The Internet vs. China’s Many Emperors


The Internet appeared in China 20 years ago and was introduced to ordinary households 15 years ago. Today China has become an Internet giant with more netizens than any other country. In China, the central government was responsible for the rapid development of the Internet. As early as the 1990s, Jiang Zemin, whose educational background is in science and engineering, was keenly aware of the huge gap between China and Western developed countries in terms of science and technology, industrial production, and commercial trade. To narrow the gap, he knew China must draw support from the emerging Internet, a symbol of the transformation from the industrial age to the information age.

Twenty years have passed. The Internet is now playing an even greater role in political reform, social transformation, and civil education than it does in science and technology, industry, commerce, and trade. It’s gone beyond the expectations of the leaders who at first strongly encouraged and supported the development of Internet.

China’s economic development during the last 30 years of reform and opening-up has been a global miracle. However, at the same time, many countries of the world are also stunned by the problems resulting from lagging reforms to China’s political system: a stuffy government management mechanism, corruption, and a wealth gap. China’s leaders have spoken publicly about the problem of unwholesome tendencies in the Party and responded by demanding that Party members and leading cadres practice strict self-discipline.

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Nevertheless, China lacks public supervision of officials. With unlimited power in their hands, officials cannot be simply controlled by “self-discipline” and “rules and regulations” – this is true for every historical era and every country. No amount of “self-discipline” and “rules and regulation” can solve the problem.

In this sense, the Internet, which came up at exactly the right time, is God’s gift to China. In recent years, the Internet has become a significant stage for the general public to participate in the administration and discussion of state affairs, supervise government officials, and exercise their constitutional rights.

In the past 15 years, almost every step of progress in structural reforms and every positive change to society can be said to be closely related to the Internet. Most of this progress first took shape on the Internet. The abolition of unconstitutional laws after the case of Sun Zhigang in 2003, the exposure of the tainted milk powder case exposed in 2008, the case of Deng Yujiao in 2009 – there are too many examples to name them all.

People who pay close attention will also notice that Beijing has increasingly borrowed opinions from online writings when making its policies and decisions. More than once, I have found in top-level documents or in the speeches of government leaders content that was proposed or hotly discussed by netizens. Sometimes the ideas are strikingly similar. This suggests that to some extent, the central government is willing to listen to netizen opinions.

Of course, things aren’t that simple. In 2010, Lee Kuan Yew made a comment worth considering. He said that China does not have a single emperor – rather, every place in China has its own emperor. There are certainly reasons why Lee called Chinese government officials “emperors.” The current system means that officials are responsible only to their superiors; they never have to face the people. In addition, as these officials have almost limitless power, in some sense they are actually “emperors.” If the “emperors” can be self-disciplined, that’s lucky for the people. But if they’re not willing to be disciplined, or even disregard the law, the people have no recourse.

In recent years, as a civic consciousness has gradually taken shape in China, the contradictions between the general public and officials with absolute powers have become increasingly acute, causing small-scale riots each year.

So what role does the Internet plays in the nearly 100,000 such conflicts every year? Different people hold different viewpoints. As far as I am concerned, netizen opinions are beneficial – they give a release valve to backlogged popular discontents and help resolve problems. Meanwhile, netizen opinions also help supervise the officials and force them to restrain themselves, which to some degree, offsets the defect of a lack of supervision in our political system.

Before the current campaign began, netizens exposed just as many “flies” as the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection did. A voluntary online anti-corruption network is the best way to coordinate with anti-corruption punishments handed down by the central authorities. If Beijing is genuinely and sincerely resolved to fight corruption, there is no need to cast pearls before swine and demand that officials practice “self-discipline.” With the help of netizens, the central authorities can completely eradicate most corruption.

Almost all the “emperors” noticed by Lee Kuan Yew loathe the Internet. No wonder some officials look back nostalgically on the ‘good old days’ without the Internet. Actually this is not surprising — just look at how some of these officials were caught; it’s easy to see why these officials are terrified of the Internet.

The relatively free flow of information and freedom of speech on the Internet are never beloved by powerful officials. America’s “emperor,” President Barack Obama, is honest about this. When visiting China in 2009, he confessed to Chinese students, As president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn’t flow so freely because then I wouldn’t have to listen to people criticizing me all the time.”

But as the “emperor” of the U.S., Obama has no way to interfere with and prevent free speech on the Internet, even though he admitted that he’s not very fond of some of that speech. Obama’s own power is restricted. In addition, Americans know as clearly as Obama does that it would be absurd to depend on officials following rules and practicing “self-discipline” if there were no supervision of and restrictions on the powers of the ruler.

However, the “emperors” across China are another story. For years, I have followed and analyzed officials’ attacks on online free speech, including several horrible cases of tracking people across provinces, breaking down their doors, and arresting them. Why do they do such things? To serve the central government’s aim of safeguarding stability or merely to act out their own will? A large percentage of these incidents involve low-ranking local “emperors” who ignore the constitution, laws, and central regulations to further their own private ends or the interests of a certain group.

Beijing should pay more attention to the fact that these “emperors” seize opportunities to aim popular discontent at the central government even while trampling on the constitution and laws for their own private ends.

For example, a junior official famously scolded a journalist by asking, “Do you speak for the Party or the people?” The moment he said these words, the public’s anger was aroused against Beijing, even though this particular official was only concerned about himself (and thus was acting in opposition to the Party). But at that moment, he and the Party had the same interests. He attacked against the freedom of the press and the supervisory function of the media for his private gain, but it became an example of  the authorities in Beijing suppressing the freedom of the press.

Beijing should give deep thought to these issues. In the past several years, the general public feels that the situation online has become even worse. Why? Largely because of the local officials. Thus it turns out that in most provinces, netizens can discuss the country’s president but are forbidden from talking about their mayor or local Party secretary. As long as your post touches on local leaders, it will be deleted; if you post about a leader from another province, the provinces will just exchange information. These officials believe that they have hidden the truth from the masses, but they are actually covering China in a noxious cloud.

The rapid development of the Internet in China is unparalleled; after only 20 years China has over 600 million netizens. Naturally, there’s good and bad, making it necessary to clean up and organize the Internet. But the central government should manage the Internet through legal methods within the framework of the constitution and laws.

Furthermore, if the Internet of China needs fixing, the most urgent problem is the way popular discontents crowd every corner of the Internet because they have no other outlet. And the most urgent thing to “clean up” is the corruption exposed by netizens.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

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