Why John Kerry Must Listen to China's Social Web

The Chinese web provides a candid window into what the country's citizens want from their government -- and from the United States.

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An internet cafe in Hefei, Anhui province on March 16, 2012. (Jianan Yu/Reuters)

The United States and China both stand at the threshold of major transitions. In Beijing, newly selected leader Xi Jinping is set to assume the Chinese presidency this month, charged with navigating a complicated international environment and significant domestic challenges. Here in Washington, as the Obama administration begins its second term, John Kerry, the newly sworn-in Secretary of State, inherits a fraught relationship between the two Pacific powers.

U.S.-based China experts have lamented that the two countries lack a "shared vision" for the future of the world's most crucial bilateral relationship. They are correct. But seeking common ground does not mean abdicating the United States' unique role as exemplar. More than other nations, the United States strives to speak directly to citizens around the world, not just their governments. Precisely for this reason, familiarity with citizen voices abroad, and the ability to leverage grassroots sentiment to amplify diplomatic impact, is a vital prerequisite for Washington's unique brand of engagement.

In the Chinese netizen thirst for transparency, rule of law, and fundamental fairness, Americans can see unconscious reflections of our own values.

In order to craft an appealing diplomatic message that reaches beyond the heights of Chinese bureaucracy, Secretary Kerry must elevate the role of China's vibrant social media within the mix of American policy-making information. It must lie on equal footing with official meetings, intelligence assessments, "Track 2" dialogues, and academic exchanges. Only then can American officials begin to take a reliable reading of the Chinese public's temperature on Beijing's role in the world, China's relationship with the United States, and Chinese peoples' conceptions of their own rights and duties as citizens.

If Secretary Kerry were to scan Chinese social media today, or use available English-language tools that specialize in tracking it, he might be surprised by the candor he encountered. Virtually every other day, a corrupt Chinese official is felled by online sleuths. Angry anti-government rhetoric abounds, and while some of it is censored, much of it remains conspicuously visible. A year and a half ago, for example, citizens in the village of Wukan relied on social media to follow and debate protests against corrupt land deals there.

And while Chinese social media has not led to Chinese democracy, it has become a hotbed for crowd-sourced political activism. Earlier this month, online citizens (or "netizens") frustrated with corruption teamed up en masse to collect and share photographs of luxury cars carrying license plates of the People's Liberation Army, China's armed forces.

Chinese online chatter is hardly limited to domestic matters. In the aftermath of North Korea's third detonation of a nuclear device in February, the Chinese blogosphere quickly burst with discussion of the Kim regime , much of it unfavorable. Close followers of Chinese social media, however, would not have found this sentiment surprising. In May of last year, after North Korean officials captured a Chinese fishing boat and held its fishermen for ransom, the online vitriol coming from Chinese Web users stood in stark contrast to the friendly government-to-government relationship between the two nations. This information would, without a doubt, be invaluable in helping shape America's diplomatic approach to China.

Anka Lee and David Wertime

Anka Lee is an Asia Security analyst at the CNA Corporation. David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation and an Atlantic correspondent. Both are fellows at the Truman National Security Project.

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