China Power

Do Officials Fear Netizens?

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China Power

Do Officials Fear Netizens?

How much sway do Netizens have? Will Hillary Clinton back their right to speak out?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes another trip to Asia this month, with stops in Japan and South Korea sandwiching the main reason for the visit—the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The meetings were introduced last year, and offer a high-level forum for discussing a range of issues affecting the two countries. This year’s meeting takes place in Beijing on Monday and Tuesday, and it seems inevitable that the issue of China’s currency (the dialogue includes the US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) and the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran will feature high on the agenda.

One thing that will be interesting to see is whether Clinton broaches the issue of human rights. Clinton provoked some outrage back home after she said on her trip to the region last February that issues such as human rights couldn’t interfere with handling of the economic crisis, tackling climate change and security issues.

A strong critic of this stance is Christian Whiton, a former US State Department official and now a principal at DC Asia Advisory, who told me not long after Clinton’s visit that he felt the failure to press these issues represented a lack of strategic vision on the part of the Obama administration.

Fast forward almost a year and Whiton’s still not convinced the administration ‘gets it’ on China. Writing yesterday on a dialogue last week between Chinese officials and Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, Whiton wrote yesterday:

‘Posner, who runs the democracy and human rights bureau at the State Department, met with officials from Beijing on May 13 and 14 for the “U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue.” The forum was suspended for much of the previous administration because the Chinese government claimed its mere participation proved it took human rights seriously, even as the treatment of people within its borders worsened. Now Beijing has not only benefited from the veneer of legitimacy bestowed by the dialogue—it apparently has found a venue in which the U.S. conveniently flagellates itself.’

So will Clinton be bolder this time? With the worst of the financial crisis behind us, and with the Obama administration apparently more willing to push back against China in recent months (meeting the Dalai Lama, arms sale to Taiwan) critics of the administration’s approach on rights must be hoping so.

But on this question of rights, Clinton’s visit to China also takes in Shanghai for the Expo taking place there. The Chinese government has been keen to make the event appear a success, and issued orders through its Propaganda Department that the Expo should be covered positively by domestic media (although international media have reported visitor numbers are on the low side of what was hoped).

But while critical foreign media coverage is hard to stifle, it appears that Chinese officials are determined to throw their weight around with domestic critics, including a blogger who goes by the name ‘A Bad Friend’ and who had the audacity to outline what he saw as the 10 sins of the Expo.

For his temerity, according to Global Voices, A Bad Friend was hauled in front of the secret police and quizzed about his opinions of the Expo. The full transcript, as recalled by the blogger, are here. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the police were interested in seeing if there were any domestic groups tied to the criticism. However they had a somewhat novel take on the issue of human rights, arguing that criticism of the Expo infringed on others’ civil rights:

‘Secret Police: Our country also has free speech, but not absolute freedom. You cannot defame others and invade others’ rights, and you cannot leak national secrets.

[Blogger]: I don’t think there is anything called absolute freedom. Freedom is based on a country’s constitution. One cannot attack other people’s character and infringe other’s right. However, the president and the government should not be counted as individual, which means I can curse the U.S government outside the White House or criticize the government in front of T.V. Even though my criticism is invalid, I should not have legal responsibility.’

I asked Global Voices Lingua Director Leonard Chien whether he felt these kind of heavy-handed tactics were more or less common than they used to be. He said his feeling was that they had declined somewhat over the years as officials had wised up to the fact that coming down hard on netizens only leads to more bad publicity (A Bad Friend is certainly a little better known than he was before his so-called tea session talking to).

Of course this raises the question of how influential and troubling cyber criticism is to Chinese officials anyway, an issue tackled in an editorial debate from the Southern Weekend newspaper that followed a survey by the People’s Daily on the question of whether Chinese officials fear netizens.

According to a translation posted on China Digital Times, the writer was in two minds:

‘I must admit, when the internet is directly compared to traditional media, it has made it much harder to keep information secret. But thinking more deeply, of all the “crimes” committed by officials publicized by the police and the courts, how many were caught by netizens? Especially for high level officials and big corruption cases, [the internet has little effect…] Moreover, netizens are more prone to groundless accusation that leads to issues going unresolved.’

Whether the criticism of the Expo was groundless or not (and unfortunately for the Expo organisers, long lines and scuffles among the crowds trying to get in broadcast internationally speak a thousand blogged words), the secret police missed the memo about playing nicer with web critics.