In recent days, it seems like any discussion of China and the internet centers around censorship and the possible destabilizing influence presented by the free information exchange afforded by the web. Of course, the internet is used for other things too, but those just lead to more censorship, which leads back to the aforementioned discussion. I, however, have been pondering a different question recently: why isn’t there a website through which people can report the corruption of local officials to Beijing?
The reason no one else has been pondering this is that, as it turns out, there is such a website. It’s quite new, and apparently hasn’t been very useful yet because it crashed under the crushing weight of thousands of hits shortly after its launch. Apparently, it was only designed to handle 1,000 corruption complaints at a time. Clearly, the Chinese government’s web designers aren’t reading the same blogs we are.
What’s more embarrassing — for me (in that I was unaware) and for the site developers (in that they’re obviously incompetent) — is that this has happened before. Shanghaiist pointed me to a story from 2007 about a new National Bureau of Corruption Prevention that also crashed just hours after it was launched, unable to bear the bandwidth drain of thousands of wronged citizens.
Anyway, the new website seems to be up again now — we looked around but didn’t actually try reporting any corruption — and although it’s not as fancy as the government’s website allowing netizens to report porn (which has been up for five years and even has an English version), it’s pretty nice. People can file official reports about specific people or organizations, leave thoughts and suggestions, check out a pretty thorough FAQ, and even browse some propaganda materials. Whether or not any of this is effective is still up for grabs.
Regardless of its efficacy really, I think it indicates the Chinese government is more savvy about the internet than some of us might expect (particularly after the whole Green Dam fiasco). The (old?) system of having people come to Beijing personally to report grievances often resulted in more grievances. People can be easily intercepted by local government goons, but emailed reports on an official central government website are probably harder to interdict. The new system has the potential to be smoother, safer, quicker, and more effective, but even if it turns out to be none of those things, it may well be serving its purpose.
Giving people such a direct outlet for their frustrations may calm them a bit, and it also reduces the number of offenses which are then made worse by bumbling and/or monstrous local officials kidnapping and torturing would-be whistleblowers to keep from losing face. Even if the website forwards all the reports directly into an empty hotmail account’s spam filter, I suspect the number of these incidents might be reduced.
Taking off the cynicism-colored glasses for a moment, though, this appears to be a genuinely good idea that serves the people of China well. Reporting and eliminating corruption is a good thing. Making the reporting of said corruption faster, easier, and safer is a good thing. People may wonder why they only got around to implementing this five years after they’d got the anti-porn one up and running, but to be perfectly fair, the process of reporting and confirming illegal websites is probably fairly simple compared to the process of reporting and confirming official corruption.