Southern Weekend: Do Officials Really Fear the Internet?

Several days ago, People’s Daily — the mouthpiece of the Party — reported the results of a survey they had conducted:

Most people believe the Internet is an effective check on government officials’ behavior, a survey has showed.

About 70 percent of the 6,243 people in the poll, which included 5,943 online users and 300 officials, said they believe government officials fear online public opinion and supervision.

[…]

“The survey shows how Internet users, including some officials, value online supervision,” said Liu Xutao, deputy director of the center of testing and evaluation with the Chinese Academy of Governance. Liu also co-wrote a report on the survey for the magazine.

“On the other hand, it reflects how some other media organizations have failed to play the role of watchdog,” he said.

Interesting stuff. Needless to say, the sample they surveyed is preposterously biased, but it nevertheless raises an interesting question. The folks at Southern Weekend were interested too, apparently, as they published an editorial in response to the piece, which takes the form of a mini-debate:

The People’s Daily did a survey, according to which “70% of people think that officials fear the internet.” But if you look at the objects of the survey, 5,900 of the 6,200 surveyed were netizens, only 300 were officials, and none were common people. From the design and results of the survey we can see it’s not the least bit scientific, it seems more like a sort of masturbatory experience for netizens. Do officials really fear the internet?

In favor: Yes, they’re definitely a bit afraid. The traditional media is more self-disciplined and falls more directly under the authority of officials, so it’s hard [for those media sources] to avoid being handcuffed. There’s no way they can match the freedom and diversity of the internet. Anyone with a heart on the internet is a “reporter”. China often says “the eyes of the masses are bright”; and with so many people watching, there’s an apt saying: “Good news doesn’t make it out the door, bad news is passed far and wide.” The threshold for internet access is low, the publishing speed is fast. The “Tianjia Cigarettes Director” Zhou Jiugeng, “Lewd girl” Lin Ju…these people were caught by netizens. China is quite severe in punishing officials who piss everyone off, so if officials do something wrong and it falls into netizens’ hands, their fate is basically decided. Is it possible for them not to fear the internet?

Opposed: I must admit, when the internet is directly compared to traditional media, it has made it much harder to keep information secret. But thinking more deeply, of all the “crimes” committed by officials publicized by the police and the courts, how many were caught by netizens? Especially for high level officials and big corruption cases, [the internet has little effect…] Moreover, netizens are more prone to groundless accusation that leads to issues going unresolved.

In favor: But the internet has broadened the channel for supervision [of officials]. In the past, officials were very “packaged”; they were very careful when they appeared before the media, but now the internet has brought out the “demons and monsters”. On the internet, you are what you are. In the past, officials were used to being responsible to those above them, but now they’re realizing that with so many people watching from below, “little people” can determine their career prospects and fates. This will definitely move some officials to hold the people in higher esteem. In the case of cross provincial pursuits ((Refers to cases where officials try to arrest people in other provinces for things in internet posts, as I understand it anyway…)), because of the internet there were apologies [rather than arrests]. This shows that the internet can scare officials.

Opposed: According to Chinese law, officials are chosen by the people, so they should always have been holding the people in high esteem. That they go without fear shows that out system has degraded greatly, and that the internet is helping makes it clear that huge loopholes exist. In truth, those who are really scared are low-level people with connections to the masses, because it’s easier for them to be revealed by those they supervise. In the case of that study, the people most scared would be county-level officials, because they have no authority over the internet. If the counties could directly control it, would they still be afraid?

In favor: You can see, there’s also an irrational side to the internet. The people in the survey also mentioned it; in addition to fearing their mistakes be made public, officials fear even more being quoted out of context or having personal information placed on the net that can influence their personal lives and work.

Opposed: That’s a different issue, because if netizens post something that harms your lawful rights and interests online, you can sue. For officials and common people, personal information should be limited, that’s a fundamental standard for any civilized society. Now, because the internet has revealed a small amount of personal information about officials, they’re all scared? That’s not fear, that’s just being contentious. If you fear flaunting yourself in public, or contradicting the inner circle (of politicians), what kind of official are you? You’re given power so that you can deal with the people’s problems, not so that you can enjoy a life of comfort.

Closing thoughts: The internet has become a milestone invention for Chinese politics. But really, this is shameful. The internet has provided a way to supervise officials; however, if our laws (including the constitution) were enforced to the letter, we wouldn’t be clutching at straws hoping the internet can solve our problems. Considering that, saying that “officials fear the internet” is a very fake thesis.

So what do you think? Do officials fear the internet?

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0 thoughts on “Southern Weekend: Do Officials Really Fear the Internet?”

  1. Honestly? Methinks the powers to be in Beijing are gaming the print/radio/television media – as well as the blogging community – to see what type of responses can be had from around the provinces, and the expat community.

    As far as the population size and diversity of the survey – given that it is the People’s Daily, I would not surprised if the entire group surveyed was “card carrying faithful”. However, I would be shocked if the folks at the Daily disclose some basic demographics, such as age range and location within P.R. China.

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  2. If they weren’t so scared of it they wouldn’t censor it. Same with the traditional media. Chinese officials are cowards, which is why they made sure they would have a monopoly on power.

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  3. How come you say:”clutching straws… “I think Chinese Netizen are holding a increasing power to influence, remember the ATM machine guy, if not for the screaming of the Netizen, he would be in death road, instead now 8 years imprisonment. There are many more incidences of this kind.

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  4. There’s a basic logical fallacy in this argument that outcast alluded to and that the People’s Daily seems to be trying to promote.

    The Daily seems to be making it look as if massive changes via the internet have taken place and in response, officials are scared.

    Outcast pointed out that if they weren’t scared, they wouldn’t censor it to begin with. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the censorship was in response to an outpouring of discovery on the part of common citizens, when in fact, censorship has been there from the very beginning. The only difference is that kinks in the GFW are beginning to make themselves more and more apparent to the common Chinese.

    As far as I can see, there are two different questions that should be asked. The first has been asked: do Chinese officials fear the internet? The second seems to have been overlooked: have Chinese netizens heightened that fear or contributed to that fear’s inception? I would answer the latter with an unequivocal no, despite what qing said.

    Netizen outcry against unjust imprisonment resulting in slightly less unjust imprisonment doesn’t seem to warrant anyone saying “look, we’ve made progress!” when there is still rampant corruption at every level of government manifesting itself in innumerable forms.

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  5. There’s a photo of a privy somewhere in the PRC where a warning is painted on the wall in somewhat childish-looking characters: “Strictly forbidden to use Party newspapers and Party magazines as toilet paper.”

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