Here's something you don't see every day: the official voice of a one-party state embracing the power of social media to effect change. It's more surprising still when it comes less than a week after the passage of a law to strengthen control over the Chinese internet, which expanded the reach of rules that require users to provide their real names and that require service providers to engage in first-line censorship, and the evident expulsion of New York Times journalist Chris Buckley. Nonetheless, Xinhua (the official newswire) and the People's Daily have both weighed in with good things to say about the online anti-corruption drive: an editorial in Xinhua (Chinese link) spoke at length about the role of the public and the media in monitoring corruption, calling social media “a sharp weapon in the fight against corruption” and urging official investigators to keep pace with amateurs (however, also warning of the dangers of leaping to conclusions before a formal investigation). The People's Daily story (also Chinese) sought to defuse fears that the new law would discourage people from outing corrupt officials online – as the headline put it, “No harm to freedom of speech, no lessening of online anti-corruption drive.”
I'm honestly not entirely sure how to reconcile these two trends: on the one hand, expressions of approval for independent public and media oversight of officials, and on the other, the recent push to increase the power of Chinese censors, who are being given new tools to control online content while foreign media outlets are being punished for critical stories about the wealth of Chinese leaders – financial firms have reportedly been told not to buy Bloomberg terminals, while the New York Times is facing difficulty renewing visas for its staff (the foreign ministry is suggesting that Buckley may eventually receive his new visa, but the case is clearly not merely a bureaucratic delay).
But for the time being, it seems very clear that Xi Jinping is happy to allow social media to continue exposing corrupt officials. His pro-reform speeches and signals have encouraged the present mini-glasnost – which includes a significant uptick in the number of allegations of corruption emerging on Weibo, and prominent scholars petitioning for political reform for the first time since Charter 08. Xi has been experimenting with Weibo himself, allowing state media to live-tweet a recent routine visit to some villages in Hebei, with great success. He, or someone close to him, may even be maintaining a personal account. If Xi can keep this trick going, he stands to become an exceptionally powerful president. Online discontent is one of the primal fears of the Communist Party. If Xi's brand can defuse it, or even successfully exploit it, it will be very hard indeed for stability-minded officials to oppose his policies.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Nor does the anti-corruption drive necessarily run counter to the policy goals of China's leaders – on the contrary, reducing corruption among “grassroots-level officials” has been a longstanding aim of the Hu administration – one which even Hu seems to recognize that he has not achieved. The problem, most likely, is that online discussion about local corruption threatens to raise questions about the legitimacy of the entire party. It makes sense, then, to think that Chinese leaders might be willing to experiment with using social media to get a handle on local corruption, provided they have the tools to stop such hunts from going beyond their control.
In general, I think it is likely that signals from the top, including Xi's speeches and editorials in official outlets, will have greater influence over the behavior of the censorship apparatus than a new law. As the Financial Times pointed out, regulations about real-name registration and Internet Service Providers’ censorship date back to the earliest days of the internet in China, and it's by no means clear these will succeed.
Xi's anti-corruption gestures, by contrast, already seem to be making waves at local levels – if rumors are true, many lower-level officials are panicking – and I think that corruption will be a major issue this year. As I've argued before, when Chinese provincial officials set priorities they often rely on ambiguous agendas announced in major speeches as much as formal regulations – so at a minimum government officials will be on the lookout for sacrificial lambs. In this sense, how Xi and the senior CCP leadership handle the current controversy over Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen’s alternation of Southern Weekly’s New Year’s Greeting will be telling—for ordinary Chinese, foreigners and, most of all, party officials throughout the country.