How the internet has changed China

Much research on the transformations in China’s media landscape is now available from communications scholars inside China. And while much of this research is overgeneralized (looking expansively at the impact of commercialization, for example), repetitive (the ubiquitous thesis paper looking quantitatively at “negative” coverage of China in the Western press) and ideological (failing to look critically at the role of the government or at its policies), it can often provide us with some good general bearings in looking at media change in China.

The following paper suffers from all of the aforementioned faults. There are thousands of other papers like it, all talking in general terms about the changes new media have brought to China’s traditional media landscape — and to the process of agenda setting, or yicheng shezhi (议程设置). It makes naive assumptions — because it must? — about shows of openness by Party and government leaders. Was the “eluding the cat” affair of 2009, in which a team of “internet users” was cobbled together to “investigate” a case of wrongful death, really a simple demonstration of the power of the internet and a gesture of official openness? Or was it a propaganda sideshow that nevertheless tells us how the internet can shape news stories and how the government deals with them?

For all of its problems and blind spots, however, this paper, published in the most recent issue of Today’s Mass Media — a magazine published by the Shaanxi Administration of Press and Publications — provides an informative look at how the mechanisms of public opinion in China have changed over the past ten years as a result of the internet and new media. [Frontpage Photo: Tiananmen Square in Beijing, by Marcusuke available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons attribution license.]

We have not translated with the latter sections of the paper, which deal with how the government can rise to the challenges of China’s changing media landscape and better “channel” public opinion.

The Development and Channeling of Chinese Online Public Opinion Over the Past Decade
Today’s Mass Media
Xie Wenya (谢文雅), People’s University of China
October 21, 2010

The sheer scale of online public opinion in our country is massive, and according to figures released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) the number of internet users in China has already surpassed 300 million. From People’s Daily Online’s set up of online forums in 1999 to oppose the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, to making a comprehensive surveys of major news stories in recent years, online media have been active participants, and they have manufactured public opinion through the selection of news reports, comments on the news, interactive blogs, news forums and other means. This [mechanism for] public opinion feedback and the [resulting] build up of the public sphere (公共领域) has reached a point where control authorities and all those concerned cannot possibly dismiss them.

Over the past ten years, online public opinion has passed through three stages of infancy (初生), development (发展) and expansion (壮大), and the [internet's] influence has thoroughly permeated [Chinese] life. The government has also groped its way through the process of online public opinion channeling in each major online public opinion incident occurring over the past ten years, resulting in the emergence of a relatively mature ideological framework and strategy for channeling [of online public opinion].

1. The Infancy Stage of Chinese Online Public Opinion: 1999-2002

It was in 1994 that our country officially connected comprehensively with the internet, and after this web’s influence entirely and profoundly seeped into people’s political, economic and cultural lives, becoming an important means and method for news media events. In the year 2000, our country’s internet technology entered the Web 1.0 era, which drove the development of internet technologies and began in earnest the [environment of] online public opinion. Peng Lan (彭兰), the scholar of online broadcasting, believes that May 9, 1999, when People’s Daily Online set up the Strong Nation Forum to organize resistance to the bombing on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade [by U.S.-led NATO forces] was a landmark moment for domestic websites in becoming platforms for the expression of public opinion. However, owing to limitations in internet technology and computer penetration, online public opinion had not yet been systematized and popularized. Only when major incidents happened, particularly major political events, did people turn to internet forums to express their own opinions. But language was routinely deleted or limited by forum managers, and so their influence was still relatively weak, and generally speaking this phase merely opened the curtain for the development of online public opinion [in China].

2. The Development of Online Public Opinion in China: 2003-2004

It was in 2003 that Chinese online public opinion developed to the point of real strength. In discussions surrounding the outbreak of SARS, the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case, the Liu Yong (刘涌) case, the Iraq War, the “BMW death case” (宝马车撞人案) and other major stories, online public opinion became an important pivotal force influencing the development of these cases. Some even dubbed 2003 “the year of online public opinion” (网络舆论年), a landmark year in which online public opinion moved out of the fringes and into the mainstream. From this point on online public opinion grew stronger, constituting a very lively sphere of public discourse (公共话语空间). Discourse also moved from more peripheral issues to more mainstream issues such as social development, national strengthening, social and political stability.

It was also in this year that online public opinion influenced the government and policy for the first time, becoming a monitor and check on government power and authority, promoting judicial fairness through immense public opinion pressure. This had landmark significance for online public opinion, and even for public opinion in a broader sense. As a result of the death of Sun Zhigang [and subsequent reporting and opinion] the system of detention and repatriation . . . was ushered into the past. The same year, the case surrounding [Shenzhen gang leader] Liu Yong was a force promoting reform of China’s judicial system. Forums were no longer merely virtual online communities, but were already vested with the real characteristics of a public sphere. China’s masses increasingly turned to the internet to express their demands, participate in social and political life, monitor government power and influence the public policies of the government. After 2003, as a relatively open public platform, the new media of which the internet was representative has an increasingly powerful influence in the areas of social discourse, administrative supervision (行政监督), and the framing of public opinion.

During this phase, one reason for the rapid development of online public opinion was lack of openness of government information, and restrictions and even outright blockades on information at its source, so that traditional media had no way of carrying out timely and effective propagation [of news and information], and the people meanwhile had an urgent demand to understand relevant information and make their views known. Under this situation, the internet came along to fill the space left unoccupied by traditional media, fulfilling the media role that society needed. As SARS was raging, for example, and the government clamped down on relevant information, traditional media remained silent under government pressure. In the midst of panic, people had no way of getting information through the normal channels and could only turn to the internet forums for information.

3. The Strengthening of Online Public Opinion: 2005-present

In recent years, Web 2.0 has become the bright point on the internet. Web 2.0 has first and foremost resolved the need for interpersonal communication, exchange, interaction and participation. It is vested with a strong autonomy (自主性) and flexibility (灵活性) . . . As [Professor] Yu Guoming (喻国明) has said, “As a new communications tool, Web 2.0 has given people an extreme degree of autonomy through the three characteristics of personalization (个性化), decentralization (去中心化) and information decision-making power (信息自主权)” [1]. Under Web 2.0, blogs, podcasts and other personal media (自媒体) have expanded the space for releasing information, expressing views and carrying on conversation. Many topics of discussion are now first raised in blogs and other personal media, and after heating up as topics through online interaction and taking on definite influence in terms of online public opinion are taken up by traditional media, which follow up with more in-depth reporting. Along with the development of blogs, podcasts and other personal media, ordinary members of the public can freely share information and express their views. Ordinary people can also break news stories (for example popular news), participate in the discussion of state affairs, and contribute policy ideas (for example through the Strong Nation Forum at People’s Daily Online). They can also promote various social activities online (such as boycotts of Carrefour, or anti-Japanese protests). Web 2.0 technologies have made personal media become a new force in the overall communications mix (传播格局), having a mutual effect with traditional media, and they have strongly promoted the development of online public opinion.

In this phase of development there is no denying that online public opinion has had a revolutionary impact on the traditional public opinion structure. This impact is evidenced first and foremost in the fact that online public opinion already constitutes a mainstream force in interactions between the government and the people. In 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) responded to the words of English web users at a news conference during the two meetings [of the National People's Congress and People's Political Consultative Congress] and expressed in a pragmatic gesture the importance the government placed on online public opinion and popular counsel. On June 20, 2008, President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) interacted directly with internet users on People’s Daily Online’s “Strong Nation Forum” during a tour of People’s Daily, thoroughly showing the priority our national leaders and government place on online public opinion, and closing the distance between the government, rights and the people. During the “eluding the cat” affair of 2009, the organizing by propaganda authorities in Yunnan of a team of internet users to investigative the case was an affirmation of the strength of online public opinion, and was a strong show of the government opening up government information.

Another sign of the influence [of online public opinion] is the effect it has had on the nature of news reporting [in China]. Under the traditional public opinion environment, the traditional media had the authority to set the public agenda and create public opinion. In terms of agenda setting and broadcast effectiveness, online media have impacted traditional news. In recent years, online media have interacted with traditional media, and have even set the agenda for traditional media. This interactive role of the internet has provided the traditional media with news sources, and the reports produced by traditional media on the basis of these sources is also amplified by means of dissemination and discussion via the internet, attaining or surpassing the anticipated level of influence.

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