While contracting out some of the work to a private polling firm might be new, it would be a mistake to conclude, as
asserts, that the Communist Party is only now "beginning to see the Internet as more than a walled garden" and looking to learn from what
people are saying online.
The Internet certainly poses many challenges to the Party, but it is as much a tool for governors as the governed.
Otherwise we wouldn't have come this far in China, with almost 600 million users online, all using fixed or mobile broadband networks that are
Authoritarian regimes are -- themselves being the result of a conspiracy -- invariably obsessed with currents of opinion that might coalesce into
threats to their power.
In the German Democratic Republic, the infamous network of Stasi informants
comprised at one point over 180,000 people -- including "large number of trolley conductors, janitors, doctors, nurses and teachers" who were seen
as ideal candidates given frequent contact with the public. In East Germany then as in China now, monitoring how many people are complaining
about the price of vegetables (or perhaps in today's China the quality of infant formula), is likely to be a more pressing concern than the
number of people debating the need for, say, constitutional reform.
The Internet has for years now been embraced by the central government as a tool to gain a better understanding of what's going on (or not) in
the Provinces. From "The Mountains Are High, and the Emperor is Far" thanks to the Internet today we have "The Mountains Are High, But The
Emperor is Online."
Of course the Party has invested heavily in the technology and manpower to remove inconvenient truths from Weibo, but there are plenty of
convenient exposes of local corruption or cover-ups that it is only too happy to re-tweet.
The sum of all fears for the Party though is the emergence of a true civil society in China that would undermine its power to set the rules of
the game. Allowing 'netizens' a limited degree of freedom to express and share their opinions online is one thing, removing these limits
altogether to allow people to think of themselves as citizens is quite another.
There is no doubt that there is a certain fear stirring among the Chinese Communist Party's custodians of stability. One of the most profound impacts of
the 1989 disturbances and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet empire was that the CCP was reminded that completely unpredicted mass movements can
sweep across the landscape and overturn the status quo with breathtaking suddenness.
This is especially true in China, where very little ever has been predictable and often only becomes understandable ex post facto. (I remember being in
China in February and March of 1989 and hearing disgruntled people worrying about inflation but having no intimation of the tidal wave of political unrest
that was actually approaching.)
The party learned well the cost of getting out of touch and its near-death experience motivated a herculean effort to stay in touch with the vox populi lest, once again, the Party's "separation from the masses" (tuōlí qúnzhòng / 脱离群众) grows too dangerously wide.
As David Wertime and Duncan Clark have pointed out, these new sophisticated information gathering mechanisms, especially through modern polling exercises
and programs that focus on careful monitoring of the Internet (and many other aspects of life), have two purposes:
The first is to listen and learn from the welter of voices that now are boiling around cyberspace. The second is to help the party guide and control public
Admittedly, such intrusions into the Chinese Intranet have turned it into something of a giant funhouse of distorting mirrors where it is hard to know what
is real and what is synthetic. But it is undeniable that it has helped the Party gauge what is bubbling up from below.
Of course, there also are a host of other networks that help the Party both listen to and control social and political reactions--many of which originated
inside the CCP itself. There are all the local party branches that radiate around the Central Committee into society like a strong magnetic field. Beyond
the ordinary educational system, there are the officially affiliated "party schools" (dǎngxiào / 党校) to which up-and-coming cadres must repair periodically
for "study," (xuéxí / 学习). Then, there is the network of People's Political Consultative Congresses and other consultative organs designed both to
propagandize and anneal businessmen, intellectuals and other non-party people to the state. And, finally there is the media.
Frankly, I have been somewhat more impressed than David and Duncan appear to have been by the ability of all of these networks to keep an ear to the
ground, never mind help control social instability. I think they have done a reasonably good job.
One network that deserves special mention, if not commendation, is China's burgeoning foreign press corps whose members are posted all around the world, as
well as throughout the U.S., in what must surely be the most extensive news and information gathering network in the world today. Moreover, given China's
fixation on soft power and PR, rather than shrinking like almost every Western news network out there today (Bloomberg and Al Jazeera are the exceptions),
China's news gathering network is growing at a positively hyperactive pace. And what is so interesting about this network of state-run reporters is that
they file stories not only to their formal media outlets, but also do all sorts of information and intelligence gathering for various government diplomatic
and security agencies. In other words, they comprise a vast network of governmental listening posts. (I cannot tell you the number of times I have been
"interviewed" by a Xinhua or People's Daily "correspondent" and never had a note taken or any story appear. Were they wearing wires?)
In short, whether the CCP is able to listen closely to its own people, the Party certainly has cultivated an impressive network to listen to what the
outside world is thinking. (Far more impressive than anything that the U.S. Government has been able to assemble!) And one must be impressed by the numbers
from the Chinese press and diplomatic corps who show up at events. Of course, what gets done with all the information that this voracious machine is
collecting is another question. The point is that, given the absence of normal kinds of democratic feedback loops, fear of popular disaffection has
compelled the CCP to develop a kind of information gathering apparatus that has the function of gathering as well as controlling information, and they do
it quite well.
If I were a Chinese leader, I would be very careful about using weibo as a tool to gauge popular opinion.
Let us remember just two names: Chen Shuizong and Ji Zhongxing. Both men once tried to publicize their misery and asked for help via Weibo. Both failed
because their microblog accounts had so few followers. Their grievances were barely heard of until Chen, a desperate 61-year-old,
bombed a bus in Fujian
province--claiming 47 lives including his own--and Ji, a wheelchair-bound 34-year-old, bombed the Beijing International Airport, badly injuring
What do we learn from these tragedies? That China's microblogs may not be fair places for ordinary people after all. It's true that microblogs grant
Chinese people greater power to express themselves than was previously possible, which definitely counts as incredible progress. However, this progress
doesn't lift everybody up equally. Among the top 50 weibo users with the most followers on Sina Weibo, one of China's most popular microblogging platforms,
48 already were successful entrepreneurs, popular entertainers, film directors, talk show hosts or well-known writers before they opened their accounts.
Weibo just amplified their voices.
Li Kaifu, the former president of Google China, has more followers than anybody else on Sina Weibo--14.98 million. Li easily can promote his opinions to
hundreds and thousands of his followers each day. Meanwhile, people like Chen and Ji hardly receive any attention at all.
China's microblogs amplify some voices and drown out others.
This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.