Rumour has it

A chill descends on China’s social media

Written by Minxin Pei | Published: October 6, 2013 11:55 pm

A chill descends on China’s social media

Those who have been paying even the slightest attention to China’s official press can hardly miss the “China Dream” media blitz. Originally coined by the new chief of the Communist Party of China (CPC),Xi Jinping,when he formally assumed power in November 2012,the term has since become Beijing’s favourite official slogan. Although what exactly this catchy phrase means is unclear,it seems reasonable to assume that it includes,at least,some expansion of personal freedom and liberties for ordinary Chinese people.

However,even as the official propaganda machine goes into overdrive to drum up popular support for Xi’s new vision for China,a political nightmare is unfolding across China’s social media,so far the most vibrant and freest public space in a society under the tight control of a one-party state. Beginning in late August,Chinese authorities launched a well-planned,ferocious and comprehensive crackdown on Chinese social media. Trumped-up criminal charges were filed against the most influential weibo (microblog) commentators,called Big Vs (which stands for individuals with large numbers of verified weibo followers). One of them,Charles Xue,a Chinese-American venture capitalist holding a US passport,was caught with a “prostitute” and then paraded,in handcuffs,on Central Chinese TV’s flagship news programme confessing his sins. Before he was grabbed by the Chinese police,Xue,a sharp critic of corruption,social injustice and government incompetence,had 12 million followers on the Chinese weibo. Almost at the same time,several other Big Vs,who had established their fame by exposing corruption and attempted cover-ups of scandals by local government officials,were arrested on charges of “rumour-mongering”,“fraud,” and “blackmail”. To underscore that such arrests were legal,the Chinese supreme court and the supreme prosecutor’s office,both controlled by the party,quickly issued a joint legal interpretation (an act that technically violates the Chinese constitution) that criminalises rumour-mongering and defines the severity of such acts. According to this document,if an online news item deemed to be a rumour is seen by 5,000 unique visitors and retweeted 500 times,the person responsible for the rumour is criminally liable.

These arrests have sent shockwaves through China’s social media space. Almost instantly,a chill has descended on the weibo. Before the crackdown,Chinese social media was filled with lively political discussions. Today,such discussions are replaced by entertainment news and health tips.

To the Chinese leadership,the outcome of the crackdown must be highly satisfying. Shortly before the crackdown,the Communist Party held a national conference on ideology in Beijing. At the gathering,the party’s top leaders declared,with no ambiguity,that any ideological challenge to the party could not be tolerated and must be suppressed.

It is easy to understand why the world’s largest one-party regime is fearful of losing its control over China’s political discourse in general and social media in particular. Social frustrations are rising as a result of public anger at official privileges,corruption and unprecedented income and wealth inequality (a recent,authoritative study estimates that income inequality in urban areas in 2012 was 0.50 on the Gini index,a historic high). The ongoing economic slowdown,a symptom of deeply embedded structural and institutional flaws in the Chinese political economy,adds further anxiety for a regime that has become dependent on its economic performance as a source of legitimacy.

In the ideological sphere,the party is aware of a deepening crisis of confidence. One piece of evidence is that new Chinese leaders simply cannot get the collapse of the Soviet regime out of their minds. Guess which movie the party has ordered its officials to watch? It’s definitely not The Great Gatsby (although contemporary China bears a superficial resemblance to the go-go 1920s in the United States). It is a Chinese-made documentary,titled Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Death of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Ostensibly,the documentary blames the fall of the Soviet Union on the corruption of its elites. But the real message to the rank and file of the CPC is that its leadership will not give up power without putting up a fight.

To be fair to the new Chinese leadership,its crackdown on social media is coupled with a much-publicised anti-corruption campaign. In a sense,Xi is fighting a two-front war. He and his colleagues want to reassert control over both China’s virtual civil society and the party’s bureaucracy. The problem with this strategy is obvious. Xi needs all the help he can get from Chinese civil society,particularly social activism in cyberspace,to wage his war against corruption in the government. By silencing social media activists,Chinese leaders will only ensure the failure of their much-touted anti-corruption efforts.

The real question is how long this nightmarish situation for Chinese social media will last. Preliminary results may show that the party,once again,has demonstrated its toughness and tamed Chinese society. But appearances are deceiving. The Chinese people are no fools. They know that the party is good at launching campaigns,but quite bad at sustaining them. The smart thing to do is to avoid a frontal clash with the party at the beginning of a high-priority political campaign,such as the ongoing crackdown on social media. Wait until the campaign loses its steam and the party gets distracted by other pressing matters. Incidentally,this is the tried-and-true survival strategy of corrupt officials inside the CPC. There is no reason that China’s social media activists should not utilise such valuable political wisdom.

The writer is a professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US

express@expressindia.com

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