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Three Trends in Public Opinion Online in China

Looking back at China’s Internet in 2011, there were three broad trends that deserve greater attention. The first was a general shift from emotionally-driven nationalist chatter as the defining tone of China’s Internet to more basic attention to issues of public welfare. The second was the rise of the “social power of the Internet.” And the third trend was a more pronounced deficit in understanding on the government’s part about the role it should play in a networked society. While it became readily apparent, that is, that we now have a networked civil society in China, it became clearer at the same time that we lack government administrators who are Internet literate.

The Turn from Online Nationalism

Nationalism has been the defining issue of the Chinese Internet since the very beginning. Professor Peng Lan of Renmin University in Beijing has argued, for example, that the emergence of online public opinion in China was marked by the Internet-based opposition movement of the international Chinese community [including mainland Chinese] that arose in response to attacks on ethnic Chinese during the Indonesian riots in May 1998.

In “The Glory and Promise of Online Public Opinion,” written by journalists Lin Chufang and Zhao Ling and published in the Southern Weekend on June 5, 2003, the authors argued that “the real turning point in the emergence of the Internet as a platform for the expression of public opinion in China was May 9, 1999, when the People’s Daily Online (www.people.com.cn) opened a forum in which netizens could rally opposition against the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces. This was the first current-affairs news forum opened by a website of a traditional media outlet.”

Nationalist sentiment has since remained a hot topic on the Chinese Internet. Issues such as Sino-American relations, Sino-Japanese relations, and the Taiwan question have for a long time instigated heated activity on the Internet, sometimes even sparking mass rallies offline. This trend has been the subject of much attention from observers outside China. The Economist once devoted a section to China’s “online nationalism” in a report on the digital era called “Electronic Hatred in a Brave New World.”

This online nationalist trend peaked in 2008 with the March 14th outbreak of riots in Lhasa and the disruption of the Olympic torch relay—the so-called “Journey of Harmony”, which lasted 129 days and passing through six continents from March 24th to August 8th—in a number of North American and European cities. Advocates of Tibetan independence, animal rights advocates, and critics of China's human rights record held demonstrations along the torch’s route and these protests led to confrontations and counter-protests. These events marked an unfortunate setback in relations between China and the West, leaving China with a deeper sense of isolation. The potential consequences of this continued trajectory would threaten to push China into a more defensive, anti-Western posture.

The successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was another symbolic moment for China’s rise that year, and a moment worthy of deep pride for Chinese. But just as the curtain closed on the Olympics, the revelation of widespread melamine contamination throughout China’s dairy industry erupted. The impact on millions of Chinese families and on the country’s manufacturing sector was profound. The melamine milk scandal came as a jarring reminder that external glory cannot disguise internal decay. The widespread sense of a debilitating setback was conveyed by Chinese Internet users: After all the hard work leading to the great success of the Beijing Olympics, after all the hope and the hype, we suddenly found ourselves back in the pre-Olympic era.

Ever since that time, the confident tone of a rising China has flattened into notes of sorrow among Chinese. Soon after Shanghai successfully hosted the 2010 World Expo, a disastrous fire in the city claimed 58 lives and injured scores of others. Just as some who believed in the “China model” were thinking it had begun to reach the peak of success, even meriting emulation by other countries, the Wenzhou high-speed rail collision in July 2011 shattered this fantasy, forcing people to reconsider whether or not there really was a China model at all.

Public opinion online rose to a furor in the wake of the train accident. The chatter on Weibo was deafening. As one user famously said:

China, please stop going so fast, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morals, wait for your conscience! Don’t let the trains fall off the tracks, don’t let the bridges collapse, don’t let the roads become pitfalls, and don’t let the houses become deathtraps. Walk a bit slower. Let all lives enjoy freedom and dignity, so that no one is left behind by the times, so that all of us can reach our destination smoothly and in peace.

Many people still sympathetically push for Chinese nationalism, calling for a stronger China. But ever since 2008 on the Chinese Internet, nationalistic agendas have increasingly taken a back seat to agendas relating to popular welfare. As the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of China—always a sensitive date—approached in 2010, the mood at Sina Weibo, one of China’s top social media platforms, was extremely tense. Chen Tong, the chief editor of Sina, sent a message to Weibo users expressing his desire that users not stir up trouble, since the Sina Weibo platform itself was at the time merely in “beta” testing and could be shuttered by the Chinese authorities at a moment’s notice.

But on September 18, the anniversary of the invasion, Sina Weibo chatter focused not on the past but on the present. Commentators passionately discussed the Yihuang self-immolation case in southern China’s Jiangxi province. In Yihuang, three members of a family about to be evicted from their home to make way for new construction set themselves on fire in protest. This event exposed the evils of forced property demolition in China. One keen-eyed journalist said of the day: “Today is the first day since Sina Weibo was established that it has indeed proved its value.”

Clearly, the winds are changing. When you cannot find safe milk for your child to drink, when their school buses are hazardous, when you worry that you might be exposed to dangerous recycled cooking oils if you go out to a local restaurant, when the city where you live is choked with pollution and you have no idea what the actual PM2.5 measures for the most dangerous air particles are, the question that possesses you above all else is in what direction Chinese society is heading. You care more about how the people of China can enjoy lives of peace and prosperity, and less about the murderous logic of the Boxer Rebellion.

Online Social Power Emerges

The second trend in 2011 was the emergence of what we can call “online social power.” Sociologists believe that the remaking of the society is a fundamental issue in China’s reform. Since the 1970s, researchers in China have talked about the need to encourage the development of non-governmental organizations, to move away from the old work unit system to form new urban communities, and to foster collective actions and social movements to assert rights. Today we can say without hesitation that an independent, richly participatory, and resilient civil society is emerging on China’s Internet. The Internet in China today has quite a different political function from what we see in countries with relatively full political freedoms. It cannot usher in dramatic changes to political life in China, but it can promote the creation of social capital on the basis of citizen rights and duties, giving rise to and strengthening social forces independent of the Chinese state.

China is entering an era of “rights.” Farmers, workers, and a newly-emerging middle class are all fighting for their civil rights. Since the 1990s, along with a number of “important turns and other reversals” (sociologist Sun Liping’s phrase), there has been a clear expansion of social conflict and opposition in China in terms of frequency, scale, and intensity. Researchers have observed that perhaps one of the most apparent new characteristics of this social unrest is the use of sophisticated electronic technologies, which enable protesters to connect more readily and also make it possible to communicate with media and supporters in the international community.

Thanks to technology, new social relationships and bonds are forming in China, and people have an increased awareness of how their interests intersect with those of others. As a direct result, the mobilization capacity of related social movements has increased. The recent Wukan incident in Guangdong is a prime example of this trend.

Efforts by Chinese to fight for their civil rights are of course tangled with efforts to fight for their right to information. In the broadest sense, the right to information means the freedom to converse, connect, gather, and coordinate without fear. These rights are the same rights guaranteed through the human rights documents of the United Nations, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the constitutions of various countries, which affirm the right of citizens to access and share information.

In terms of basic rights on the Internet, an international consensus has already emerged, including a firm commitment to freedom of access and the freedom to share information.  Internet rights, therefore, already exist as a matter of convention within the international political context, where many people argue that the same standards of freedom and human rights that operate offline apply to the online environment as well. At the same time, the open Internet is governed by a policy of non-discrimination such that it functions as an open pipeline of information, so that every Internet service provider must provide open access to every user.

Lacking a Networked Mindset in Governance

This brings us to the third trend that has become clearer in China’s online public opinion environment. This is that while we already have a networked civil society in China, we continue to lack a networked governance—which is to say a government that understands and accommodates the Internet on its own terms.

The Internet naturally generates knowledge and value from end users and not from centralized gatekeepers, and the right to connectivity, use, and dissemination are to a great degree built into the fabric of the Internet. In the political arena, it has been argued by some European countries that access to Internet is a human right, and therefore, that the principles of human rights are also applicable to the Internet rights.  Advocates of this idea contend that the Internet can enhance the capabilities and potential of other offline social networks.  For this reason, they say the building of Internet governance policies should proceed along the same lines, raising competition, permitting free expression, encouraging innovation, and raising credibility, all with minimal government interference.

Unfortunately, Internet governance in China at present goes entirely against these principles. If China’s Internet is to continue to develop, Internet users and the government will have to work together toward mutual interests, jointly formulating principles.

The government must be aware that web users are not only to be monitored but also to be served—in fact, the principal attitude must be one of service. A totalistic approach by the government will only engender an Internet mob, while service-oriented governance will foster a population of responsible Internet users. On the government’s part, building a networked society requires, first and foremost, a change of attitude in governance, a transition from totalistic governance to service-oriented governance.

In such a governance approach, Internet-related problems should be resolved in a “web user–market–society–government” sequence. Issues that web users can solve themselves should be solved by web users; issues web users cannot solve on their own but can be solved by the market should be solved by the market; issues that the market cannot resolve and that can be resolved by society should be resolved by society; for issues that cannot be resolved by society, the government should step up to offer services and guidance.

A service-oriented governance approach does not mean entirely eliminating regulations, only that regulations are implemented for the sake of service, not for the sake of regulations themselves. Such regulations would be restricted to the law, with a fixed scope and procedures and a clear system of responsibility. When people are denied the opportunity to participate in the formulation of rules, these rules lose acceptance and credibility, and stability is difficult to achieve. This principle is as true online as offline.

It is impossible for the government to serve as the only source of public administration in an atmosphere as complex, fast-changing, and diverse as China’s today. The government will have to coordinate with non-governmental organizations, social groups, and the public to better manage public affairs. An approach to Internet governance based on serving the interests of web users would necessitate a fundamental change in the government’s role. The government will have to be diligent and responsible in meeting the needs of a diversifying netizenry and personalized demands, as well as work to encourage different interest groups to find common ground, while at the same time allowing room for mistakes. For this reason, it is necessary to promote tolerance and patience, dialogue and communication.

Drawing hundreds of millions of Chinese web users into the process of Internet governance requires, first of all, respect for the basic rights of Chinese Internet users. The benefits for China in such a shift would be substantial. Chinese Internet users today are like Chinese farmers thirty years ago, or township and village enterprises twenty years ago: capable of unleashing immense productive forces outside the state system. Along with the emergence of this power there are emerging new interests and new demands.

Translated by Amy Qin.