China's Communist Party Isn't Really Afraid of the Internet

They're more in control than you think.

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The Weibo page of China's State Council. (Screenshot, via Quartz)

Earlier this week, a Chinese propaganda official said China's internet-based "new media" were threatening the Communist party. Using one of Mao Zedong's most famous phrases, Ren Xianliang, vice-minister of propaganda in Shaanxi province, wrote in an editorial (link in Chinese): "Just as political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, the Party's control of the media is an unassailable basis of the party's leadership."

Indeed, it would seem that microblog Sina Weibo, video sharing sites, and other online forums used by millions of Chinese citizens have government officials shaking in their shoes. In a February survey, half of about 2,100 party officials polled by the People's Tribune said they feared microblogs would increase social unrest . In 2010, a survey found that over 70 percent of Chinese officials suffered from "internet terror," a state fear of being the subject of an internet vigilante campaign that could bring down one's career.

In his editorial, Ren called on the party to use the internet rather than just react to it. Indeed, members of China's sprawling party bureaucracy are signing up en masse to social media sites. As of December 2012, government agencies had opened 176,700 Weibo accounts, a 250 percent increase from the year before.

Still, China Media Project, which translated parts of Ren's editorial, points out that officials like Ren may have trouble "grabbing the agenda" of public online discussion, as he says. As is often the case for Chinese officials, searches for Ren's name are blocked on Weibo.

And that's the thing -- the Communist party already controls the internet in China. The censorship may be uneven or clumsy at times, but it is massive, sophisticated, and so entrenched that no platform today poses a credible threat to the party. Party leaders hold top positions at major internet companies whose leaders are groomed to be loyal to government. (Sina's previous CEO was married to former Chinese leader Hu Jintao's daughter). The government deploys influential bloggers to write in their favor. More importantly, internet companies that don't abide by the party's rules face getting shut down, and so Sina and other firms employ thousands of in-house censors.

China's internet, as The Economist points out in a recent report, is like a giant cage -- it is free up to a point. When Beijing reported record levels of smog in January, Chinese media were given free rein to report on pollution problems. Censors have let some government scandals go viral on the internet. But this is all calculation: The freely reported and discussed scandals were evidence of government action on corruption and involved either low-level officials or already expelled party members. A Harvard study last year found that censors left even the most vitriolic online rants against the government alone, but immediately wiped posts that called for any form of collective action.

Yet the party realizes the potential of the internet for dissent and there are signs it is tightening its grip. Last month the People's National Congress decided to regulate digital content together with traditional media--two fields of Chinese public opinion that Ren says the party needs to control. And last week the government proposed a rule requiring people to show ID when buying fixed-line phones or wireless internet cards.