WARNING: If you are not a fan of VERY long, badly-organized posts, you should probably leave right now.
Shanghai-based venture capitalist and Fudan doctoral candidate Eric Li has popped up a couple times in the past few weeks. First, he was here, debunking China “myths” in the New York Times, and then yesterday here in the Christian Science Monitor, debunking…well, anyone who is critical of China. I found this second article especially problematic. Let’s dive right in!
Two trains collided and 40 people died. The transportation accident seems to be riveting the Chinese nation and dominating its newspaper pages, TV screens, and the Internet. It has claimed prominent spaces in leading international media outlets.
All of a sudden, the entire Chinese political system seems to be on trial, its economic development model – with the high-speed rail project its latest symbol – discredited; the Chinese people are in an uproar; and Western commentators are again pronouncing a sea change that this time, with the overwhelming force of microblogs, will finally begin to bring down the Chinese miracle. One would imagine, at the very least, the trains would be totally empty.
Already we can see Mr. Li setting up a straw-man of sorts. The implication he’s making is that if China’s trains aren’t empty, this means that Chinese people aren’t really as dissatisfied as the internet would make it seem. Why? So that he can then say, “Look, Chinese people are riding the trains; therefore, no one is angry at the government.”
Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. First of all, no one would expect China’s trains to be empty; just the high speed ones. But even there, China’s need for some form of transportation is just too great for anything to stop people from taking the train. I’m sure high speed rail numbers are down following the crash, but the fact is that millions and millions of people still need to travel, and there simply aren’t enough regular trains or airplanes or buses to hold all of them.
In fact, I myself will be taking a high speed train in China in a couple weeks. Does this reflect my confidence in the Chinese government, or even my confidence in the Chinese rail system? No. What it reflects is that I need to get somewhere quickly and I can’t afford a plane ticket.
Yet again, reality is intervening.
The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line finished its first month of operation having carried five and a quarter million passengers – a number not in dispute. The percentage of capacity number is very much in dispute because of differing statistical models [my emphasis], but even the most conservative interpretations would have the trains half full. This is not shabby for such a large-scale project in its first month, during which a much publicized fatal accident occurred. In the rest of the regular rail system, where the accident actually happened, even the fiercest critics of the railway project are admitting that the trains are nearly full as usual.
First of all, given that the crash happened late on July 23rd, I don’t think that an examination of high-speed rail passenger statistics for July is going to be much indication of how the Chinese public has responded to the crash. But, as I said earlier, obviously people are riding trains in China, so whatever.
More interesting are the “differing statistical models” he mentions. Specifically, what he means is that the Railway Ministy counts a seat as being full as long as one person books on it at some point on a train trip. So if, for example, I take the train from Beijing to Shanghai, but I get off halfway. If no one replaces me, that seat is counted as having been at 100% capacity for the trip. If someone replaces me, the seat counts as 200% capacity. If a third person were to book that seat for another leg of the journey, it would count as 300%. This is how the Ministry was able to announce that the Beijing-Shanghai rail operated at 107% capacity this month ((Here’s a Chinese source for the haters: http://news.163.com/11/0801/19/7AD679J600014JB6.html )).
I’ll leave it to you whether “differing statistical models” is a fair way of categorizing the controversy there.
In the past decade, rapid growth of the Internet has created a digital public square, and its ferocity has become a unique phenomenon. While the vast majority of China’s 480 million netizens use the Internet for entertainment and commerce, a smaller group uses it to vent dissatisfaction about life, society, and the world. They express their most intense feelings about what they are most dissatisfied with in the loudest voices possible.
In the loudest voices possible? What does that even mean? Large fonts? The Chinese state media makes this same claim all the time — that “dissenters” are “drowning out” pro government voices on sites like Sina Weibo. But the fact is that the only way to “drown someone out” on Weibo is with numbers. There’s way to affect what posts other people see and no way to “amplify” your own posts. Dissenting opinions are “louder” on Weibo because, at the moment, most people on Weibo hold dissenting opinions.
If “the vast majority” of people were using Weibo to talk about entertainment and commerce, for example, how did the train crash remain that site’s most popular discussion topic for nine days? Certainly no one would deny that a great many of the comments about the accident were expressing dissatisfaction with the government. And it’s not like Sina, or anyone else, was censoring pro-government views. So how can we explain the tens of millions of Weibo posts about the crash? Were they all made by a select few people while “the vast majority” of China’s internet users took a nine-day holiday from using Weibo? That seems pretty unlikely, especially given the many user polls that were passed around on Weibo and racked up hundreds of thousands of responses in days (users can only vote once per poll).
Now, certainly, those polls are only indicative of “public opinion” to a point, as participants are self-selecting and Weibo users in general skew towards young, urban and educated; they’re not an accurate representation of China’s overall demographics. At the same time, though, they reach sample sizes that are absolutely massive compared to the relatively few scientific opinion polls that are conducted in China; and given that there’s no trustworthy recent (last six months) poll data that I’m aware of, we can’t totally discount the value of Weibo user polls.
The nature of the Internet is such that these sentiments [negative sentiments] are amplified and assume a semblance of dominance. Its manifestation is by definition partial but not holistic, extreme but not representative. Little wonder that any casual visitor to the Chinese digital public square would find a China filled with the most extreme expressions of populism and nationalism.
Really? That’s the “nature of the internet”? Negative sentiments about the government “are amplified” (by who? how?) and “become dominant”? Because when a few years ago when any Chinese post on politics was flooded with hundreds of comments about how the economy was doing better, China had the Olympics, and foreigners should shut up, was that not the internet?
I’m pretty sure it was, but if the “nature of the internet” amplifies negative sentiments (somehow) and makes them “dominant,” how is that possible?
The only reasonable conclusion is that the internet is a communication tool. Because it grants anonymity, it does tend to skew towards obnoxiousness and rudeness, but there is nothing inherent about the internet that reinforces a particular set of political beliefs.
Those who understand the nature of this medium would know that these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens, much less the population at large. When put into an objective analytical framework, it is, at best, but one of the barometers of public opinion, and certainly not the most significant. At worst it is what Foreign Policy magazine has recently termed the “People’s Republic of Rumors.”
Ah yes. Here we enter familiar territory; the old “if you disagree with me it is because you don’t understand” argument. Li wields it somewhat clumsily here and then moves on to reenforcing the idea that “these expressions, while legitimate, are far from reflecting the general views of average netizens.”
What, then, reflects the general views of average netizens, I wonder? Millions of negative comments on Weibo, negative train crash posts dominating all the major BBS forums and Chinese SNS…if these do not “reflect” the views of netizens then what, pray tell, does? Why should we discount these views that were expressed so widely and uniformly? Li doesn’t really offer an answer for that.
Instead, he enters into a long argument about how these views are advocated and promoted by the “pseudo-literati,” who are apparently frustrated that they are no longer governing the way they used to during imperial times, and that they have been replaced by ‘obviously more competent’ ((I am here paraphrasing something Li says on page 2 of his article, in the second paragraph.)) political and commercial technocrats.
Not being able to go into politics, many pseudo-literati have over the years gone to work in China’s highly fragmented media industry. In that, they found themselves even more frustrated. Their desire to influence politics is restrained and sometimes repressed by the political authority of the central government. Such is China’s political system.
In their frustration they have bought into the Western ideological notion that the media must be independent of political authority and has the moral responsibility to check the power of the state. Combining this ideological conversion with their feeling of lost entitlement to power, they have appointed themselves as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule. And they have found the partiality and extremism of the digital public square their most fertile soil. They have sought to interpret the venting of dissatisfaction on the digital public square as representative of the will of the people.
First of all, arguments about modern people’s motivations that begin with a comparison to imperial times are pretty much all total horseshit. Yes, Chinese people have a strong historical memory, but no one alive in China today makes their life decisions based on what they could have expected if they were living in the Qing Dynasty.
As far as the literati goes, a far more useful historical context for their “opposition” to the Chinese government might be the anti-Rightist campaigns (for example), since that’s something that some of them actually experienced and it would certainly be motivation enough to make anyone mad at the government for a long time.
But honestly, I don’t think that’s what’s happening either. In fact, I don’t think what Li’s saying is even happening. China’s media has not positioned itself in opposition to the government, and in fact, a large portion of it is the government. To return to the train crash story, for example, some of the harshest criticism of all came from CCTV. Now, I’m sure some educated liberals work at CCTV, but could it really be characterized as having “appointed [itself] as the rightful opposition to Communist Party rule”?
Moreover, while I’ll grant that the digital sphere is fertile ground for extremism and partisanship, that goes both ways. So if the “vast majority of netizens” are actually pro-government, as Li argued earlier in the piece, how have these disenfrancised literati managed to shut them up? Shouldn’t the “fertile ground” of the internet be nourishing their extremism and partisanship too?
Certainly, there are people in the media with an anti-government motive. I don’t deny that, although I think Li’s explanation of the cause of those motives is ridiculous. But Chinese netizens are not retarded puppets; the fact that negative opinion has become so prevalent on the net is a reaction to real-world conditions, not some kind of shadow media group that is manipulating the stupid public so it can return itself to the glory days of Imperial China. People — yes, real people — are critical of the government because of housing prices, inflation, and safety issues that affect their lives.
Again, Li does have a bit of a point mixed in there. The voices on the internet are not — necessarily — “the will of the people.” The thing is, they aren’t necessarily not “the will of the people” either. Just because an opinion is expressed on the internet doesn’t mean it’s confined there, and in fact, while it’s not as easily quantifiable, I’ve certainly seen plenty of these “internet” sentiments in evidence offline. Just after the crash, for example, I heard a colleague say into his phone with genuine shock in his voice, “You still trust the Communist Party?” This was not a dissident or some dissatisfied media liberal. Nor is it some idiot who would be easily swayed by peer pressure or media guidance. This was a well-educated, well-to-do guy working a good job at a promising tech company.
Now, he’s not necessarily representative of “the will of the people” either. In fact, “the will of the people” is kind of a dumb phrase for a nation of over a billion; there are just too many people to ever be able to really say they have one “will.” My point is that people outside of the (apparently biased) internet are sharing equally negative sentiments about the government on a daily basis, even in public. If Mr. Li wants to talk about “the will of the people”, he ought to at least offer some alternative measurement of it, but he really doesn’t. His argument that regular Chinese people aren’t dissatisfied because they’re still riding the trains ignores the economic and logistical realities that essentially guarantee people will be riding these trains regardless of how they feel about the Railway Ministry or the government. (Additionally, as I pointed out earlier, his statistics for that point are somewhat questionable anyway).
Also in the paragraphs quoted above is the popular notion that a free press is somehow incompatible with China. This argument is so common now that Li apparently feels no need to even attempt to support it, which is good, because it would be difficult to support. What makes a free press so incompatible with China? It’s certainly incompatible with the Chinese government’s wishes, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, I believe a free and independent press could work well under the current system, more or less.
The narrative of dissatisfaction isn’t real
We have indeed seen this movie many times before. The dissatisfaction expressed around the dislocations caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam was interpreted as a strong general opposition to the dam project itself. The Shanghai World Expo was attacked as a wasteful project unwelcome by the residents of Shanghai. One of their pieces of evidence was the loud expression of dissatisfaction many netizens expressed online about the construction chaos caused by the building of the large-scale Shanghai subway as a part of the Expo. They widely publicized the empty trains during the initial months of the new subway lines’ operation as proof.
But of course, any rider today will tell you that now one would have to squeeze into these trains every day – an interesting replay of what is being said about the high-speed railways.
Again, Li is confusing the fact that people use things they’re upset about some aspect of as evidence that they were never actually upset. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the US, for example, when the TSA introduced full-body scanners, many people were upset, but they kept flying. Why? Because they had to. The fact that they took planes doesn’t mean they weren’t angry at the TSA, it means they needed to get somewhere by plane.
He may be right about some people in the media using the empty trains as evidence of people’s anger, but he turns around and makes the exact same (foolish) assumption, just going in the opposite direction.
What is central to all this is that the pseudo-literati, in their effort to carve out a moral space for themselves in the Chinese political landscape, have taken the expressions in the digital public square and created an Orwellian 1984 of Chinese public opinion. They are writing in their newspapers and spreading through their microblogs a virtual and parallel reality of Chinese society.
This is where it becomes clear we’re definitely on the train to Crazytown. An “Orwellian 1984”? Ignoring for a moment the blinding irony (not to mention the redundancy), this isn’t actually true. Millions of regular people — not reporters or “pseudo literati” — were talking about the train crash (for example) or food scandals (for example) or inflation (for example) and complaining about the government. The media, both Chinese and foreign, may have overemphasized this in some cases — we’ll get to that later — but they did not make it up.
The narrative goes like this: The Chinese people are generally dissatisfied with the rapid economic development of the last 30 years; the benefits of speedy development are not worth the costs of its byproducts, namely the wealth gap and corruption, just as an accident discredits the entire infrastructure undertaking of the high-speed rail project. Every disaster, whether natural or due to human error, is proof that the current political system has lost the trust of the people.
No, that’s not how the narrative goes at all ((I’m talking about the narrative on Weibo here, there are number of narratives in foreign and domestic coverage depending on who you read)), and that’s the problem. Because Li is right. That narrative is a load of crap. But it’s also a figment of his imagination. Here’s what the actual narrative is: The Chinese people are generally satisfied with the rapid economic development of the last 30 years. The benefits of speedy development have generally outweighed the costs of its byproducts, but now that China has lifted millions out of poverty and is one of the world’s largest economies, it’s time to slow down a bit and start fixing some of those byproducts; namely the wealth gap and corruption. An accident doesn’t discredit the entire infrastructure undertaking of the high-speed rail project; quite the contrary, nearly everyone would agree that China should and can have high speed rail lines; what the accident does is indicate to people that the implementation of this infrastructure was too hasty and apparently not thorough enough. People are dissatisfied with that because they feel that in this, a period of relative stability, China should have and could have done better. Disasters, whether natural or due to human error, are not proof that the current political system has lost the trust of the people. But the government does lose trust when they handle the aftermath of a disaster poorly, and they seem to be making something of a habit of that.
And who is to represent the will of the people to overturn all this injustice? Of course it’s them, and the media is somehow ordained to lead this revolution. The opinion piece in the immediate aftermath of the accident by a respected commentator essentially repeats this storyline for Westerners in English.
Uh…what? Most of the pieces I’ve seen, in Chinese and English, say nothing about the “media”. If there’s going to be a revolution, everyone seems to think it will be led by Weibo. Yes, there are some reporters on Weibo, but it is not the media, just as it is not the government even though many government officials have Weibo accounts.
I’m not sure what opinion piece, specifically, Li is referring to, but the vasty majority of media reports I’ve seen on this topic have been about “the Weibo revolution”. The media isn’t really involved at all.
There are only two problems with this plan. One, the Chinese people don’t seem to be in on it. Just about every credible public-opinion survey points to strong satisfaction of the Chinese people with the rapid economic development that has been taking place, and they look to the future with unprecedented optimism. The pseudo-literati are loudly demanding a dramatic slowdown in GDP growth. If the Communist Party acceded to their demand, would the Chinese people tolerate that?
Just about every credible public-opinion survey….and how many is that exactly? There’s the PEW polls and, um…hmm. Of course, there isn’t a PEW poll (or any other credible poll) on this topic that’s recent enough to reflect public opinion following any of the high-profile issues that have cropped up in the past year, so I’m not sure how valuable any of those surveys really are. Beyond that, there are other questions, but I don’t want to get into that here — this post is already way too long. My point is, if the “narrative” Li laid out above really represented the narrative that’s presented in the press, then these surveys would be fair game. But that’s not really the popular narrative, and I’m not sure what a survey from two years ago can tell me about public response to social problems that have only really emerged in the past six months.
As for the “Slow down, China” mantra we’ve heard in the wake of the crash, it’s not a media invention. Hundreds of thousands of regular people — not “pseudo-literati” — were saying similar things on Weibo and offline in the week following the crash. Generally speaking, I don’t think Chinese people care much about the GDP in the abstract, and I think it’s unfair to assume Chinese people wouldn’t be willing to put up with slower growth and the effect that would have on their own lives in exchange for things like safer transportation and food and a more level playing ground for businesses (if corruption could be slowed).
Two, China is moving along a political trajectory that is uniquely suitable to its own cultural context and not following a Western model in which the media is an independent forth estate. China will never have its own Rupert Murdoch.
I don’t think I even need to comment on this; I addressed this same idea when it cropped up earlier in the piece.
The victims of this terrible train accident will be properly mourned and their families fairly compensated with respect and dignity. The cause of the accident must be thoroughly investigated and prevented for the future. The country will move on.
Yes, because nothing says “respect and dignity” quite like, “We’ll give you 100,000. Oh, uh, did we say 100,000? We meant 500,000. Still no? OK, fine, 900,000. And an extra 25,000 if you’ll sign fast and get your grieving ass out of our hair!” ((This is satire, not a direct quote, as far as I know.)) But I agree, China will move on.
This author predicts that, in a few years’ time, China’s high-speed railways will be transporting hundreds of millions of people and bringing enormous economic and social benefits to the Chinese people, just as the Three Gorges Dam is delivering much-needed electricity to tens of millions of ordinary families and Chinese industry, and the Shanghai subway built for the World Expo is providing efficiency and convenience to 20 million Shanghai residents.
I’m certain the railroad will be transporting hundreds of millions of people. And hopefully, as a result of the anger that followed this incident, the Railway Ministry will have been cowed into making it at least marginally safer. But I fail to see what that has to do with public opinion, or how the fact that in the future the trains will run successfully somehow means that what people are saying on Weibo or elsewhere now isn’t valid.
There is an old Chinese saying: The people are like water and the ruler is a ship on that water; water can carry the ship, water can overturn the ship. Chinese vox populi – that is the water. What is the vox populi saying? Those who seek to understand China and predict its future course should not misjudge the people’s voice. For those who rule China, misreading that voice carries greater peril than not reading it at all.
Wait, the people are the water? Or the people’s opinions are the water? And other people are misjudging the water? Misreading the water is more dangerous than ignoring it? I don’t see what this simile has to do with anything but I think there’s a law somewhere that says all China op-eds must end with an “old Chinese saying”, so I’ll let Li off the hook.
A better metaphor might be that the people are the water, and that public sentiment as it appears on Weibo is more like the waves. It may represent the real motion of the water, and it may not. There could be other currents underneath the waves that rulers can’t see from the boat. But that would be a very foolish reason to ignore the waves entirely.
Internet Public Opinion and the Vox Populi in China
So, now that I’ve spent 4,000 words tearing it apart, I’ll admit it: there is a good point underlying Li’s post. Specifically, the media (Chinese and foreign) is prone to over-emphasizing the importance of Weibo and other Chinese internet public opinion channels. Part of this — and I should note up front that I am as or more guilty of this than anyone — is laziness. Reporters can log on to Weibo and have a few punchy quotes picked out before lunchtime. They can search for exactly what they want, and moreover, it’s what their editors want. Social media is hot, the internet is hot, and people are clamoring for these stories, so there’s even some pressure on reporters to work this way.
That said, the reporting environment in China greatly exacerbates these factors by failing to reward, and in fact punishing, writers who attempt to collect public opinion by more traditional means. At best, they’ll find a lot of people not willing to talk to the press, at worst they may be met with harassment and even physical violence from whatever party their investigation threatens to damage. The same is true for their subjects, which makes interviewing anyone in China about political topics a bit dicey under even the best of conditions.
Another problem is that the lack of government transparency pushes people to other sources. This is especially true for members of the foreign press. China regularly complains that these reporters never tell China’s side of the story, but Chinese officials almost always refuse to speak to foreign reporters. I feel certain that most media outlets would prefer a quote from Wen Jiabao to a quote from some random Weibo user, but Chinese officials don’t tend to give interviews to foreign media outlets beyond the occasional press conference.
Anyway, regardless of the reasons, Li is right that Weibo and net public opinion in general gets over-emphasized (although I think the fact that Weibo gets over-emphasized is also over-emphasized). This is not only true when it’s negative opinions about the government that are being expressed, either. Remember all the scare stories in the Western press a few years ago when the Fifty Cents Party was in full blossom and nationalist posts were popping up everywhere? The importance of that was over-emphasized too, although something tells me Li probably didn’t write a piece on it.
That said, just because an opinion comes from the internet does not mean that it is invalid or not representative. In the case of the train crash, the feedback was so massive and so uniformly negative that it seems insane to dismiss it as meaningless just because it was typed on a website rather than shouted in the street. We can’t necessarily take any online trend as indicative of something larger until we’ve done a more thorough investigation, but nor can we dismiss it.
Moreover, in discussions of this we have to acknowledge that such an investigation would be exceedingly difficult in the current political environment. If I, for example, were to go around conducting a public opinion poll to support my claims about how Chinese people feel about government in the wake of the Wenzhou accident, how long do you think it would take for me to end up in a police station?
In some cases, we have to take what we can get. The internet is a flawed source of Chinese public opinion, but so are any other sources we might turn to. Moreover, the internet does offer a sample size that’s pretty impossible to compete with even for professional pollsters, and as China continues to develop, the demographic skews are evening out. We’re still a long ways away from the ‘net being a pure representation of all of Chinese society, but what we’ve got now is still useful to examine so long as we are aware of its flaws.