By: Matthew Wisla
The digital community in China has been put on notice. A new government crackdown is severely impacting social media discussions and commentary which once blossomed in China. The leadership has let it be known that anyone who thought the unpredictable, mostly unfettered communications of recent years would carry on forever was living a pipedream and, though there were clampdowns in the past, things are going to be very different from now on. So far at least, the Communist Party has been true to its word and much to the detriment of free speech.
While China’s digital world was never completely free, Twitter, Facebook and numerous other sites are blocked as are many sensitive topics and search terms, citizens were able to criticize the government in very public ways and congregate in groups digitally as in nowhere else in society. And they did so in droves.
Off limits topics included the three Ts: Tibetan freedom, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Taiwanese sovereignty, but discussions focusing on official corruption, ill-conceived government policies and Party leaders, their families and mistresses, were mostly allowed. Periodic clampdown campaigns and restrictions be damned, social media provided the Chinese people with the broadest, most open marketplace of ideas and discourse in their history.
At the heart of the crackdown sits a new law. On September 10, legal provisions were made to punish online critics of the government. For the first time, Chinese legal code expanded the definition of criminal defamation to include any digital posts that “seriously endanger the social order or national interests.” The legal language is intentionally vague enough to allow the government to apply the law as it sees fit. Terms like “seriously endanger”, “social order” and “national interests” are not sufficiently defined. What the law is specific about is when it can be applied: To the person responsible for any post viewed 5,000 times or more, or which is reposted at least 500 times. Why those numbers were chosen as thresholds is anyone’s guess. Apparently Chinese officialdom can comfortably tolerate 4,999 views, but not one more.
Truth be told, the digital world has been both friend and foe to the Communist Party. Yang Dacai is among the government officials who have been brought down by social media posts and pointed chat room discussions. The head of the work safety administration in Shaanxi Province, last year Yang was seen in news photographs grinning while at the scene of an accident between a tanker truck and a bus which killed 36 people. Incensed that an official could find anything to smile about at such a grisly scene, netizens began looking into his background. Soon, picture after picture were uncovered of Yang wearing various high-end watches, each costing well beyond the means of someone in his pay grade. The images were widely circulated online and Yang became forever known as Brother Watch.
In cases like this, the government hasn’t allowed its long standing concerns over the Internet to stand in the way of it capitalizing on opportunities to further its agenda. Here, a local official’s penchant
for pricey timepieces fit right in with the central government’s current anti-corruption campaign. An official investigation ensued and eventually Brother Watch was jobless and in front of a judge where he was convicted of one count of bribery. His assets at the time were more than 5 million RMB ($802,000), which he couldn’t explain.
House Sister (no relation) is another recent example of a high-profile conviction resulting from misdeeds first revealed online. In this instance, banking official Gong Ai’ai illegally amassed 44 properties in Beijing valued at about 395 million RMB ($64 million). Four police officers were also reportedly swept up in the investigation. Authorities were first put onto the case after a microblogger ignited an online firestorm of indignation.
What remains to be seen now is what future role the government sees for the Internet and how Chinese citizens will respond to that vision and the current crackdown. No country can participate in today’s global economy and operate offline. And, since the late 1990s when economic reform and opening became central doctrine, nothing was going to stop the Communist Party from growing China’s economy. But what to do about cyberspace? From the outset it was clear the Internet had an economic role, but its social dimension, the way everyone could openly participate, couldn’t be parsed out.
It’s easy to imagine reformers within the Party delighting as China connected to the global economy and business content, conversations and transactions moved online, while traditional Party hardliners looked on in horror and mounting anger at the open participation the web afforded the citizenry. For years the Party has wrestled with what course of action to take. In a way the situation played out like a man working in his office who is disturbed by a fly. At first, he tries to ignore it. An unwelcome level of tension and annoyance builds as the fly darts freely here and there. He’s concentrating on his work, but decides to take a swat or two at the fly. The buzzing continues, could it be getting louder? Eventually his attention focuses on the object of his aggravation. Determined, he sets out to get the fly.
The Party’s frustration over Internet free speech was on display around American Independence Day, July 4, 2011. That evening in China social media and the Internet lit up with rumors that former President Jiang Zemin had died. The government was slow to respond and e-rumors flew at a fevered pitch for days. Jiang had retired in 2003 but, as with all past leaders, remained an influential powerbroker within the Party.
Censors quickly blocked Jiang’s name in online searches, along with ‘Hospital 301’ where Party leaders are often treated, the term ‘myocardial infarction’ and the word ‘death.’ Since jiang is also the word for river in Chinese, searches around ‘river’ were also soon blocked as netizens responded to the initial wave of censorship by resorting to code words and implied references to spread the rumor and discuss Mr. Jiang. When the government did respond it did so awkwardly through a spokesperson who referenced a story in China’s official state media denying Jiang’s passing. Asked again by local media about the general health and well-being of Jiang and his reaction to the situation, the spokesperson tersely advised reporters to read the official story.
By July 7 at least one group of social media users were comparing Jiang Zemin to Schrodinger’s Cat, the famous thought experiment built around the premise that a cat sealed inside a box could be at once dead and alive until actually observed. A social media post seemed to sum up the government’s handling of the events, “Another classic teaching moment is before us. It is a total failure of crisis public relations.”
With no official proclamation of his death the furor faded as netizens moved on to other topics. In October Jiang reappeared in public and The Independent newspaper from the UK reported, “Thinner, balder and most assuredly not dead, the former leader of China, Jiang Zemin, made a rare public appearance yesterday to scotch a summer of speculation that he had died.” This past summer he celebrated his 87th birthday.
The crackdown is having an impact. Posts by influential account holders on social media, those with verified accounts and large groups of followers, are down by ten-percent or more. Countless people have gone back into their digital account logs and deleted controversial posts. There have been arrests and intimidation by the government.
The future is uncertain. If netiznes are unable to devise ways around the current situation and this new level of censorship holds, hardliners within the left wing of the Communist Party can score a win in their column under Internet control. In the meantime, there are new initiatives taking shape for economic reforms and further opening of the economy. Conditions that many expect to further heighten demand for personal freedoms in the long run.
In a final twist, rationale for the crackdown may have stemmed from some unexpected reasoning. It appears to have had less to do with what was being said and more to do with what officials thought
was missing. According to comments by some officials and other reporting, the thing the Party coalesced around was the fact that in all the online clamor its voice was virtually nowhere to be heard. The crackdown was issued with admonitions from the leadership for the ministries and local officials to get off the digital sidelines and into online conversations. The Party’s idea of a perfect recipe seems to be subtract rumors and caustic speculation, and pour in more propaganda.
It remains to be seen whether that can actually happen. Can government officials write interesting posts people want to spend time reading? Citizens reposting government messaging? And what happens if local officials don’t participate or if they do and the online world turns a deaf ear? No telling where this is headed.
Matthew Wisla recently returned from nine years in China helping American companies succeed in one of the world’s most demanding and challenging markets. He co-founded the Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations Forum for the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing and later served as the organization’s Vice President of Communications. Previously he worked in the US and Beijing for the leading global communications consultancy Fleishman-Hillard. His expertise includes brand building and managing corporate reputations, as well as issues and crisis management and policy communications.