When Western media talk about the Internet in China, most talk about its repressive feature and the indiscriminate, often unpredictable censorship by the Chinese government. From the crackdown on Big V – influential users who have over tens of thousands of followers on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter-like service), the disturbing Document 9 that warns of “seven dangerous Western values”, to the recent attack on VPN service that Chinese Communist Party has long turned a blind eye to, the political climate on China’s Internet has indeed been worsening.
I was guilty of contributing to this monolithic discourse and Western-centric public discussion myself. But the Chinese Internet Research Conference , this year held at University of Alberta in May, has diversified my perspectives. While censorship is an unavoidable issue in China, panelists from varied disciplines have reminded me of the need to examine the Internet not just as a excessively liberating space that the CCP exerts to repress, but also an innovative venue for to implement online consolation, to engage with the public, or to construct a positive image for itself.
For instance, in my panel which looked at China’s “Public Opinion Online”, Steve Balla, who specializes in Chinese politics and public diplomacy at George Washington University, explored how Chinese government has utilized the Internet to exercise what he called “online consultation” from the vast majority. In the process of reforming its healthcare policy, the Ministry of Health of the State Council has dedicated a special webpage on its official website asking for the public’s suggestion and comments on the reform. Undoubtedly, the censorship or information monitoring feature is still there – on many occasions, these comments will be “folded,” i.e. the public is not accessible to the information. However, the Chinese Internet users- -as creative as usual—have found their own way to deal with the state’s information control practice. In his research, Balla found that Chinese Internet users would screenshot the comments they submitted on the Ministry’s website and post it on social media platforms such as Weibo. While the causal relation between online consultation and the policy outcome is debatable, it at least showcases that the government has made attempts to understand its people.
Not only does the Chinese government try to be a public opinion listener, it has also made an effort to engage with the public on the Internet. We’ve seen too many comments saying that the Chinese government censors and manipulates online comments, but the empirical evidence provided by Yuan Wang and Rongbin Han from University of Georgia, suggests that the government has to some extent speed up its responses to public complaints online. Looking at Internet users’ complaints on Tianya forum, one of the most popular forums in China, Wang and Han showed that officials in cities such as Chongqing, southwest China, actually respond to these complaints in a relatively timely manner. At this stage, Chinese government is mostly paying lip service to these complaints but with effective accountability mechanism or constant pressure from Internet users, it may open up the space for public participation.
Perhaps most interesting or a comparatively novel idea to Western audience is how Chinese government is now actively deploying social media to construct a positive image for itself. And unlike previous efforts such as cliche editorials on People’s Daily that emphasize the “positive energy”, or hardcore pieces on Global Times that appeal for nationalism, the official discourse on social media is surprisingly colloquial and “cute”. If you have doubts, go check out how China live-tweeted its Moon landing mission on Weibo. You will be amazed by how creative and “cute” the language is. This is what drove Shuning Lu from University of Texas at Austin to analyze these fascinating tweets during a “media event” that posted by a government-backed official Weibo account. By imitating and appealing to human emotions such as sadness and sympathy, the live-tweeting practice enabled a state event to affectively bond with the Internet users and the society at large. Some might argue, or even worry that this is a new form of propaganda in the digital era, but it nonetheless sheds light on the creative and diversified use of the Internet in China by the state.
While censorship in China still matters, we must be aware of these emerging and increasingly important feature of China’s governance over the Internet. If we truly want to engage with and know China better, we must change the long-existing homogenous discourse on a so-called authoritarian and repressive China.