Chinese president Xi Jinping may claim to be interested in hearing the voice of his people, but it’s increasingly clear that this openness doesn’t always extend to people on the Internet.
On Sunday night, billionaire real-estate developer Pan Shiyi tweeted to his 15.3 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s leading social-media platform: “Soon I might meet a top government Internet regulator,” he announced. “Anything you’d like me to pass along?” By 7:48 a.m. the next morning the tweet had been re-posted 3,455 times and generated 3,891 comments.
Few things irritate Chinese netizens as much as how their government acts on the Internet: blocking access to many foreign websites, censoring content and comments on Chinese websites and directing paid commentators to promote the government’s viewpoint. Over the past few days, the accounts of at least three prominent microbloggers were deleted, and one suspended, including accounts that belonged to Murong Xuecun, the pen name of Hao Qun, a novelist with 1.85 million followers on his Sina Weibo account when it was yanked.
The reason for the deletions hasn’t been revealed, but it’s probably related to a recent official campaign to reign in online rumor-mongering. Late last week, Hao and several other now-deleted microbloggers tweeted -- indirectly but caustically, in Hao’s case (his tweet was censored, but the text is widely available in the tweets of other microbloggers) -- about a rumored order, as reported by the respected Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong, from unidentified authorities in Beijing, that requires university professors to avoid seven subjects in their teaching, including civil rights, civil society and financial and political elites. The Chinese government generally doesn’t react well to suggestions that it isn’t concerned with the development of a civil society, but Xi Jinping’s recent populist rhetoric makes such comments particularly unwelcome.
Against such a backdrop, the outpouring of responses to Pan Shiyi’s tweet was not surprising. For the most part, the suggestions were predictable. “I want to be on Facebook and Twitter,” wrote one commentator, echoing a widespread desire to have access to blocked American social networks. Others made political demands: “The central government should reflect upon and handle microblogged grievances.”
Most of the comments were more cheeky than angry and might have remained that way. But around 8 a.m. on Monday the list began shrinking in a virtual buzz saw of censorship. By lunchtime, the tweet had only about 50 or 60 (the number varied as commenters commented and censors censored) responses, many of them agitprop.
Is anyone fooled by this clumsy but characteristic effort to project a sense that few Chinese are interested in improving the Internet, and those that are make government-friendly suggestions? Probably not, especially if you believe Fu Siming, a professor of politics and law at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. In a May 6 interview with the Study Times, a weekly paper published by the Central Party School (as translated by the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong), Fu suggests that the heavy-handed approach to online opinion control is probably backfiring:
“One method now is to organize a bunch of people to anonymously offer their opinions, in this way channeling [the ideas of] internet users. This tactic is viewed by internet users as ’immoral.’ Particularly the organization of huge numbers of people to carry out online monitoring, deleting critical opinions whenever they see them, or pleading the defense [of the authorities] while disguised as ordinary web users. The result of this tactic is that the government hears only its own voice, and is tempted to the illusion that what it is actually hearing is the voice of the people. Moreover, [the government] demands that the people too indulge in this fantasy.”
Based on the government’s continued use of these methods, it’s likely that some bureaucrats (perhaps those who pre-date the Internet) still buy the illusion Fu describes. But regardless of what the government thinks the people think, evidence suggests that the people are no longer willing to indulge this fantasy.
On Monday, not long after Pan Shiyi’s commentators were censored, Kai-Fu Lee, a former Google China executive with more than 40 million followers on Sina Weibo, re-posted Pan’s call for suggestions to pass along to the top Internet regulator. It, too, quickly generated thousands of new suggestions, this time ones that were more angry and concerned with censorship.
A user in Chengdu suggested Pan tell the Internet regulator: “We are members of society, we have a voice, we have a right to freedom, and just deleting our tweets disrespects our dignity. I invite you to reflect on your shortcoming when it comes to the Internet.”
A commentator in Henan was even more strident: “If he wants to block the Internet, restrict freedom of speech and delete posts, there’s no point in talking to him. Tell him outright that freedom of speech is the citizens’ right! Any institution that restricts the freedom of speech destroys society.”
This anger will probably grow with each deleted post, comment and user. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that unhappy microbloggers will dissuade the government. As China Media Project’s David Bandurski noted on Monday, the current campaign is the manifestation of a government obsession: “How to achieve effective ‘social management’ of an online space that grows ever more unruly, with repercussions in the real world?”
Thriving microblogging culture has become China’s de facto town square. But as more alleged rumors and critical commenters are quieted or deleted this center of civil society becomes a less interesting place to visit. “Sad to say we can’t comment,” wrote a commentator to Pan Shiyi’s original tweet on Tuesday afternoon. “Sina becomes more and more like the People’s Daily,” she added, referring to the newspaper that serves as the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Soon, her comment was gone.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at email@example.com