Last week the Chinese National Bureau of Corruption Prevention issued a statement saying that 72.7 per cent of the population was satisfied with progress the government was making on tackling corruption, an endemic problem in the country. It caused a virtual tsunami. People went on line in their thousands, creative in their derision of a figure that doubtless sprung fully armed from the mind of some bureaucrat or other. One individual said “Public opinion poll? Did they conduct it inside the Politburo? Poor old public opinion – raped once again.”
I say ‘said’ but the comment was actually tweeted, except it wasn’t tweeted because Twitter isn’t allowed in China! No, but people do have access to a microblogging service called Weibo.com (weibo simply means microblog). It’s hosted by Sina, a state-controlled internet service provider which regularly censors content, but Chinese bloggers are amazingly versatile, getting around restrictions in all sorts of imaginative ways.
In a country where the people have rarely had a voice at all Sina Weibo is a remarkable development. Let a hundred flowers bloom, it might be said, to drag up one ghost from the Chinese past, except that’s a huge underestimate. In all there are some 300million microbloggers in China, people who greet official statements - traditionally received in silence or reverence or else - with cynical derision. When the Beijing Daily recently demanded that Gary Locke, the US ambassador, declare his personal assets, the bloggers responded by saying that the real scrutiny should be on the assets of the country’s own elites.
Chinese officialdom has never been subject to such detailed and critical attention. Traditionally information is power and the flow of information has been tightly controlled. No longer. Quoted in the London Times, Zhan Jiang, professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign Studies Service, said of Weibo that it “Has given a voice to 300 million Chinese and that has never happened before. It has taken on the role of spreading information when news is breaking and that is a big challenge to the government and media.”
It certainly is, when one considers that the most popular bloggers have followings far in excess of even mass circulation newspapers. Attempted cover-ups have been blown wide open by a rapid flow of information. The most recent example of this was a fatal train crash in Wenzhou, news of which officials attempted to bury. Exposure on Weibo forced a change of tactics.
Superficially Weibo is like Twitter. The latter has a 140-letter limit, just as the former has a 140-character limit. Ah, but you see, that makes all the difference in the microblogging world! For in Chinese, as the Times reported, every character is a word. Also in the absence of prepositions users can say much more in a single post than on Twitter. Yu Jianrong, an academic noted for his exposure of child trafficking, has in excess of 1.3million followers. This is one recent communication of his;
On May 16, 1966, the Chinese Communist Party started the Cultural Revolution which caused 10 years’ turmoil. I suggest that we mark the day as a “Day of Reflection”. My reflection is that blind belief in an organisation or leader cannot bring real democracy or the rule of law. Without democracy that people can take part in, everyone may turn violent.
Now, who would ever have believed the expression of such sentiment possible in a land where the repellent Mao Zedong still stares balefully down on Tiananmen Square?
The whole phenomena, this virtual democracy wall, might very well be pulled down, though some believe that things have gone too far for that. Uncomfortable as it is for the communist authorities, it actually provides greater intelligence on the mood around the country than they ever had in the past.
There are forms of censorship, certainly, and clear dangers in modes of expression that become too free. After all, the service only allows real name users, so there is no hiding. But, notwithstanding the risks, the authorities are still subject to forms of scrutiny and ridicule previously unknown. The Weibo users are also highly creative in getting around official gags. When particular words are blocked by the censors, euphemisms appear within moments. No sooner was an interdict placed on naming premier Wen Jiabao that he reappeared in the far less dignified form as ‘Tellytubbie.’
I do not think that democracy will come to China any time soon. But the old days of silence, deference and intimidation are being overwhelmed by politically meaningful chatter.