The country's government is known for closely regulating web activity -- but it's also using Weibo to reach out to citizens.
At 11:51 AM on July 21, the Weibo (Chinese Twitter) account called "Safe Beijing" (平安北京) advised its three million followers to "take caution outdoors today!" Over the course of the day, the falling rain would grow into the worst rainstorm to hit Beijing in 60 years, eventually killing over 70 people and causing millions of dollars worth of damage.
Throughout the storm, Safe Beijing posted thirty more messages detailing road closures, traffic updates, safety information, and news stories. These posts were forwarded on by Safe Beijing's readers, with one post -- detailing the heroic actions of a Beijing police officer -- forwarded over 5,000 times.
Notably, Safe Beijing is not the account of a concerned Beijinger or of a citizen watchdog group. It is managed by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB), the city's primary police force.
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The Chinese government's use of Internet technology most often serves to impede free speech, open society, and progressive thought. Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern that the Chinese government uses Internet technology as a tool for suppression.
Less discussed are government programs like Safe Beijing, which seek to increase the use of Internet technology as a tool to promote citizen-state interaction and to increase the availability of social services through what is known as "e-government," which refers to web-based interaction between government officials, citizens, and businesses. While e-government has become standard in the Western world, it is also a valuable tool for developing country governments to become more efficient and responsive.
Although China is not among the top 50 in the United Nation's 2012 ranking of national e-government performance -- it ranks 78th -- Chinese leadership has increasingly encouraged e-government programs, which have outpaced China's economic and demographic peers. In 2012, a U.N. survey labeled China's e-government gains "impressive."
China's embrace of e-government is particularly interesting because e-government has the power to inform and empower Chinese citizens, yet China currently controls what is almost certainly the world's most sophisticated Internet monitoring apparatus. Some critics would argue that e-government in China is simply another tool for the Chinese Communist Party to keep a close watch on its citizens. But the party's motives may be less nefarious. "China's long-term and sustainable economic success hinges on government transparency that helps provide a level playing field for both foreign and domestic business," said Mei Gechlik, an e-government expert with the non-profit Good Governance International (at which this author volunteers). As a result, Chinese policy-makers have a real stake in seeing e-government in China succeed on multiple levels.
Movement in the Right Direction
Following the lead of the Beijing PSB, a variety of government officials and agencies--including tourism, public health, and even the State Council -- have established Weibo accounts both to inform subscribers of relevant developments and to establish a new avenue for interaction. Some officials have even taken to liveblogging government conferences, political meetings, and other official events, offering a unique glimpse into the traditionally closed-door world of Chinese policy making.
E-government programs are not limited to China's central government. Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, recently embarked on an ambitious e-government initiative, focused on informing citizens and promoting further government interaction. In 2009, Guangdong, partnered with Guangzhou, the central government, and Chinese telecommunication giant China Unicom to establish the Digital Guangdong initiative. The 20-year plan hopes to establish a robust e-government system, to facilitate information sharing via Internet technology improve the informization of the province, and to encourage local industry to capitalize on government-provided information communication technology tools to improve the provincial economy.
Reaching the Countryside
Chinese e-government may also help address the staggering disparity between rural and urban Chinese. Many commentators argue that the large gaps between rural and urban income, services and infrastructure in China -- some of the world's most drastic -- can be addressed by closing the "digital divide" between the two regions.
Chinese policy-makers appear to agree. Between 2005 and 2010, each "Number 1 Central Document" -- an annual policy directive released by the party's powerful Central Committee -- has mentioned the "informization" of rural China as a primary goal. By increasing Internet availability and supporting rural e-government, Chinese leaders hope to quickly improve state administered services in rural China.
In 2009, China earmarked 850 billion RMB (about US$136 billion) of recession-driven stimulus spending to upgrade and digitize China's healthcare system. Policy makers have focused on upgrading medical equipment to allow for more sophisticated medical services, and creating a cloud-based network to facilitate information sharing, advanced training techniques, and large-scale data analysis.
The Ministry of Education also hopes to use e-government to address problems in rural education. Several state-run programs, including "Connecting Every Class," aim to provide Internet access to the majority of rural primary schools within the next five years.
For e-governance to work, it will have to embrace mobile technology as well. A 2012 study by the China Internet Network Information Center found that the majority of rural Chinese -- who often cannot afford a personal computer and may not live near an Internet cafe -- access the Internet via mobile phone. In 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture began an outreach program aimed at rural farmers that distributes information on weather, drought, and agricultural science via text message.
Leaders in Beijing also hope that new e-government programs can increase civic engagement in rural China, in part to mitigate the destabilizing effects of rural unrest and provincial corruption. The obstacles are substantial. Gechlik holds that, "confronted with such challenges as inadequate human capital and telecommunication infrastructure, rural China's overall e-government development often lags behind that of urban China."
The popularity and success of Safe Beijing bodes well for
e-government in China. Indeed, urban e-government initiatives have
received high amounts of praise by Chinese state-run news outlets--a
strong indicator of government favor. The fate of more complex, and
perhaps more significant rural e-government initiatives, however, is not
yet clear. Regardless, it is apparent that loud voices within Chinese
policy circles believe e-government -- both urban and rural -- is a central
component of any successful plan for China's future.
This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.
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