Grabbing the reins of “online political participation”

By David Bandurski — Is the Internet changing China? Yes, of course. But as we have tried to illustrate again and again at the China Media Project, the Internet is just one of a number of factors pushing change in China’s media landscape. And neither should change be understood in simplistic terms, as a forward charge into some luminous future.

CMP Director Qian Gang has used what he calls the “three C’s” — Control, Change and Chaos — to describe the dynamic factors at work in China’s media.

Three of the major forces of change in China’s media since the 1990s have been 1) the growth of the Internet, 2) advances in journalistic professionalism and 3) commercialization. Meanwhile, control of the media has remained an uncompromising priority of the CCP leadership, and methods of control have themselves undergone constant change and innovation.

The net result is a climate of chaos in which conscientious journalists may find ways to push the envelope in spite of the party’s determination to maintain “guidance.”

As a force of change in China, the Internet of course raises a whole host of issues for China’s leadership. One of the most urgent questions is the real and potential impact of the Internet on politics and governance. There are a lot of controversies in this boggy terrain, so I’ll just pose the issues as questions.

Is the Internet offering a new platform for political participation in China? Is the Internet holding officials more accountable to the public than they have been in the past? Can China develop and encourage a kind of “online democracy” in lieu of substantive institutional change?

As China grapples with these questions, we can see clearly at work once again the vectors of Control, Change and Chaos Qian Gang has spoken about.

In the piece translated below, published in a recent issue of China Development Observation and re-posted at the official website of China’s Xinhua News Agency, Wang Qingsong (王青松), an official from the Party School in the city of Fuzhou, writes about the challenges posed by what he calls “online political participation, or wangluo zhengzhi canyu (网络政治参与).

While Wang seems to recognize the importance, and inevitability, of greater public participation in political affairs via the Internet, regulating and controlling this new form of behavior is also an urgent priority.

He writes about the need for more laws governing the Internet. He emphasizes the primacy of “correct guidance of public opinion,” the CCP buzzword for information control. And he talks about the need to build stronger “commentary” teams to police public opinion on the web.

Roughly three-quarters of Wang’s piece on “online political participation” follows:

The Road to Regulated Development of Online Political Participation

In recent years, as the use of Internet technologies has become widespread and the political consciousness of Web users has grown, a new kind of political phenomenon has emerged in online space — online political participation. So-called online political participation can basically be understood as ordinary citizens using legal channels to influence government decision-making or public management activities in online environments.

The means of online political participation are various, including online election, online petitioning [or letters and calls], online public opinion, online monitoring, etc. Owing to ease of access, low cost, strong influence and interactivity, online political participation has lately received more and more attention from leaders at the top all the way down to ordinary people below. Up to now, online political participation has already become an important channel by which the party and government learn of public feelings, understand public opinion, listen to the voices of the people and gather the wisdom of the people. It is also an effective channel by which ordinary people can carry out social monitoring (社会监督), protect their rights and interests and voice their wishes.

But online political participation is still in the early stages of development in China, and a number of problems have emerged in the process. These include problems of insufficient legality and legitimacy, disorderliness, lack of [broad] representativeness [of opinions expressed] and irrationality. In addition, in guiding and using [online opinion], governments have responded weakly, have channeled [public opinion] in an inconsistent manner, have failed to perfect mechanisms [for the handling of online public opinion], and technological platforms lag behind. Therefore, there is a need for urgent research into how online political participation can develop in a more regulated fashion.

Regulating Online Political Participation by Improving Systems and Mechanisms

1. Building adequate systems and mechanisms in order to systematize and regularize online political participation

According to constructivism (建构主义), [the theory of epistemology], things exists as social constructs. Currently, China has constructed a relatively complete system for participation in immediate political life. The Internet has already developed from its early stages as [a platform for] information exchange and resource sharing to [a platform] concerning interests, rights and power on a political level. Its influence on the nature of political life grows deeper by the day, and the phenomenon of politics in the Internet sphere can be ignored by no one.

Judging from the current state of online political participation, we are both practically and theoretically at the exploration stage. We still do not have mature systems and mechanisms for defining online political participation, for determining the subject and object of online political participation, or for identifying the most effective means of online political participation. Looking at actual undertakings of online political participation in various regions, we see that development is uneven. Coastal areas are ahead of mountainous inland areas, and the cities are ahead of the countryside. In coastal cities with more developed economies, online political participation consists largely of platforms to test popular opinion and to meet demands essential to popular interests (提供一些必要利益诉求), but there has not yet been any clear direction as to what governments or other official offices must do [in the way of facilitating participation]. It has therefore been hard to ensure that those Web users who seek to defend their rights and interests and express their will can exercise their legitimate rights.

As the number of Web users [in China] has grown and political consciousness has risen, the influence of online political participation on actual politics has become broader and deeper. There is an urgent need, therefore, to better systematize and regulate the behavior of online political participation. The strengthening and building of external institutions to preserve the normal and healthy development of online political participation may be considered within the our nation’s existing political system, in light of present realities . . . and on the basis of internal institutions.

2. Working to optimize operational mechanisms for the routine exercise of online political participatory behavior

If we only build and improve institutions for online political participation on a macro level, this will not be sufficient to ensure that online political participation will be exercised in an orderly manner. In order that online political participation develops in a healthy, regularized and orderly manner, [the party] must exercise effective monitoring, control and guidance [or channeling] of online political participatory actions . . . This article argues that [the party] can work in the following three areas: 1) [We must] be clear about the subjects and objects of online political participation and their interrelationships; 2) [We must] identify the effective forms of online political participation; 3) [We must] establish what specific duties are incumbent on the government in the process of guiding and developing the process of online political participation.

Strengthening Internet Laws, Preserving an Orderly Online Space

The regularized development and reasonable exercise of online political participation is inseparable from [the issue of[ a favorable Internet environment. Of late, such extremes as "online trial" (网络审判), "online violence" (网络暴力) and "human flesh searches" (人肉搜索) have emerged in the online space. These can be seen to be related to the absence of relevant laws on the use and monitoring of the Internet, which is disadvantageous to the normal and reasonable exercise of online political participation. "A democratic society must needs be a social ruled by law, and rule of law is an important protection and marker of democracy." [NOTE: This quote is from Zhao Zhenjiang's (赵震江) Forty Years of Rule of Law in China: 1949-1989, 中国法制四十年: 1949—1989, Peking University Press, 1990, pg. 124]. Therefore, we must strengthen laws dealing with the Internet, making sure there are laws to go by and rules to follow.

1. Strengthening the scientific creation of laws

Our nation’s socialist legal system comprises laws, administrative regulations and local decrees or rules . . . Laws are a manifestation of the national will, and they are meant principally to maintain order, and after this to coordinate benefits, and to ensure equity and freedom . . . And so, in order to clean up the online sphere and regulate online political participation, [the party] must strengthen laws pertaining to the Internet. Facing the task of making Internet-related laws necessitates hard research into the state of the Internet, its characteristics and the principles of its development. At the same time, in the process of making such laws, drafts of laws and regulations should be made available to the public through various major news media so that the opinions of society can be sought and the law-making process be more scientific.

2. Promoting democratic law-making

Democratic law-making essentially means protecting and realizing people’s democracy, thoroughly expressing the interest demands and will of the people through the framework of democracy and rule of law, and turning these into an expression of national will through the law-making process . . . [The author writes about the need to educate the public on legal matters and increase the transparency of the law-making process, etc.].

Building Online Propaganda Teams, Prioritizing Active Guidance of Online Public Opinion

1. Strengthening the building of online propaganda teams to ensure the active power of correct guidance of public opinion

The 2004 CCP Decision on Strengthening the Building of the Party’s Leadership Capacity made clear demands concerning the establishment of online propaganda teams, saying: “[We must] pay great attention to the influence the Internet and other newly emerging forms of media are having on public opinion. [The party must] accelerate the building of a control mechanism comprising laws and regulations, administrative oversight, industry self-discipline and technology-based measures. [We must] strengthen the building of Internet propaganda teams (互联网宣传队伍建设), so that positive public opinion has the upper hand on the Internet.

In March 2005, the propaganda department of the Fuzhou Municipal Committee became the first in the province to form its own team of online news commentators (网络阅评员队伍). [NOTE: These are paid Internet monitors with party propaganda offices who are active online in disseminating the party's message and watching for potential flash points on the Web. They are just one part of the larger phenomenon of for-hire Web censors that have been referred to colloquially in China as "fifty-centers" or members of the "50-cent Party". "Internet news commentators", or wangluo yuepingyuan, can be seen as the Internet equivalent of the News Commentary Groups operated by the Central Propaganda Department and local propaganda offices, which have traditionally been a post-facto form of media control to complement the prior controls, including media "self-discipline", that form the bulk of China's media control regime. "Internet commentators," or wangluo pinglunyuan, do not necessarily have relationships with propaganda offices.]. This was an operating mechanism whereby Internet commentators were charged with actively monitoring online information, actively reporting unfavorable information that perverted the truth, damaged a civilized online environment, did harm to the image of the party or government, or hurt social stability and national unity, and also using accurate theoretical frameworks and objective and positive information to redress [errors] and channel [public opinion]. Experience has shown that such teams can effectively ensure the correct guidance of online public opinion, and help the masses of Web users rationally discriminate information in the online public opinion sphere.

2. Raising the information literacy/quality of Internet commentators, fully utilizing them as an active component

“Information quality” or “information literacy” refers to an individual’s understanding of the value of information and their ability to obtain, use and create information. It is revealed in the [individual's] ability to handle and use information technologies. The measure of a person’s information literacy is not the volume of information in their hands but rather the strength or weakness of his ability to handle or use information. According to their obligations, as workers for the positive channeling of online public opinion, [Internet commentators] must actively raise their own information literacy, holding themselves to strict standards, enhancing their political sensitivity, improving their scientific and cultural understanding, raising their knowledge of [party and government] policies, serving as courageous advocates [of the party and government], and raising the speed of their response to public opinion and information. Only in this way can [Internet commentators] clearly distinguish between right and wrong at the crucial moment, effectively utilizing the active role of propaganda and public opinion channeling.

3. Building Internet news commentary teams, breaking through the individual propaganda mode

The present Internet news commentator system is essentially in the exploratory stage, and we must continue to learn from our experiences . . . Therefore, we must accelerate the building of our Internet news commentator system, ensuring at the institutional level that the work of Internet news commentary is carried out smoothly. At the same time, we must strengthen the organization and management of Internet news commentators, raising their zeal by means of adequate pay and conditions, regularly organizing group training sessions for news commentators, helping them understand relevant [party and government] policies, and raising their consciousness of their political responsibilities and their capacity for commentary work . . .

. . . .

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 12, 2010, 2:38pm HK]

[Frontpage image by NinJa999 available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

One Comment to “Grabbing the reins of “online political participation””

  1. [...] Grabbing the Reins of “Online Political Participation” [...]

Leave a Comment