Image credit: American Progress.
Writing in the Atlantic, Anka Lee and David Wertime argue that newly sworn-in US Secretary of State John Kerry ‘must listen to China’s social web‘.
That one of the authors of the piece is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation is perhaps unsurprising. Tea Leaf Nation has created a (deserved) name for itself for writing very good, very earnest examinations of things written on Weibo (and other social media). But Lee and Wertime fall into the common trap among western writers, even those who live in China, of attaching far too much importance to Weibo, both as a harbinger of greater free speech in China, or as something which is truly representative of the Chinese people.
If a Chinese op-ed writer were to suggest that Yang Jiechi, China’s current foreign minister, “must” listen to what Americans or Brits are saying on Twitter, they would be justifiably and mercilessly mocked. Yet, in their Atlantic piece, the authors argue:
In order to craft an appealing diplomatic message that reaches beyond the heights of Chinese bureaucracy, Secretary Kerry must elevate the role of China’s vibrant social media within the mix of American policy-making information. It must, at minimum, lie on equal footing with official meetings, intelligence assessments, “Track 2” dialogues, and academic exchanges. Only then can American officials begin to take a reliable reading of the Chinese public’s temperature on Beijing’s role in the world, China’s relationship with the United States, and Chinese peoples’ conceptions of their own rights and duties as citizens.
I agree that someone in the US state department should be paying attention to Weibo (as I’m sure they already do), but to say it should lie “on equal footing” with official meetings and dialogue with government ministers is absurd. The authors suggest, a tad facetiously, that Kerry could use “available English-language tools that specialize in tracking it” (eg Tea Leaf Nation) to take a sounding of Chinese public opinion via Weibo. This echoes other writers, such as the oft-quoted Michael Anti:
“This is the most internet-savvy government in the whole world. It’s not only about censorship,” said Anti. “In a country where there is no democracy it’s the best way to understand what people are really thinking.”
Chinese social media isn’t the rational, sanitised world that’s presented on Tea Leaf Nation and in the western press however. The authors, in extolling netizens’ outing of corrupt officials or expressing anti-government sentiment, ignore the fact that social media is often an echo chamber, even more so in China than on the uncensored western web.
The ability of netizens, and the much feared ‘human flesh search’, to bring down corrupt officials is one that is permitted and cultivated by the Party. Those caught by online sleuths are always low level, provincial officials. In disciplining them, the Party enforces its favourite narrative, that there may be corrupt officials, but the centre is pure. This is of course, crap. Corruption pervades all levels of Chinese politics, whether in Beijing or in Urumqi. In this way, social media acts as a 21st century version of the bureau of letters and calls. The government is able to be seen to respond to its citizens’ grievances (sometimes), and to wage a highly publicised “war on corruption”, without actually tackling the root causes. Complaining about corrupt low-level officials is not, as the authors claim, “crowd-sourced political activism”. The great firewall is good at one thing, and that is putting a stop to genuine crowd-sourced political activism before it has a chance to take hold, as the censors did during the Arab Spring and the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’, and as they (and their self-censoring accomplices at Sina and Tencent) continue to do daily, suppressing news of strikes and small scale protests which take place across China.
The authors also ignore the often xenophobic and virulently nationalistic tone of the Chinese web. They point to netizens calling for China to abandon North Korea following the DPRK’s latest nuclear belligerence as an example of the populace ignoring the Party line, but conveniently ignore the fact that those same netizens spent much of last year calling for China to go to war with Japan over some rocks in the South China Sea. Nor is online disapproval of North Korea wholly organic, it reflects a long-term, gradual policy shift in Beijing away from the DPRK, as can be seen by the numerous anti-DPRK editorials in state media.
Finally, the authors vastly overestimate both social media’s reach and its representativeness of the Chinese people. China has 546 million internet users (give or take a few million), of these, how many are active on social media? Sina claims to have over 500 million registered users, but of those its unlikely many more than 10 percent are actually active. If we’re generous, and say there are 100 million active users on Weibo (both Sina and Tencent), that amounts to just 7.6 percent of the total Chinese population. Beyond that, Chinese web users skew a lot younger than their counterparts in the west, the average age of a Chinese netizen is just 25, compared to 42 in America. Chinese social media may reflect opinion, but it’s not necessarily one held by the public.
I agree with Tech in Asia’s Charlie Custer that “Chinese society is better off with Weibo than without it”, but at the same time we mustn’t overestimate social media’s importance, nor should we underestimate the Communist Party’s ability to shape public opinion for its own purposes on any medium.