Yiyi Lu: The Lesser-Known Internet Story in China
Yiyi Lu, an expert on Chinese civil society, discusses local governments’ use of the Internet in China. Ms. Lu is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and an associate fellow at the U.K.-based Chatham House. She is the author of “Non-Governmental Organisations in China: The Rise of Dependent Autonomy” (Routledge 2008).
Talking of the Internet in China, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is government control and censorship. The “Great Firewall of China,” the blocking of Twitter and Facebook, Beijing’s recent row with Google over censorship, the harassment of bloggers: These are all familiar stories to audiences around the world, thanks to extensive international media coverage.
Less well known are various experiments to use the Internet to improve governance and state-society communications. While the government is wary of the political threat posed by new information technologies, it has also started to view the Internet as an opportunity. It can be used to spread official messages, monitor public sentiments, soothe feelings of resentment toward the government, and provide references for decision-making. It is also a convenient tool for officials who are keen to cultivate a good public image.
Stories of the proactive use of the Internet by government agencies and officials abound. They range from the comic to the deeply controversial. The website of Xinzhou city government in Shanxi province attracted quite a lot of attention with its “beauty forum.” Xinzhou claims to be the birthplace of several famous beauties in Chinese history. The government has therefore opened a beauty forum on its website to encourage discussion on how to use beauties to stimulate the local economy.
A police station in Xiamen has tried to draw more visitors to its microblog by making a connection between its duty of safeguarding the security of the local community and the World Cup. The station blogged: “On the football pitch, the most beautiful flowers are always these three: attack, attack, and attack. It is the same with maintaining community security. Proactive measures are always more meaningful than reactive measures.”
Officials in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, appear to be very adept at managing online criticism of their performance. A local resident used Internet forums to attack the environmental protection bureau for failing to deal with a water pollution case and demanded that the director of the bureau take responsibility and resign. The bureau not only took action to stop the pollution, but also launched a “human flesh search” to track down the critic, in order to offer him a “cyber-supervision” award of 2,000 yuan. While the netizen felt embarrassed at some of his caustic remarks and said sorry when receiving his award, the director of the bureau told him there was no need to apologize. Instead, the bureau should thank him for helping to solve a pollution problem.
The environment bureau’s clever response to online criticism is probably attributable to the Changzhou mayor’s promotion of “cyber-political participation.” The mayor has gained a reputation for engaging in equal exchanges with citizens online. After a local writer posted an article that criticised a multimillion infrastructure project and questioned the mayor’s motives for pushing through the project, the mayor wrote a 4,000-word reply to address the questions raised one by one. When the writer posted a second article declaring that he still had doubts, the mayor replied again to welcome different voices and assure his critic that he only wanted what was best for Changzhou.
Changzhou officials’ handling of online criticism is not without controversy. Sceptics say that it is just spin. Some charge that officials respond to minor issues but remain silent on more serious problems. A local resident says the mayor uses a soft approach to smooth over public complaints while continuing to run the city with an iron fist. The environment bureau in particular has been accused of trying to buy off critics with its cash award. An online commentary points out that the environmental bureau should use taxpayers’ money to clean up pollution, not to pay netizens.
Despite controversies and legitimate questions about how many concrete results the various government experiments with the Internet have delivered, such experiments shouldn’t be dismissed as mere spin. They have no doubt gone some distance in increasing government transparency and accountability. More importantly, they have set precedents and raised expectations, which have encouraged more people to use the Internet as a vehicle for political participation and activism.
Increased participation and activism in turn have piled up pressure on government agencies and officials to clean up their act. Since 2009, the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit of the People’s Daily has published quarterly rankings of local government response to incidents that have gained high profile in cyberspace. Local governments are scored on indicators such as information transparency, government credibility, and the punishment of responsible officials. Local governments who are open and responsive to online public opinion are praised while those who try to suppress criticisms are named and shamed. The rankings may not fundamentally change the behavior of local governments overnight, but it is a start. The government must learn how to turn the Internet into its friend rather than an enemy. Although it still has a long way to go, at least it is trying.