Listen to the citizens, and control them

Yang Yanyin (杨衍银), executive deputy secretary of the Working Committee of Central and State Organs, delivered a speech via People’s Daily Online on June 12 in which she explained how the party-state must both embrace media change and strengthen media controls — a seeming contradiction that is now at the heart of media policy in China.

Yang’s speech again shows us the delicate balance China’s leadership is now striking between encouraging new media development and limited public participation, and maintaining strategic control over information and public opinion. Part of this changing approach to controls — what we have termed “Control 2.0″ — is a new kind of reflexivity, what Rebecca MacKinnon has termed “networked authoritarianism.”

It is important to emphasize, however, that this reflexivity does not owe entirely to the growth of the internet and other new media — although these have been, and are increasingly, critical factors — but has traditionally been seen through such practices as “supervision by public opinion,” which has formed the policy basis for much investigative reporting in China since the late 1980s.

Readers should note in Yang’s speech the presence of two media control terms, the post-Tiananmen media control concept of “correct guidance of public opinion” and the relative newcomer, “channeling of public opinion,” which overtook “guidance” in March 2008 and came formally on the scene with Hu Jintao’s June 20, 2008, speech at People’s Daily.

The thrust of Yang Yanyin’s speech — and of President Hu Jintao’s media control approach — is that party-state leaders must “treat, use and control the media well” (善待, 善用, 善管). The responsiveness element can be glimpsed in the language about the need for leaders to use public opinion as it emerges on the internet to better understand the needs and demands of the people, and shape policy accordingly. There is also a mention of the “people’s right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to supervise,” the so-called “four rights” (四个权利) that Hu Jintao mentioned in his political report to the 17th National Party Congress in October 2007.

The “four rights” should not, of course, be taken at simple face value. So far, they have been realized predominantly through greater emphasis on the reporting of sudden-breaking news incidents in China, or tufa shijian (突发事件). While this in some sense represents greater openness, we should note that this “right” has so far been exercised mostly through state media, whose critical role in “channeling public opinion” President Hu emphasized in 2008. Meanwhile, there have been further moves to prevent in-depth reporting of news events, and investigative reporting has faced greater restrictions since 2004-2005.

Xinhua News Agency’s summary of Yang Yanyin’s remarks follow. Most of the direct control-related language can be found in the second report below, which is available in Chinese here.

The tension and contradiction between media control and the notion of factual reporting becomes clear in Yang’s statement that: “We must resolutely ensure the news principles of objectivity, impartiality, accuracy and timeliness, ensuring that new media uphold correct guidance of public opinion from start to finish.” News, in other words, must convey the facts — but those facts must be our facts.

ARTICLE ONE: 3 Aspects of New Media Use

Yang said that new media had become an important channel influencing the social lives and thought terns of the people, and that new media are also important resources and methods for “our party” to maintain its governance and leadership. As the most representative form of new media, [Yang said], the internet is rapidly becoming the means by which the CCP exercises scientific rule (科学执政), democratic rule (民主执政) and rule according to the law (依法执政). Party leaders must therefore work to accommodate these changes, recognizing the importance of new media and making the best possible use of its advantages.

The use of new media by party leaders can be summed up in three aspects, Yang said:

1. Treating the media well. The party must be tactful with interactions and contacts with the media. Leaders must not hide away [from the media] or spurn them. They must have an open attitude and treat the media as friends. They must listen to both positive and the negative views in the media, accepting supervision by the media and the public.

2. Using the media well. Using the media well encompasses many aspects. The internet has already become the largest-scale mass media, and much of the feelings and thoughts of the people are voiced online. Leaders can thoroughly utilize this far-reaching and rapid interactive platform to enable interactive conversations with netizens, actively responding to issues that concern them, explaining in real time things that trouble and confuse them, and helping them out of their difficulties. In the process of policy making, leaders can also use the internet to listen to citizens’ perspectives, and can work to strengthen citizen participation through such means as [online] public opinion polls, in this way gathering the knowledge and views of the people and ensuring democratic decision making.

At the same time, we can use the internet to obtain feedback in the process of policy implementation, thereby steadily improving our work. Leaders can also use the media to mobilize action and organize the people, particularly in the handling of certain sudden-breaking incidents, such as the earthquakes in Wenchuan and Yushu, during which our party and government successfully used the media to disseminate information, quickly rallying public sympathy and uniting the people in the disaster relief effort.

3. Controlling the media well. We must energetically support the development of new media, and also strengthen their management, ensuring management according to rule of law, scientific, regulated and effective management. We must resolutely ensure the news principles of objectivity, impartiality, accuracy and timeliness, ensuring that new media uphold correct guidance of public opinion from start to finish. This is extremely important. We must channel online public opinion in a timely manner, actively, quickly and effectively responding to the reasonable demands of the people, and avoiding online sensationalism.

ARTICLE TWO: 3 Aspects of Channeling

1. The CCP must use the internet to gather the knowledge of the people, raising the party’s capacity for scientific and democratic governance. The party must, by means of the internet, involve the people in politics, involve the people in [policy] planning, and learn the people’s demands (问政于民、问需于民、问计于民). Before making major policy decisions, the party and the government should seek the opinions of China’s internet masses, seriously dealing with the issues raised by internet users, keeping an open mind to the reasonable views of internet users, and actively guaranteeing the people’s right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to supervise . . .

2. Keeping a grasp on guidance of public opinion. This is also extremely important. [The party] must actively foster and develop new media. [It must] seek the principles of new media development. [It must] give full scope to the advantages of mainstream media. [It must] propagate the correct line, principles and policies of the party. [It must] grasp the discourse power in online public opinion. [It must] utilize the mainstream [party] media to capture the [strategic] position on the Web. [All of these will serve to] uphold and develop a correct, healthy and positive guidance of public opinion.

3. [The party must] channel hot points in society and dissolve social tensions. A number of hot topics are generally what internet users focus on and emphasize. Undeniably, hostile forces use the internet as a tool of infiltration, incitement and destruction against us, as was the case with the Urumqi riots of July 5 [2009], which were directed by Rebiya Kadeer‘s network by means of SMS messaging. Therefore, the party and government must deal sensitively with hot social topics, quickly grasping trends in society, issuing authoritative information, and explaining the truth and facts to the people, understanding public opinion, providing an outlet for popular feeling, and dissolving social tensions. This is also an important aspect of strengthening the party’s capacity for public opinion channeling.

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