There was a time, not so long ago, when any of us might have been persuaded that the internet had to transform China’s political landscape. The time has come to brush this misguided notion aside. No longer does the internet pose a viable threat to Communist Party rule. In fact, China’s leaders have embraced the web – and they are not letting go.
On March 1, as Premier Wen Jiabao participated in his first-ever online chat session with Chinese "web friends," we had another glimpse of just how far party leaders have come in their strategic thinking about the internet.
By any available measure, Wen’s web chat, which took place shortly before last month’s session of the National People’s Congress, was a stupendous success. More than 300,000 web users logged on to watch the two-hour session, and around 50,000 submitted questions, according to state media. The premier fielded questions on China’s response to the global financial crisis, job losses among migrant workers as a result of falling export demand, and even what his first thoughts were when a student threw a shoe at him during a recent visit to the UK.
But Wen’s online chat was hyped as much more than a crafty attempt to massage the Party’s public image. In coverage played across the country, the official China News Service declared that Wen Jiabao’s chat session had "unfurled before the public the vision of ‘internet democracy,’ this new form of democratic political expression."
One can imagine a breath of fresh hope sweeping through online chatrooms. The age of political deliberation had come. Communist Party leaders were finally listening to what they had to say.
Only it hadn’t. And they weren’t.
Such is the fairy tale of China’s "internet democracy" (wangluo minzhu). So long as the country’s "web friends" are seated before their computer screens, so long as they remain floating in a monitored digital world of aliases and hypotheticals, they can consider themselves virtually free. Should they begin to behave like citizens, engaging with ideas in the real world – well now, that would be a problem. But that, of course, is what real participation means.
In functioning democracies the idea of "e-democracy" has also emerged in recent years, and centers around the use of new technologies to better engage citizens in policy-making. But proponents understand as a matter of basic principle that this engagement cannot happen if participation is not first supported by open and transparent institutions. In a 2003 paper on "e-democracy," the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stressed that "the barriers to greater online citizen engagement in policy-making are cultural, organizational and constitutional, not technological."
The hope that technology itself might drive institutional change, or substitute for it, is woefully unrealistic. In a Chinese context, though, this is much more than a misguided notion. It is an epic distraction that Communist Party leaders support 100%.
Party leaders understand only too well that virtual liberty is neither a substitute nor a credible forerunner to political reform. Cute and cuddly though Wen may seem, his online session was not about greater openness or public participation. It had much more to do with the Party’s savvy manipulation and control of the internet.
The real news here was a deep shift in the Party’s approach to internet control and propaganda. And, my, how things have changed.
Eight years ago, as China scuttled into the new century, "internet democracy" was a baneful idea. It represented everything the hardliners feared – social instability, ethnic separatism, Westernization and the destruction of Chinese socialism. On July 18, 2000, an editorial in the official Guangming Daily gave us our very first glimpse of online democracy in a Chinese context as it railed against the so-called "hostile forces":
"Since economic reforms, our nation’s comprehensive national strength has grown, and our international standing has risen. Hostile forces in Western nations cannot stomach China’s growing strength and continued development. They have never ceased their campaign of ‘Westernization’ and ‘separatism’ against us, nor have they given up their conspiracy to bring about the collapse of Socialist China. With their support, enemy forces inside and outside China have united to deliberately carry out destructive activities to harm the security of our nation. Under the new circumstances, they have changed their methods, using so-called ‘online democracy’ … to mislead the people and create chaos."
Of course, China’s leaders remain cautious about the web, and there is no better illustration of this than the country’s complex system of controls – from old-fashioned propaganda restrictions to the so-called Great Firewall and tens of thousands of "internet commentators" and web police. But leaders no longer regard the internet with the same sense of foreboding, as though the Western specter of the "color revolution" would at any moment come galloping along the optical fibers.
The times have changed, and China’s tactics have changed along with them.
Change was already in the air back in January 2007, when President Hu Jintao said of the internet during a collective study session of the Politburo that leaders must seek to "develop it well, use it well and manage it well." Party leaders should not just be reactive, he suggested, shutting down problem sites and removing content. They should aggressively push their own messages, even making use of China’s newly vibrant commercial media environment. In a clear sign of things to come, the official news release of Hu’s policy was splashed across the top of China’s leading web portals – including NASDAQ-listed ones such as Sina and Sohu – for close to a week.
Later that year, Shen Baoxiang, a prominent professor at China’s Central Party School, wrote in the official Study Times journal that party leaders needed to "improve their ability to harness [the internet]." Yes, Shen also spoke about increasing transparency, but the approach was unilateral and fundamentally undemocratic, its focus on improving "guidance of public opinion." The public, in fact, were nothing more than a captive audience for what was to be a kind of political theater.
These gestures of "openness" are not about the gradual thawing of authoritarian power under the warming influence of technology. To the contrary, they are examples of what scholars He Baogang and Mark Warren last year termed "authoritarian deliberation." They offer us glimpses of how technology, far from being an inexorable bearer of glasnost, can be applied to revolutionize and stabilize authoritarian rule.
And so long as China’s web users continue to place their bets on the fairy tale of "internet democracy," China’s Party leaders will reap the rewards.