A renewed attack on social media by the Chinese leadership isn’t just an offensive against bloggers and activists. It’s also an assault by the Communist Party on its own shortcomings

September 16, 2013, 12:44 PM

The Other Side of China’s Social Media Crackdown

By Russell Leigh Moses

A recently renewed attack on social media by the Chinese leadership isn’t just an offensive against bloggers and activists who dominate the daily online discourse in China. It’s also an assault by the Communist Party on its own shortcomings. The sweeping political strategy towards social media that’s been taking shape here began before President and Party chief Xi Jinping left for this year’s G20 summit in Russia, and it picked up speed and suspects while he was away.  That’s a clear sign that there’s consensus in the Party leadership about how to handle dissent. The first part of the attack strategy involved the coordinated clampdown on leading microbloggers and social celebrities whose followings often sideline messages from state authorities.That opening salvo from the Party involved a set of warnings to social media activists to be more responsible and less rumor-mongering.  One strongly-worded essay in People’s Daily back in August (in Chinese) quoted a leading university president and National Peoples Congress member as stating that China had “a large number of [postings] that are illegal, indulgent, irresponsible, contrary to social morality, rumor-inducing, and carrying inflammatory rhetoric.”

The blame was placed on popular opinion-leaders who were frivolous in their comments and far too negative in their postings (in Chinese).

The next move from Beijing was an attack on celebrity bloggers. China’s state broadcaster has taken the lead here, rendering one popular social media activistinarticulate by interviewing him with little warning and, over the weekend, broadcasting the Cultural Revolution-style confession of another social media star (in Chinese) who had earlier been detained on charges of soliciting a prostitute.

This strategy of striving to shame social media came about because of what the Xi leadership saw as a number of disturbing developments in society at—ones that many Party members seemed to be sleeping through.

The Chinese leadership believes that bloggers are usurping the commanding heights of communication that authorities insist should be theirs to own–and theirs alone.  As one lead commentary in People’s Daily put it, “everyone has the microphone in the information age” (in Chinese).  Some cadres, it added, were “far too passive” when social postings appeared and weren’t moving to counter information and rumors that they knew to be untrue for fear of embarrassing themselves in the face of local opinion.

What’s needed, this commentary argued, was for officials “to let the people see their sincerity and determination…because not to take action… would not only damage the credibility of the party and the government, but also delay in solving problems which would then affect social harmony and stability.”

Moreover, according to other critiques in the Party media—including one involving an incident in Sanmenxia city in Henan province about a Party secretary accused of rape (in Chinese) – bloggers have better megaphones.  Social media is becoming so loud and intrusive that the signals that the Communist Party are trying to send to the public of newly-caring cadres were being lost amidst “deceit and fabricated tales of misdeeds” of misconduct and malfeasance.  “In all walks of life,” this account noted, “the pressure of local public opinion was leaving no chance for anyone to breathe” and determine the actual truth of various accusations.

In the end, the accusation of rape was found to be groundless and spun back to the public by Party officials using the very same social media that produced the rumor.  The incident in Sanmenxia was then portrayed as a lesson for cadres to be “sincere and frank; to respond promptly; to publish authoritative information; and to be guided by the local party and government departments to take the initiative online.”

Clearly, being slow and silent – -as too many officials have been previously in earlier instances – is senseless and self-defeating.

Still, it’s understandable why cadres have been so reticent in responding to rumors. For one thing, they’re used to reaching out to each other, not the citizens they supervise.  Many are also concerned that tapping into actual public sentiment might well unleash a wave of discontent about their performances.  Party officials tend to see their roles as overseers of “network governance” (in Chinese) — that is, preventing local frustration with specific government shortcomings from spiraling into public anger in the streets.  So long as rumors don’t cross the red line into actual revolt —and censorship appears to being do at least that – cadres have rested easily.

It’s only recently that some officials have tried to employ social media as a means of showing how much they care, and attempting to demonstrate how much good they can do when they do care.  But they’ve got a long way to go.

Xi and his allies see social media activists as a menace, but one that they believe they can defeat.  It’s the ineptitude and timidity in their own ranks that continues to worry Xi just as much.

Russell Leigh Moses is the Dean of Academics and Faculty at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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