dennis, "It's a mistake to think that all China's leaders are the same. ", i am convinced that the change of china will be always depend on those leaders who have open mind, rather than on chinese majority people. this, is certainly one of those "chinese characteristics".

      Delete
  3. I am in communication with a university student from China on YT who's English is pretty fair, at least much better than my Chinese which is 'Zero' we exchange East/West perspectives on many issues. It seems that there has been considerable change in china especially for the younger generations, not to western standards but some progress non the less; I mentor him on 'American decadence'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Put him on to me, Anthony; I'll mentor him on Western decadence in general!

      Delete
  4. I had always understood that the majority of these state-imposed internet filter were relatively easy to bypass, but I don't really know to what extent this is true.

    The only thing I can note, is that having visited GuangZhou a years or so ago, I was truly surprised by the almost complete lack of visibility of Communism in daily life, quite the contrary in fact. I only saw one tiny little red flag during the whole stay, not a single uniform, and life was outwardly geared towards Western consumerism - huge shopping malls with all the usual shops. Indeed the majority of the population would not have been out of place in any major Western capital, with their T-shirts, Jeans and ipods/phones. There also seemed to be a tremendous desire to re-connect with their historical past, to the extent that previously run-down/destroyed sites were being renovated and reconstructed.

    It would seem very difficult under this sort of population pressure to prevent a continuing trend of more openness and freedom of expression, and thus some kind of democracy - whatever your definition of that might be.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. CWB, I was there too, on a day trip from Hong Kong. It was different from the latter, though catching up fast. Communism is no more than a fig leaf justifying the rule of a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

      Delete
  5. ana, i am convinced that you know china better than i do. i have not clue what "Tellytubbie" means. i do have sina weibo, but almost never go there at all. information tires me.
    i don't usually involve politics, but by far, 4 of my articles are disappeared from my sina blog. hopeless!
    you are right to say that "I do not think that democracy will come to China any time soon."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yun Yi, a Tellytubbie is a rather endearing character from a TV show created for children by the BBC. The picture directly under Wen Jiabao is Po, one of a gang of four!

      Delete
    2. i see. i know one of them was gay!

      Delete
    3. They are all a bit gay. :-))

      Delete
  6. Some form of democracy may eventually come with rising incomes - democratic sequencing (Randall Peerenboom, Henry Rowen etc). However, thereafter it may be only a matter of time (or economic setback?) before Chinese nationalism comes to the fore; it's currently kept largely in-check (generally restricted to internet chatter) by the relatively moderate leadership of the communist regime - the regime many in the West want to see fall. Then what? Weimar Germany anyone?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Paul, I'm not sure that many in the West do want to see the regime fall, or at least I'm not aware that such a desire is in any way widespread. Personally I dislike it less because of its ideology - virtually non-existent - than its hypocrisy and moral corruption. I do believe that the Chinese people deserve stability but with the dignity of some degree of free expression.

      Delete