Net a Friend, not an Enemy
The Chinese government's relationship with the Internet is far more complex than media-filtered presentations. From the central government down to the local level, there have been many experiments to use the Internet to improve government performance and communications with the public. The government doesn't just see the Internet as a challenge; it also considers it an opportunity.
Stories of the proactive use of the Internet by government agencies abound. Perhaps the best examples are websites where members of the public can report corruption cases, such as the www.12388.gov.cn website launched by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China in October 2009. The website had so many visitors on its first day that it crashed under heavy traffic.
The Supreme People's Court, too, launched a website last year to solicit reports of illegal activities by judges. Within six months, 294 judges faced disciplinary action, which resulted in 116 prosecutions.
Many government agencies have started using microblogs to improve communications with the public. Reports of police corruption, torture of suspects to extract confession, and collection of illegal or arbitrary fines have dealt a blow to the image of law enforcement departments in recent years. Not surprisingly, police departments have been at the forefront of efforts to use microblogs to regain the public's trust.
The Beijing police department launched its microblog earlier this year. In five months, it has attracted more than 300,000 visitors, even though netizens initially criticised it for its formal, disjointed style bogged down in bureaucracy. But its writers have responded by gradually phasing out their dry official-speak in favor of the lively colloquial expressions or abbreviations widely used by the microblogging community.
The microblog of Guangzhou police department has become popular by sharing timely information with the public. In June, Guangzhou police had an hours-long standoff with an armed man before shooting him down. The police microblog covered the incident live throughout the day, attracting about 250,000 visitors.
Many Chinese officials have learned to use the Internet to show their commitment to serving the people and their responsiveness to public opinion. In Jiangxi province, 72 county-level officials have opened "people's livelihood" blogs. The public can use the blogs to seek help for their individual problems, while officials use them to respond to the requests.
Some officials have chosen to participate in discussions in Internet forums. A county Party secretary in Chongqing was voted one of the top-10 local "cyber-celebrities", because he regularly took part in online discussions on local issues and often responded to suggestions and criticisms.
The most dramatic example of officials' eagerness to demonstrate their Internet-friendliness came from Changzhou in Jiangsu province. After a resident attacked the environmental protection bureau in an Internet forum for failing to deal with water pollution and demanded the resignation of the bureau's director, the bureau offered him a "cyber-supervision of the government" award of 2,000 yuan (US$302).
But not everyone is convinced by such initiatives of government agencies and officials. Critics dismiss them as mere public relation stunts. Responding to such criticisms, Guangdong's Party leader Wang Yang said that officials can spend only limited time interacting with netizens: "In this sense, if this is said to be just making a show, then I don't deny it." But Wang argued that when officials like him make such a show, they encourage others to follow in their footsteps and spur efforts to turn the Internet into an institutionalised vehicle for citizens' political participation.
So, are government agencies and officials genuinely interested in using the Internet to better serve the people and give them more opportunities to supervise the government, or is it just an exercise to improve their image? And how many concrete results can these government experiments with the Internet deliver? These are legitimate questions that need to be continuously asked because the Internet will play an increasingly important role in China's political life.
At the moment, the central government appears quite determined to push local governments and officials into ensuring that their Internet-friendliness is meaningful. The People's Daily recently criticised local government websites that had been lying "dormant" rather than serving as active communication channels for the public. The newspaper publishes quarterly rankings of local governments' response to incidents that have gained high profile in cyberspace. Local governments that are open and responsive to online public opinion are praised, while those that try to suppress criticisms are named and shamed.
Apparently, although it still has a long way to go, China is learning how to turn the Internet into its friend rather than an enemy.
The author is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and an associate fellow at Chatham House.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010