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Ai Weiwei, He Xie, an installation of 3,000 porcelain crabs / Photo: glasseyes view
China sent its first email in 1987. It read, “Across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner in the world.” But it was not until 1994 that the country first connected to the global Internet via two scientists at The China Academy of Scientists. Wangmin, the Chinese term for “netizen,” is a close corollary of the word renmin (“the people”). Today, there are nearly 700 million netizens in China, and they are a force for social change as well as the target of government surveillance. Despite the state’s impressive machinery of information control, it cannot entirely orchestrate public opinion in the digital sphere. In fact, when online commentary turns against a specific policy or agent of the regime, Chinese authorities can find themselves in an irksome bind. Without the ability to vote unpopular officials out of office and lacking channels to punish malfeasant officials, Chinese netizens have learned to use publicity to press for change.
It is tempting to envision the Chinese Internet as a forbidden city where Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are banned and where citizens are at the mercy of Internet police. There is more than a grain of truth to this. After all, China’s government has pioneered real-time censorship of social media posts and recruited battalions of paid Internet commenters to influence online public opinion. These commentators have earned the sardonic epithet “fifty cent party” for being paid 50 Chinese cents (8 U.S. cents) per post by the government to infuse the web with positive commentary about the party-state. Under the Xi administration (2012–present), producing such online propaganda has been integrated into the daily work of bureaucrats. A 2016 study found that the Chinese government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments annually with the goal of distracting the public.
Besides controlling the web by manufacturing public opinion, the government also uses raw coercion to rein in online media. Journalists and online media professionals may be dismissed or arrested when their reporting crosses the shifting boundaries of permissible political discourse. In a recent case, a senior editor for the liberal Southern Metropolis Daily was dismissed for a front-page headline that was interpreted as an underhanded critique of President Xi’s call for the media to be a mouthpiece of the party. These sanctions go beyond targeting media professionals to threaten ordinary citizens as well. In 2013 China’s top court issued a judicial document that would sentence social media commentators to a maximum of three years in jail for posting false online rumors that “are visited by 5,000 Internet users or reposted more than 500 times.”
China’s digital censors act swiftly, but sometimes deft-fingered netizens can outpace their efforts.
Yet stringent censorship has by no means paralyzed Chinese netizens. On the contrary, savvy social media users have learned to navigate censors and to use the Internet as an instrument for online activism. Long before Sina launched its popular Weibo microblog service, bringing users a social media platform similar to Facebook and Twitter, Chinese netizens were already using blogs, websites, and online bulletin boards to draw attention to social issues. Most famously, publicity surrounding Sun Zhigang—a student beaten to death in police custody in 2003—led to changes in law enforcement policy surrounding rural-to-urban migrants.
Since the 2009 introduction of microblogging to the Chinese Internet, it has been even easier and faster to circulate messages, videos, and photos. Microblogging allows users to post up to 140 Chinese characters—roughly a full paragraph and significantly more content than Western Twitter users can share in 140 Latin characters—on digital platforms such as Sina Weibo and Tencent WeChat (Weixin). Despite being subject to censorship, the rapid circulation of millions of these bite-sized messages can have an aggregate effect on channeling information and opinions, leading to social change.
Microblogging has given leverage to netizens who devise creative means of temporarily bypassing censorship. One such strategy uses Chinese pinyin (phonetic spellings of Chinese words using the alphabet) instead of characters or homophones of sensitive words. Famously, Internet users parodied the political slogan of constructing a “harmonious” (hexie) society using the homophone “river crab” (also pronounced hexie) as a stand-in for government censorship. Playing with this online lingo, the dissident artist Ai Weiwei constructed an installation of three thousand porcelain river crabs to protest the government’s silencing of online critique after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Another approach entails simultaneously registering for multiple accounts, one of which is used for posting sensitive material. Still others use image capture to circulate news articles, which makes it harder for keyword searches to detect sensitive content. These and other grassroots tactics have allowed netizens to exploit loopholes in the censorship system. They have also made it possible for ordinary people to use social media to generate popular pressure that, in turn, can change government behavior.
Individual social media posts are but a drop in an ocean of online commentary, but in cases where posts go viral, they can have a surprising impact on state behavior. In a case from 2012 that received global attention, local officials forced a woman named Feng Jianmei to undergo a late-term abortion because she was forbidden by law from having a second child. She responded by posting photos of her bloody fetus on the Internet; it drew an apology from city officials and punishments for three officials. This April, a young woman who was attacked in the hallway of a three-star Beijing hotel detailed the crime on social media after she received an apathetic response from police and hotel staff. Her post was viewed more than 600,000 times within 24 hours. In response, the Beijing police responded via its social media account that it would “thoroughly investigate” the incident and “welcomed public scrutiny.” The hotel also apologized.
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A recent case of social media outrage has again electrified the country. In early May a young man named Lei Yang headed to the Beijing airport to greet relatives eager to meet his newborn baby. A few hours later Lei was dead in police custody. The police claimed they caught Lei patronizing sex workers in a massage parlor and arrested him, but then he fell suddenly ill and died in a local hospital.
Given the power of law enforcement agencies and the murky legal status of sex work in China, this police statement would have ordinarily been the final pronouncement on Lei Yang. Instead his friends and family tapped into China’s social media networks to pressure the Beijing police to give a complete account of Lei’s unexpected death.
When online commentary turns against a specific policy or official, authorities can find themselves in an irksome bind.
The next day a post describing the incident appeared on social media, purportedly written by Lei’s college roommate. Censors quickly deleted it, but not before other users circulated it on social platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. Users questioned the authorities’ unnecessary use of force and decried police abuse. As censors raced to delete the posts, the posters grew increasingly furious.
Even as censors endeavored to scrub this episode from the Internet, the police department sought to appease netizens by publicizing increasingly detailed statements on social media. Two days after Lei’s death, the Changping District Police’s Weibo account released a post suggesting that Lei had tried to escape while under custody and was apprehended. He subsequently fell ill on the way to the police station. When this statement failed to placate netizens, the police released a revised statement two days later. In this second account, Lei was depicted in a more sinister light. He allegedly fought off officers attempting to arrest him, destroyed police video equipment, and kicked the driver of the police car in an effort to escape. Netizens remained dissatisfied. In the face of continued public skepticism, the public prosecutor’s office has taken over the autopsy and investigation.
• • •
The ability of anonymous netizens to drive the behavior of authorities offers an example of publicity-driven accountability in contemporary China. Unable to hold officials accountable through elections or courts, citizens resort to various media in order to attract attention and hopefully prevail upon officials to change decisions.
The power of online publicity also shapes the campaigns of Chinese activists. The ability to easily publicize the shortcomings of the government using online and traditional media sometimes leads activists to orchestrate government failures. A common strategy among transparency activists is to request government information, such as budgets and spending reports, knowing full well that the authorities are unlikely to comply. These activists then exploit government denials to generate publicity around the absence of government transparency. Activists hope that such attention can incite the government to be more accountable to citizens, generating a form of accountability that functions primarily through the media rather than through political institutions.
Publicity-seeking activism also plays out in the offline world, and the activists wielding this weapon are not limited to white collar professionals. Aggrieved migrant workers sometimes threaten to throw themselves from buildings in “suicide shows” that draw publicity from journalists and bystanders. Once amplified by the media, worker claims that otherwise would have been shoved into the drawers of an unresponsive bureaucrat are addressed much more quickly by authorities who fear negative publicity.
How can such audacious mobilization occur in a country with such extensive monitoring and censorship of both print and online media? Part of the explanation lies in the massive participation of ordinary Chinese people in social media. WeChat, for example, has acquired over 700 million users in the five years since it debuted. Weibo has nearly 200 million. While research suggests that China’s digital censors act swiftly, sometimes deft-fingered netizens can outpace official efforts.
There is also ambivalence within the party about the role of the media. While it is widely agreed that media outlets should serve the party’s interests, media supervision can also play a constructive role in monitoring local officials. Uncensored investigative journalism is, under certain conditions, desirable for central officials seeking to monitor the performance of local governments.
Chinese officials are not wholly unaccountable to the public, and there is ambivalence within the party about the role of the media.
Even limited responsiveness to public opinion adds to a growing body of evidence for “normative political goods” delivered by China’s non-democratic political regime. In recent years political scientists have found that China’s officials exhibit some behaviors typically associated with democratic governance, ranging from legislative representation of public interests to offering constituency services. While these findings by no means obliterate the stark contrast between authoritarian and democratic governance, they show that the provision of normative political goods occurs on a spectrum rather than in a simple binary. In other words, Chinese officials are not wholly unaccountable to the public. Rather, they are accountable only through certain channels. The pathways to accountability under authoritarian rule are almost certainly narrower and less efficient than in democracies, but such channels do exist.
At the same time, there are real limits to enforcing official accountability through publicity. Publicity is by nature episodic and focused. Undoubtedly, many other Lei Yangs have died under suspicious circumstances in police custody, but not every Lei Yang is receiving public attention. In the end, the ruling party holds the final say over how much public criticism it is willing to tolerate. Activists attempting to publicize scandals having to do with sensitive political topics frequently face imprisonment, and the landscape of closed topics remains shifting and vague.
Despite these limitations, publicity-driven accountability in China is not just a flash in the pan. In a recent survey by The Governance Project at Stanford University, when presented with the statement, “Public opinion can cut short the career prospects of government officials,” 90 percent of Chinese officials agreed.
Greg Distelhorst is an Assistant Professor of Global Economics and Management at MIT in the Sloan School of Management. He is also an investigator with The Governance Project at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Diana Fu is an assistant professor of Asian Politics at University of Toronto Scarborough. Her research examines the relationship between popular contention, state power, and civil society, with an emphasis on contemporary China. Fu earned her Ph.D. in Politics and her Ph.M. in International Development at Oxford University.
Yue Hou is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2015-16, she was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT and her BA in Economics and Mathematics from Grinnell College.
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