Earlier today in Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao did a webcast with staff of "Strong China Forum," an online forum run by the People's Daily Online. See the English transcript here and the Chinese here.
More than 300 questions for President Hu were posted in advance by forum members. He only answered two softballs. One thread on Tianya reflects some people's dismay that the whole thing was "over as soon as it started." There has been some web chatter saying that not many people were able to get into that chatroom. The questions at Strong China Forum are supposed to be here, but so far I've been unable to access the page from my internet connection in London, even when I use a Chinese proxy. Fortunately the folks at China Digital Times got on, and provided this summary:
"Some complained, “Old Hu, lots of government money has been wasted by officials on feasts. Why don’t you stop it?” ” Why haven’t our salaries been increased while the prices of everything else are skyrocketing? “; “The stock market and housing market are collapsing. It is hard to find a job…”"
Some asked about policy and political issues, including some tricky ones: “What do you think of Taiwan’s democratization?” ; “How would you deal with wrong but well-intentioned opinions on the Internet?”
Despite the whole thing being gimmicky and generally content-free, I found the final part of Hu's webcast interesting:
Hu Jintao: We pay great attention to suggestions and advice from our netizens. We stress the idea of "putting people first" and "governing for the people." With this in mind, we need to listen to people's voices extensively and pool the people's wisdom when we take actions and make decisions. The web is an important channel for us to understand the concerns of the public and assemble the wisdom of the public.
Forum: Thanks you, Mr. General-Secretary. Dear friends, General-Secretary Hu Jintao's communication must conclude now as he has other things to do.
Hu Jintao: It is a pity that I cannot communicate more with the netizens today due to the time constraint. However, I will read and think carefully the comments and questions posted for me by our netizens.
As it happens, I just finished reading a book by Zheng Yongnian of Nottingham University titled Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China. It's an academic book which means that it costs an outrageous US$50 and is also dry and not written in a particularly entertaining style. But for anybody trying to make sense of how the Internet is changing Chinese politics and society, it's well worth a read if you can afford it or get somebody else (your institution's library or your company) to pay for it.
Zheng argues that while China is making no meaningful progress toward democratization, the Internet is nonetheless causing "political liberalization." The Internet in China, he believes, is enabling greater public deliberation about policy (within limits to be sure) as well as forcing the leadership to be more responsive to public opinion - or at least that segment of public opinion that is able to appear on the part of the Internet that you can access in China, which despite its limitations still gives Chinese citizens a conduit of expression that was not available before. Zheng points to several cases where public reaction to and discussion of information posted online led to policy changes: outrage over Sun Zhigang's death in detention led to abolition of the "Custody and Repatriation" system; outrage over the detention of outspoken rural business tycoon Sun Dawu created pressure on provincial governments and the central government to change policy practices that discriminate against the private sector. During the SARS outbreak, information, concerns (and wild rumors) posted on the Internet and sent through mobile SMS eventually broke down government attempts at tight information control. He also points to wildly unsuccessful cases: use of the Internet by the outlawed FLG and the opposition China Democracy Party to criticize the regime and call for an end to one-party rule by the CCP. What's the difference?
Zheng says that the difference between success and failure comes down to an online movement's strategy and objectives. The most spectacularly unsuccessful online movements (and the ones leading to the most brutal crackdowns both online and off) tend to advocate what he calls the "exit" option - i.e. that the Chinese people should exit one-party CCP rule, or that a particular group or territory might have the right to do so. The Chinese bureaucracy and leadership contains reformists and conservatives. However "when the regime is threatened by challengers, the soft-liners and hard-liners are likely to stand on the same side and fight the challengers." Successful online movements in China tend to use what he calls the "voice" option, or what other political scientists call the "cooperation option." The key to a successful effort to change government policy in China is to find a way to give reformist leaders and bureaucrats at all levels of government the ammunition they need to win out in arguments and power-struggles with their hard-line conservative colleagues. Reformists can point to what's being said in the chatrooms and blogs and in the edgier newspapers and argue that without change, there will be more unrest and public unhappiness - thus change is required to save the regime. Zheng writes: "the voice does not aim to undermine or overthrow the state. Instead, through a voice mechanism, the state can receive feedback from social groups to respond to state decline and improve its legitimacy."
In a similar vein, at the Chinese Internet Research Conference last week Jiang Min, an Assistant Professor at UNC-Charlotte, presented a paper titled Authoritarian Deliberation: Public Deliberation in China. Her argument centers around the idea - oft overlooked by Western punditry - that it's possible to have substantial amount of public deliberation about policy within an authoritarian state. Different authoritarian states have different levels of deliberation, and it's no substitute for the "democratic deliberation" in democratic countries when it comes to the ability of the governed to influence their government. Thus political deliberation needs to be divided into two categories: democratic and authoritarian. Within the "authoritarian" category, China is seeing growing amounts of deliberation taking place thanks to the Internet. Click here for a live-blogged summary of that session.
Immediately following her presentation came talks by Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times and Ashley Esreay of Harvard's Fairbank Center and Middlebury. (Click here for the blog summary.) Xiao (whose paper will be made available on the circ.asia website in the coming week) described numerous examples of how the Internet is enabling the powerless to challenge the powerful. Esreay, in his paper titled Political Discourse on Chinese Blogs presented the findings of his empirical research. (See the WSJ writeup of his presentation here.) He compared content on blogs and newspapers discussing news events in 2006 and found that 61% percent of blog posts analyzed contained "some form of criticism", compared to 19% of all newspaper articles analyzed. 36% percent of blog posts contained "pluralism" or discussion of more than one point of view, while only 5% of newspaper articles did. Thus he was able to empirically confirm the unscientific impression of most people who follow the Chinese Internet: "Compared to the content of mainstream, traditional media, blogs are much more likely to contain opposing perspectives and criticism of the state." I found his findings about blogs as economic watchdogs particularly interesting: "Another important finding was that bloggers criticize corporations five times more frequently than journalists, whose role in democratic societies has been to protect the interests of the public from transgression."
Here's a breakdown of the kinds of criticism found in the Chinese blog posts (click to enlarge):
...Which brings me to Roland Soong's presentation on Day 1, A Psychographic Segment of Chinese Bloggers. Using survey data about Chinese Internet users collected by the media research company he works for, Roland "created a 3-segment solution based upon 32 psychographic statements about personality, motivation, society, culture, technology and so on by the K-means algorithm" Here is how Roland describes three different kinds of people now coexisting in the Chinese blogosphere:
Segment 1: Not interested in latest technology; not interested in latest fashion; not interested in other people's opinions; don't want to told what to do ... Who do they sound like? Fenqing (angry young people)?
Segment 2: Easily swayed by other people; want to be told what to do; first to buy latest technology; follow western lifestyle; lesser respect for tradition ... Who do they sound like? These are groupies who follow whatever is au courant as reported on the Internet.
Segment 3: Interested in a lifestyle filled with challenges, novelties and changes; more interested in spending time meaningfully than just making money; ready to pay extra for environment-friendly products; appreciate companies which support public causes; willing to volunteer personal time for good causes ...
The data was collected before the Sichuan Earthquake, but in his talk, Roland suggests that it is this third group who came into their own and made their presence felt in the aftermath of the earthquake. Deborah Fallows suggested that the earthquake may have been a "break through" moment for the way in which people use the Internet, as 9/11 was for people in the U.S.
In his Sunday afternoon talk, Isaac Mao repeated his core view that the Chinese people need free-thinking before they can have free speech. He also believes that the Internet is facilitating the evolution of an increasingly sophisticated "social brain", which he believes "will be the key in the future of this country."
USC graduate student Peter Marolt, in his PhD dissertation, is attempting to create a new conceptual framework to help us understand what is going on in China. He is working to map how "spaces of dissent" come into being, and what is the linkage between deliberation and action.
...Which brings me back to the beginning of my last post and Lokman Tsui's argument: that cold-war paradigms, based on the information environment and state-society relations in the countries that once comprised the Soviet Block, are not only hindering the outside world's understanding of China but are contributing to misguided policies. This is not to say one shouldn't support efforts by many people in China to obtain greater freedom of speech and the right to choose their leaders. Of course we should. The point is, strategies and approaches should be grounded in actual facts rather than over-simplified, romantic cold-war notions, or these efforts will not only fail but will also be rejected and denounced by the people you're ostensibly trying to help.
Next week at the Global Voices Summit in Budapest, we'll be spending the first day talking about how free speech advocacy can be improved and upgraded for the Internet age. I hope we'll be addressing some tough questions about what works - and what no longer works so well - when it comes to the strategies and tactics of today's human rights organizations and movements. What can the Chinese people do to convince Hu Jintao to pay attention to their concerns? Is there anything that well-meaning outsiders who care about China can constructively do to facilitate that process (or at least not hinder it) and if so what is it?