Xi Jinping and Social Media: Harnessing the People’s Voice
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Xi Jinping and Social Media: Harnessing the People’s Voice


Last year, an article published in The Diplomat described Xi Jinping as China’s first social media president. At the time, Xi appeared to be using the internet as a means of social mobilization for his anti-corruption campaign by encouraging the public to continue exposing corrupt officials via the popular Chinese micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo. However, the power of Chinese censors was simultaneously increased while foreign media outlets were punished for critical stories about the wealth of Chinese officials. This paradox prompted David Cohen, the author, to exclaim that he was “honestly not entirely sure how to reconcile these two trends.”

The puzzle that Cohen described is explicable through the following lens: Xi’s support for social media is but one component of a larger media strategy to ensure that the CCP stays in power while at the same time shoring up his own political position within the party. This has become particularly important as China’s economy is slowing, corruption remains a problem and Xi needs to deliver on his ambitious promise to eradicate it at all levels. The manipulation of the masses for political ends is not unprecedented, and is in fact reminiscent of what Chinese leaders have done in the past whenever their policies required broad-based public support or their own position within the party had been tenuous. What’s newsworthy is the clever use of modern media technologies to achieve these goals.

Indeed, riding the wave of public sentiment against official corruption through social media platforms like Weibo has the advantage of defusing resentment toward the CPC at such a delicate moment. This may explain why Xi has framed the anti-corruption drive in much more appealing, colorful rhetoric than his predecessors, calling it a fight against “tigers and flies.” From the very start, it was apparent that repairing the party’s public image was an important goal of the anti-corruption drive. In admonishing local officials, Xi has said, “The style in which you work is no small matter.” Harnessing the power of public sentiment to discipline local officials, whose lavish lifestyles most visibly mock the rule of law, makes sound sense.

It also has practical use in widening the scope of the campaign to include important institutions such as the People’s Liberation Army, and to address corruption at high levels of government, where the campaign may become politically intractable. If there is resistance within the PLA, or if “tigers” like Zhou Yongkang are to face trial for corruption, Xi might indeed be glad for broad-based public support in the event of political fallout. The fact that others closely linked to Zhou have lost their party positions and have come under investigation signals to all associated with him that they are not safe.

Pitched battles amongst the political elite might well already be underway since the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Ministry of Supervision have investigated and punished up to 31 top officials since last year. The fact that the CPC publicly commented on Zhou’s rumored investigation in an unprecedented fashion in early March this year, stating that “anyone who violates the party’s discipline and the state law will be seriously investigated and punished, no matter who he is or how high ranking he is” is an example of how the savvy use of social media is but one dimension of the Xi administration’s overall media strategy to rejuvenate the party’s image and consolidate his leadership. The CPC pulled off a media coup when the South China Morning Post roundly concluded that the CPC’s unwritten rule that members of the Political Standing Committee can be exempted from investigation had come to an end, thus suggesting that Xi might indeed be making significant progress in establishing the rule of law.

Since late 2012, Xi has also attempted to increase his popularity through a full-scale public relations campaign that presents him as a “man of the people.” His Weibo account contains photo images that downplay his political heritage as a “princeling” by showing him working as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and as a low-ranking party cadre in the 1980s. More recently, unannounced public appearances have been a key part of this campaign. In late December, he sparked a social media frenzy with an unexpected visit to a local restaurant. Patrons reported that Xi stood in line to order, paid for his meal and ate and chatted with fellow restaurant goers. More recently, Xi made a surprise visit to a popular location in Beijing. Like the restaurant appearance, it also garnered much social media attention. Xi was praised for braving the smog-ridden Beijing air without a face mask. Reform from the top down requires convincing Chinese netizens that those who have stood to gain most from the current rules of the game are genuinely willing to change them.

Yet social media is a double-edged sword that needs to be wielded skillfully. Thus, in less than a year, there has been a significant effort to manage China’s netizens. Key moves include requiring users on micro-blogging sites like Weibo to use their real names and implementing the “five-strikes-and-out-rule” by which users who post “sensitive” materials are deleted. The social media crackdown reached its height when users became subject to potential arrest for posting “rumors” online. Although there is limited information about the content of the rumors, hundreds of users have in fact been arrested. This ambiguity has encouraged self-censorship and resulted in a dramatic decrease in Weibo use.

There has also been a surge in the number of Chinese netizens detained or arrested on charges like “gathering a crowd to disturb public order in a public place,” “illegal assembly,” and “inciting subversion to state power.” The most prominent victim of such recent crackdowns is Xu Zhiyong, a legal activist and co-founder of the New Citizens’ Movement. Sentenced in January to four years in prison on the grounds of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” Xu has played a central role in the grassroots call for greater transparency of officials’ assets. Xu’s case is interesting precisely because the movement’s calls to disclose the assets of government officials appear to be consistent with Xi’s anti-corruption efforts. The crackdown has prompted observers to lament the insincerity of Xi’s anti-corruption rhetoric and doubt the extent to which he will go to fulfill his promise of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

However, Xu’s approach is particularly problematic for the CPC for two reasons. First, Xu frames official corruption as a symptom of one-party rule and calls for systemic change. Such discourse highlights the fact that China has difficulty establishing the rule of law and eradicating corruption precisely because of one-party rule. Encouraging netizens to challenge the power of the CPC was not Xi’s intention in supporting a social media crusade against official corruption. Second, the New Citizen Movement was fast becoming more than just an online rant against the official abuses of power. Instead of helping to defuse resentment against the party, Xu’s online movement was moving to the streets precisely at a time when it was calculated that grassroots pressure could impress upon an incoming leadership the imperative of political liberalization. Moves to silence these calls demonstrates that Xi is not about to allow his endorsement of the social media campaign against official corruption widen his reform agenda and eventually bring down one-party rule, making him China’s Gorbachev. As Xi’s anti-corruption campaign progresses, he might well require broader public support. The seemingly inexplicable crackdown on activists like Xu can be explained by the fact that the New Citizen Movement constituted the kind of social mobilization with the potential to derail Xi’s plans to strengthen the party.

Yet, these crackdowns can cause deep disillusionment at the grassroots, undermining Xi’s media efforts to shore up the CPC’s legitimacy and consolidate his position within the party. Simultaneously crushing dissent and increasing popularity is a hard task. Social media is therefore an unwieldy sword that requires more than one or two simple “tricks,” as Cohen asserts, to make him an “exceptionally powerful president.” Indeed, social media is a battleground in and of itself where the state does not necessarily win just because it has a monopoly on violence or resources to shape public opinion. Inherent in Xi’s media strategy to harness the power of public opinion is the following danger: the masses do not always think what you want them to think and unintended outcomes do develop. Just as Mao lost control of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and Deng’s politically expedient support for the “counterrevolutionaries” of 1976 would come back to haunt him in 1989, Xi might well find that he will fail to tame the voices that call for a new political system that can guarantee the rule of law through the empowerment of the Chinese people.

Su-Mei Ooi is assistant professor of political science at Butler University. Brittanie Redd is a senior student at Butler University.

Kangmin Zheng
March 26, 2014 at 10:52

Xi’s education background is questionable. Bloomberg reported he and his families has 2+ billion net worth in oversea banks. Question for pro CCP supporters or wu mao: why were Chinese authorities quick to censor the report, blocking Bloomberg’s website from view on the mainland?

March 26, 2014 at 19:36

CCP’s leaders don’t need a good education or to be smart, just to be born into the right family and wealth. He is a princeling that inherited his position just like most of the CCP.

April 1, 2014 at 01:28

The fact that Xi has not been fooled by Obama indicates that he is smarter than Obama. Obama had the chance of being educated in a prestigious American university and joined the right political party at the right moment. He is a princeling that inherited the benefit of the civil right movement.

March 28, 2014 at 08:54

China don’t want to have an foreign institution to be involved in and to direct its internal governmental affairs and policies or let them spread bad information on the government that cannot be challenged or hold responsible for since the institution is in a foreign country. I hope you understand.

March 25, 2014 at 21:18

Again we’re reminded that china suffers from abysmally bad analysis of foreign affairs, especially of the US. Not merely the angry young men with computers that populate spaces like this, but journalists and academics who fall far below world standards of professionalism. I blame the censorship and top-down guidance that should be the main topic of this thread.

March 25, 2014 at 18:43

Cohen need not to be so deeply perplexed. It is called “maintaining social stability while encouraging responsible participation and inclusiveness.” This is a better way to initiate real change on the ground. What practical ends have the OWS Movement really achieved in the most touted US democracy? We need to move beyond the appearances and see the reality: A false sense of social activism and participation is quite different from limited, constructive participation in line with the national goals of development and progress. Finally, corruption in the US is systemic; hence the fallacy of an open society. The whole system of government in the US is corrupted, but, to call a spade a spade, you need to define what corruption is first. Countless research has been made on revolving door politics; high caliber donations achieving lucrative positions in the government and high caliber officials finding lucrative positions in private companies and use their residual power and influence to promote corporate interest. Therefore, maybe we need to maintain a degree of fairness by evaluating each social reality in their own particular historical contexts and never reach too early a conclusion.

March 26, 2014 at 05:45

Lets not split hairs, the wealthiest 50 politicans in the U.S have a combined wealth of 1.6 billion to the PRC’s 94.7 billion.

So a high level CCP member is roughly 60 times more wealthy than his U.S counterpart, even though his wages are many times lower. If that isn’t evidence of state led corruption and grossly uneven distribution of wealth then i don’t know what is. Xi himself has an impressive fortune of about 500 million which he aggressively censored when evidence of it came to light, he doesn’t want it known does he. Yes Xi is a real ‘man of the people’ isn’t he.

March 26, 2014 at 10:39

By the time of his term end, his wealth could be several billion dollars and his family could enjoy retirement in sunshine Florida.

March 26, 2014 at 18:56

Most of the CCP’s leaders have overseas passports (against the rules) and massive offshore accounts and property, send their children overseas for their education and spend much of their money on western luxury goods. And should the party fall then it’s leaders will simply take their wealth and move overseas. The west doesn’t have to rob China when it’s leaders are doing it for them.

March 23, 2014 at 20:36

Try these out:
- Five precepts of social media in the PRC:
Don’t think.
If you think, then don’t speak.
If you think and speak, then don’t write.
If you think, speak and write, then don’t post.
If you think, speak, write and post, then don’t be surprised.
- A frightened man came to a local police station in Guanzhou. “My computer-literate parrot has disappeared.” “That’s not the kind of case we handle. Go to the criminal police.” “Excuse me, of course I know that I must go to them. I am here just to tell you officially that I disagree with the parrot.”
- In a prison, two inmates are comparing notes. “What did they arrest you for?” asks the first. “Was it a political or common crime?” “Of course it was political. I’m a programmer. They summoned me to the district Party committee to fix the commenting system on their website. I looked and said, ‘Hey, the entire system needs to be replaced.’ So they gave me seven years.”
- Q: Which is more useful — newspapers or Weibo? A: Newspapers, of course. You can’t wrap herring in Weibo.

All four jokes were Russian Soviet-era. A couple word changes for each of them, and they’re relevant again.

Not to forget a meme that needs to be revived… In America, you make comments via social media. In the PRC, social media makes comments to you.

Manila Boy
March 24, 2014 at 00:08

That made me laugh!

The Chinese can’t have it both ways. If they dish it out, they have to be prepared to take it too.

March 24, 2014 at 03:01

Come on.

Why should Xi allow any organized public dissent unloading themselves on the streets nowadays, when the Reforms need to be pushed through AGAINST all kinds of resistance – be it from his CCP peers or the people?

Now, in this critical time where many painful changes must be made (remember, China is about to deflate her economic bubbles via painful short term sacrifices), public dissent resulting in paralyzing (and far too exploitable, for the West that is) street protest like in the Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela would be the last thing China would need at the moment.

Sure, you guys all hope for China’s crash to reassure your western superiority, but this just isnt realistic to expect the very careful and risk adverse CCP to ever make this mistake for your pleasure.

Xi is like a Meiji- or Prussian Stein-Hardenberg era reform emperor. Reforms are authoritarian in nature, and strictly top-down, while the public has to shut the hell up as long as these reforms are Work in Progress.

This is the best solution, as inevitable Chaos due to public anger about the short term negative consequences of the painful reforms will seriously derail all development of China.
And more censorship also protects against CIA attempts at inciting popular unrest like Beijing-Maidan 2.0.

March 23, 2014 at 20:25

Xi isnt China’s Gorbachev who would bring down one party rule, but Xi is rather China’s Meiji Emperor, who will strengthen the central power and push through top-down reforms.

March 23, 2014 at 20:40

Sounds like you don’t know anything about Meiji. For one, he was the first guy who cleaned things up and sent Japan on a new path after replacing a decrepit and sclerotic regime whose supporters didn’t hesitate to kill or persecute those advocating change.

March 24, 2014 at 02:50

Same as with Xi then. He also ‘kills off’ (possibly actually killing them) those who stand against reforms within the party and the decrepit and sclerotic local goverments and their enablers and backers populating Zhongnanhai.

March 24, 2014 at 08:47

Nope, not buying it. Under Meiji, the entire system was changed, including the introduction of an elected parliament, multi-party democracy, etc. Xi’s going the opposite direction, and seems to have no intention of changing the system at all. In fact, it doesn’t seem like Xi controls major parts of the state apparatus.

March 23, 2014 at 22:01

Top-down reforms are the shortest way to do the
Gorbachev somersault.

And no ones want to be the new Gorbachev, old Gorbi just manage to cut off large chunk of the old CCCP and throw his country into economic and social mayhem. Twenty years later, the new Russia still is the same paradigm of cronysm, backwardness and the anti western pole that the CCCP was, only much weaker.

They have still time to reform step by step. The success of Deng bottom up approach encourages this course of action.

March 24, 2014 at 10:21

The trouble with the bottom up approach is the bottom is now as powerful as the top in many instances, and in some, far more powerful.

The fight that Beijing has to keep relevant and useful is now confined to keeping the brand name on the front door and ceding just about everything else to local authority.

Mind you, now and then, Beijing can send down a Commissioner Lin to give orders for a bit, but that doesn’t last.

Manila Boy
March 23, 2014 at 16:47

I would have to agree with the previous commentor. From Black Monday, the tech bubble burst, to the recent global financial crisis: Wallstreet suits’ greed seriously weakens America every ten years. These white collar criminals are largely immune to prosecution, having bought the political establishment lock, stock and barrel. If not for them, America would not be backsliding in economic and military power.

March 24, 2014 at 00:52

Blame lies with politicians, not with private citizens.

March 21, 2014 at 02:25

To Su-Mei Ooi and Brittanie Redd: The authors should know that previous Chinese leaders did visit peasant in villagers occasionally to conduct their care-for-people approach. The Western media did report those visit because they consider them as Chinese propaganda. Now Xi is more popular with the Western media. So the media report Xi’s Chinese leaders’ traditional visits as something worth mentioning. The New Citizens’ Movement will certainly fail like its predecessor June 4th Movement and the Chinese Spring or Orange Movement. China will not allow any organizations to challenge its authority or direct its policy just like any other Foreign governments and to deny ordinary people, by disrupting the society, their right to conduct their normal daily life. Heads of corruption Chinese officials, high and low, have been falling while heads of America Waal Street financial scandal and America’s Middle East warmongers are free of persecution. What a ridiculous contrast!!

March 23, 2014 at 20:48

And BTW, ever heard of the London Whale, Bernie Madoff, the heads of Enron, Raj Rajaratnam… the list goes on. Nope? They’re all former finance industry bigwigs who all went to prison after fair and transparent trials.

The CPC punishes its own, and criminal trials are often pre-ordained (Bo Xi Lai, for example). Hardly a model that many media outside the PRC take seriously.

Why? Advocating for breathable air, toxic pollution cleanups or rivers that can be swum in are all punishable by years in prison.

March 25, 2014 at 18:50

Save your breath for Paris because they need to clean up their air more than Beijing does. If France, an industrialized developed nation, suffers from air pollution, then, it is perfectly expected for China, a developing nation with millions to elevate to middle class (and then beyond) status to have pollution. Of course you would wish China had never been industrialized and still suffer from pollution like India, your dear democracy, does today. Chinese government is more dialectical and historical than you think.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief