Will China’s Internet Finally Open to the World?


At the recent World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen City, Zhejiang Province, located in southern China, Lu Wei, China’s Chairman of State Internet Information Office and the Vice-Chairman of State Council Information Office, cheerfully told representatives from nearly 100 countries and regions that China had successfully realized the “3CtoCs” in global Internet development, that is, “come to China,” “come to the consumer,” and “come to consensus.” In reality, however, it is only consensus in accordance with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party that survives.

For a long time, Chinese liberal-minded intellectuals and university professors have dominated the public sphere, both online and offline, in China. But now, the Party is proactively pushing to win back its agenda-setting and opinion-molding roles among its people and in the broader international arena.

On November 14, the Liaoning Daily, the official newspaper of the Liaoning Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, published a front-page editorial titled “Teachers, Please Do Not Talk About China In This Way,” criticizing the content – and the way – that Chinese university professors teach.

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“Some teachers just don’t take the ideological and political theory courses seriously. They inappropriately compare Mao Zedong to ancient emperors and dismiss the Party’s innovative theories. Some tout Western ideas of ‘separation of powers’ and think that China should take a Western development path,” wrote the newspaper.

According to the Liaoning Daily, its reporters “went to five universities in Shenyang, Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou and audited almost 100 courses” over half a month and took notes totaling more than 130,000 words. Based on these notes, the reporters came up with the “three problems” outlined in its four-page open letter, accusing university professors of lacking a “sense of approval for theory,” “sense of approval for politics,” and “sense of approval for sentiments” when discussing China in class.

While the article was not picked up by commercial media and mainstream news websites until a day later, Beijing-based state media were quick to echo the Liaoning Daily.

On the same day, Chinese Youth Net, a Party-led news website, published a commentary written by Guo Ping: “The more you love someone, the harsher you should be with them. There have been many people fighting for our motherland’s future and fate since ancient times. However, those who criticize China whenever they can in university classes are clearly not among them.”

“(What Liaoning Daily found) is astounding.” remarked Guo Ping, “Never should you dismiss your love for your motherland or create a contentious sentiment between state and society.”

Since July this year, “Guo Ping” has published a number of commentaries on the official websites of the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and other state and party media. According to one news analysis, “Guo Ping” might stand for “state commentary,” a Chinese phrase with the same pronunciation as that of the name Guo Ping. “His articles are highly relevant topics netizens are interested in. The phrase ‘Guo Ping’ may mean that these articles are written by the State Council Information Office and its affiliated offices.” In the following days, the Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily also joined the online camp supporting the Liaoning Daily.

While some Chinese intellectuals see this open letter and its chain reaction as an alarming signal of potential interference with education by the Party, others maintain that the Party is aiming at something bigger.

For a long time, state and party media have avoided mentioning “Wu Mao,” aka the “Fifty-Cent Party,” a group paid by the government to sway online opinion by posting comments in defense of the government, and the “Zi Gan Wu,” who do so voluntarily without pay. Right after the Liaoning Daily’s open letter, the Guangming Daily, often considered one of the mouthpieces of the Party and the paper responsible for publishing the famous “Practice is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth” in 1978 and leading the “debate on truth” within China, ran an article that some might consider unprecedented given that it is the first time party media have publicly acknowledged the online buzzword “Zi Gan Wu.”

The article, which made clear its stance from the very title “’Zi Gan Wu’ is a firm practitioner of socialism’s core values,” spoke highly of the group. “They speak from facts. They refute rumors about China rationally and objectively. They are able to present evidence and be tolerant with debaters; this is fundamentally different from those so-called ‘public intellectuals’ and ‘elites’ who sarcastically speak ill of the government and society,” the article stated. Days later, the Chinese Communist Party News website, the Wenming website, managed by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, and a number of other state media all published online articles praising “Zi Gan Wu.”

“The government has been trying to win back opinion-molding power.” Song Zhibiao, a liberal columnist wrote, “This time, they are pushing to dominate public opinion in traditional and online venues, with the help of the police system and juridical forces. They suppress other opinion leaders’ ability to set the agenda on social media until they make sure they have a strong say on these platforms.” One commentator observed, “My impression from reading recent messages on Weibo is that the opinion cleavage in the ideological field has continued raging on.”

While the Party is taking more proactive actions in the public opinion battlefield, the idea of managing cyberspace according to its agenda is nothing new. In June 2010, the Chinese government published a white paper called “The Internet in China.” In this 31-page document, it introduced the concept of the “Internet sovereignty of China,” which means that “within Chinese territory the Internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty.”

In his opening remarks at the World Internet Conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised that “The fruit of Internet development will benefit China’s 1.3 billion people and China is willing to establish a ‘multilateral, democratic, and transparent international cyberspace management system.’”

The fruit, however, may be one that is selected before it is delivered to the people.

Formally a journalist and news editor based in China, Lotus Yang Ruan is pursuing her Master’s degree in Asia Pacific policy studies at the University of British Columbia with her main research interest the Greater China Region.

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