A Character Battle Between China’s Government and its Internet Users

The horse is out of the barn. Now that China’s social Web has given every citizen the ability to publish for a wide audience—a privilege once reserved for the government—state publications and Web users there continue to wrangle over who best grasps the Zeitgeist. Just yesterday, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released its (paywalled) Annual Report on Development of New Media in China. According to the Beijing Evening News, the findings depict a vast and growing Weibo nation: In the second half of 2012 alone, Chinese Weibo (i.e. microblogging) platforms drew over 15.5 billion visits and 73.9 billion page views spread over a total of 1.5 billion hours.

Those statistics would turn all but a handful of Internet titans green with envy. But the numbers’ significance transcends mere metrics: China’s Weibo sites have often acted as alarms to spot corruption, platforms to air citizen grievances in an authoritarian state, and even labs to test-market policy changes, which are sometimes pulled following online outcry.

To ask who comprises China’s most voluble “Weiborati” is thus, to some extent, to ask who speaks for a very influential part of Chinese society.

That helps explain the outcry greeting a recent opinion piece in Seeking Truth, a magazine published by the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party and frequently read by high-level Chinese officials. (The original Chinese article is here.) The article’s provocative title is perhaps best translated this way: “Instead of Venting Online About Dissatisfaction with Society, Cut Off Your Web Connection and Change Your Own Destiny.”

The article depicts a social Web buzzing with rumor, scandal, and negativity:

Fires, accidents, corruption, scandal covers heaven and earth; so-called intrigue, exposés, unwritten rules emerge one after another; rumor, violence, sex…one can’t help but ask, ‘What is going on with our society?’ … Every rumor about the government is treated as fact…every social conflict is a problem with the system.

The opinion piece hotly disputes that the Chinese Internet is an “objective reflection” of current events. Instead, it maintains, online discourse has been distorted by a combination of self-anointed public intellectuals who clamor for attention, paid posters (in Chinese slang, the “Water Army”), and the general failure of the social Web to represent Chinese public opinion. While some analysts have argued that China’s online opinion leaders are richer and more educated than many of their compatriots, Seeking Truth seemingly takes a different tack: “Surveys show that a comparatively large proportion of netizens are middle-aged or young, with a low level of education and low income.”

And so, the article counsels in its most quoted and most maligned portion:

We need to actively face real life. A few netizens in flawed environments should understand this principle; [you can go ahead and] insult, but insults won’t topple the government, and insults won’t bring you personal happiness and a bright future. Knowledge can change your destiny; hard work brings happiness. If you wallow in online complaints and blame society, you might as well cut off your Web connection, put your feet on the ground, study hard, work hard, and improve your life and change your destiny.

Predictably, many Chinese Web users did not react kindly to the suggestion that they were marginal characters. The hashtag “cut off your Web connection” (#断开网线#) returned over 210,000 mentions in a recent search on Sina Weibo, and the most widely shared and commented-upon posts mentioning that hashtag were overwhelmingly critical. In a point-by-point refutation of the Seeking Truth article, user @糊涂叶先生 asked rhetorically, “Are you saying people with [high education and high income] aren’t going online? I’d be more likely to accept this survey if it showed the reverse; only white-collar workers with time to kill go online; people like my Dad spend all day working [in blue-collar jobs], then go home and sleep—when do they have time to go online?”

Many users noted that the Chinese Web had played an important role as a watchdog. @卫金桂 reeled off a list of incidents in which the social Web played a pivotal role: “If you cut off the internet, Lei Zhengfu would not be able to [take a mistress]; [rail boss] Liu Zhijun would not be able to be corrupt … the Red Cross would not be able to force donations [Ed.: this idea was floated online but later abandoned]; principals would not be able to molest young girls.” Businessman @思想反常 was equally blunt: “A government that accepts only ass-kissing, and not criticism, will sooner or later have a problem.”

Columnist and author Lian Peng (@连鹏) took direct aim at Chinese authorities: “[Then] why send your sons and daughters abroad to study? If we can’t topple the government with insults, why do you delete our posts, cancel our accounts, have real name registration…baffled.”

In fact, the mere conclusion that many social media users are young—and the corollary finding that they are not (yet) rich and educated—is uncontroversial in almost any country. And in China particularly, so-called “diaosi,” or “nobodies,” with income less than US$500 per month, outnumber the “baifumei,” or “rich and good-looking,” with incomes over US$1,200 per month. It’s small wonder that the Chinese Web would look the same way.

It’s also old news. In late 2012, Tea Leaf Nation discussed a white paper by venture fund IDG Accel that showed “grassroots” Web users vastly outnumbering the “baifumei” who inhabit the “gleaming homages to neo-capitalism.” Two years prior, a well-known Chinese Web founder wrote a widely-discussed fable contrasting these two wired populations:

We originally thought of Chinese society as a pyramid, but it’s becoming more and more like a thumbtack. [One part] stands at the top of the cap, and [another] resides far out on the distant tip. China does not have an “Internet for all,” rather, the Chinese Internet is separated by its people. It exists simultaneously in the Thinkpads of elites and the fake MTK cellphones of the grassroots.

Seeking Truth’s controversial innovation was not to state demographic facts. It was to connect those demographics to a statement of character and, by implication, prestige and influence in Chinese society. The Chinese Web is, of course, fighting back in its unique way, one that employs not just vitriol but also a heavy dose of humor. If merely severing a Web connection leads to happiness, user @中国经营报 joked, “Tonight we finally found the tool to inspire happiness—a pair of pliers! Goodnight, everybody.”

Media, Society
Internet, Weibo, Diaosi