Why China Has Suddenly Embraced Online Polling
It's about political capital, not democracy.
Simon Denyer's recent article ("In China, Communist Party Takes Unprecedented Step: It Is Listening," The Washington Post, August 2, 2013 ) provides a valuable look at some of the ways that Chinese authority mines domestic micro-blogging platforms like Weibo and mobile chat platforms like WeChat to gauge public sentiment. In a departure from past practice, the Party also employs private online polling firms that hand officials their unfiltered findings, not what they might want to hear.
As Denyer would probably agree, the mere fact that Chinese authorities are monitoring public opinion isn't blockbuster news. The growing Western realization that China's social Web drives public life there is a lagging indicator of what has been transpiring for at least two years. One admittedly indirect metric: the number of Chinese government Weibo accounts rose from 5,000 to 20,000 in 2011, then beyond 60,000 by the end of 2012. Meanwhile, the growth of the Chinese Internet-using population continues to bedazzle observers, reaching 591 million at last count. Given all this, failing to poll online or to mine the immense piles of candid opinion data emanating daily from the Chinese social Web would be downright negligent, even for an authoritarian government.
It is important to note that monitoring and even accommodating online opinion is not ipso facto a democratic act. It's certainly a sensible one, and far better than the alternative of ignoring it. But Denyer's piece explicitly notes that Chinese officialdom does not consider "political reform or foreign policy" rightly subject to popular will. Authorities are still drawing broad bright lines around what they want to hear and what they don't. And their responses, particularly to complaints about environmental degradation or official corruption, still appear ad hoc. One official exposed online for embezzlement goes to jail; another gets off scott free; a third, tyrannical and dissolute, goes undiscovered by so-called "netizens" and thus escapes scrutiny altogether. Some netizens enjoy this newfound power, but most find the lack of system-wide reform unsettling.
Meanwhile, Web platforms like Weibo and WeChat -- two crucial elements in a broader information mix -- are poor stand-alone proxies for public opinion writ large. A small number of celebrities, bloggers, and thought leaders wield outsized influence in shaping the terms of debate, and they are sometimes saying what a government or corporate entity has paid them to say, not what they believe. The Chinese Web is already a giant Rube Goldberg contraption of staggering complexity, multiple feedback loops, and distortion layered upon distortion. Given the prevalence of censorship, the relative paucity of older users, and existing users' natural tendency to bluster and exaggerate to gain attention, it's unlikely that Chinese authorities could ever construct a perfect opinion transmission platform, even if they could somehow scrap what exists and begin re-building from whole cloth.
What should the rest of the world do about this phenomenon? Above all, we should listen. The existence of a vast ecosystem for Chinese opinion partially visible to outsiders marks an astonishing departure from even ten years ago, when public sentiment there was either a secret or a mystery. With China's social Web both open and vibrant, outside journalists, investors, and government officials now have access to much of the same information driving top decision-makers an ocean away. That resource is too valuable to ignore.
While contracting out some of the work to a private polling firm might be new, it would be a mistake to conclude, as this piece 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 state-owned.
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 opinion.
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 himself.
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.