China Power

Can China Control Social Media?

Recent Features

China Power

Can China Control Social Media?

China’s leaders have been playing up the dangers of anonymous micro-blogging. Are they making a mistake?

Chinese state media bid 2011 adieu with a steady drumbeat for name registration on Weibo, the most popular micro-blogging site. Countering false and harmful speech was put forward as a justification. Are Chinese netizens buying it, and what does such a policy mean for the growth of new media?

Netizens already appear hesitant to let their identities accompany their every post. Weibo’s stock price has dipped, possibly reflecting market trepidation over any restrictions. Beijing has responded by highlighting the glamor of joining the system, with newspapers publishing large photos of carefree celebrities at the front of the supposedly hip new name-registration wave. Editorial boards, meanwhile, have made it a daily priority, indicating the government knows it has a challenge before it.  

Without a knock-down case of social disarray caused by rumors, Beijing has been forced to play up the rather nebulous dangers of anonymous micro-blogging. Even this Global Times editorial opposing the real-name system grants that argument of rumors out of hand. Another Global Times op-ed, perhaps with a litigious Anglo-Saxon audience in mind, noted how tracking down and suing one’s libeler would be easier under the new system. After giving due space to the free speech argument, it delivers the abrupt conclusion “what the opponents of the real name system want is unrestricted and irresponsible speech.”

One Global Times piece in particular has the distinction of offering an example of malicious falsehood. It points to panic-buying of salt shortly after Japan’s nuclear disaster, a rush incited in part by salt-pushing wise guys. Now, no deaths were reported, nor did China’s salt distribution have any hiccups, judging from available media reports. The biggest victims, presumably, were those who bought a bag or fifty of salt too many. 

My local supermarket in Beijing seemed to handle this (phony) situation deftly – limiting customers to a couple of bags each. But that’s not the story. Crucially, within moments of hearing these rumors, students and savvy, agile netizens were on social networks refuting the salt-shortage hokum. Case closed. Social media played a part in debunking disinformation. 

Suppose, though, that social media hadn’t existed. Would state media have been on the case, getting the facts to the people in an authoritative voice? Let’s hope, but the worry remains that the widely-panned CCTV nightly news broadcast would’ve lumbered to the story, merely reporting the panic without refuting the rumor. If China has any visions of cultivating healthy quasi-democratic feedback-mechanisms through competent news outlets, there’s no sign of it here.

Nevertheless, the government is pushing the danger argument hard. The People’s Daily and Xinhua have recently run editorials with comparisons to drugs (among other vices), perhaps an allusion to widespread opium addiction the 19th century, which included Qing Dynasty bureaucrats. 

In a very simplified version of Chinese history, many would argue that drug addiction cost China its metallic wealth and assisted the British in gaining a foothold in the country, act one of China’s hundred years of humiliation (百年国耻). This partially explains China’s tough anti-drug laws. China has even executed foreigners convicted of smuggling drugs in recent years. Framed in this way, curbing internet anonymity is existentially important to the regime. No surprise Alibaba and Tencent have apparently been roped into the real name game as well. Look for more to follow.

I mentioned earlier the implications this has upon the growth of effective news gathering and distribution in China. The implementation of real-name registration policies shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, however. In fact, the reining in of new media has taken a two-pronged approach: proposing new regulations in the name of stopping rumors, as well as a deeper re-affirmation of Marxist notions of media as a tool of socialist progress. 

Hu Zhanfan, the new head of CCTV, recently proclaimed that journalists have misunderstood their role of government “mouthpiece,” failing to adhere to the “Marxist View of Journalism.”  His choice of words echoes the case of a 2009 People’s Daily reporter berated by Hubei Governor Li Hongzhong.  The reporter inquired about a controversial incident involving a hotel worker who mortally wounded a government official after he allegedly use violence to initiate sex. The reporter’s recorder was temporarily confiscated.

Resistance to these illiberal notions from institutions like universities has been muted.  All three Beijing-area journalism professors contacted for this article were unwilling to speak, citing pressure from above. One even claimed a major national daily paper called him seeking supportive comment.

Beijing might be miscalculating if it thinks it can control social media without dealing it a severe, perhaps mortal blow. Facebook clone Renren might continue to serve students without much controversy (that is, as long as they aren’t Tibetan, Uyghur or Mongolian, some of whom have logged-on during times of social unrest only to find their accounts locked and unusable).

Micro-blogging is different. Brevity and agility allows information to be distributed and consumed in a snap. Its popularity is undeniable, with user numbers more than quadrupling in the last twelve months. Given the sheer speed and volume of information it offers, China might just have no choice but to neutralize it and live to fight another day. 

Micro-blogging is primarily a means of social and political communication, but it’s also an indicator of societal discontent. Given that the latter won’t stop any time soon, netizens could move onto other means of communication, further from the controls of the state, like VPNs and other firewall-jumping technology that many Chinese currently find expensive or unnecessary. If that happens, Beijing will rue the day when it leveled a building block of a sturdy, modern civil society, relegating its more engaged and perceptive citizens to the internet’s more distant locales.

David Lundquist is a lecturer of philosophy at Tsinghua University.