What government microblogs do (and don’t) mean

What government microblogs do (and don’t) mean
What government microblogs do (and don’t) mean
Posted on 2011-05-23

Back in May 2010, when Guangdong province had just opened up the first Public Security Bureau [police] microblog in the whole country, I wrote a piece called “Three Recommendations for Government Microblogs” and talked about three principles I thought government offices should abide by to properly make use of microblogs. The first was, “face comments head on” (直面评论), which I meant to deal with the way some prefectural-level police departments were limiting comment functions purely out of fear once their microblogs were up and running. Second, dealing with the way some police microblogs were too thick with official jargon or propaganda, I offered the “please speak human language” (请讲人话) principle. Third, I emphasized that actions speak louder than words, and said that if [the government] made much of this so-called “microblog-based policy discussion” (微博问政), then it was crucial that questions be answered once they were asked — they must implement and follow through on the principle of “results above all else” (结果为上).

The results of a recent online study by The Beijing News on the topic, “What change can the trend of official microblogs bring?” suggested that these three principles are of real concern to web users.

For example, to the question “What change can the trend of official microblogs bring?”, 46 percent of those surveyed selected the response option saying microblogs could help officials “learn how to speak properly” (学会好好说话) — meaning microblogs could help them discard official-speak and pre-packaged Party jargon and speak like human beings. 45.7 percent of people responded that opening microblogs would mean “mostly putting on shows, with little real influence.” 36.8 percent believed government microblogs generally were “only set-up, but did not allow comments or interaction, so mean little.”

Certainly, what is the purpose of participating in an interactive medium if you don’t want to interact?

62.5 percent of those surveyed said microblogs “could advance interaction and conversation between the government and the people.” This suggests many believe the biggest impact of government microblogs could potentially come in busting through the barriers between the government and the public.

Looking at responses to another survey question, we can get a better grasp of the general environment for microblogs and the hopes people have vested in them. This was the question, “What do believe is the cause of upward trend in official microblogs?” 64.7 percent of those surveyed responded: “With advances in technology, methods for improving governance have come along.” 59 percent responded: “Through microblogs, [officials] can get to know real information about the people.”

These reasons are fair enough, but they don’t go far enough. Even if both the government and the people believe microblogs might enable two-way communication, the internet might ultimately become little more than a stage on which officials can strut their stuff if our understanding of the political role of microblogs stops there.

The use of the internet by officials must be understood on a higher plane of national political culture, and must go beyond the simple “asking after plans and policies” (问计求策) at the local government level.

In fact, the vast majority of officials still see so-called “online discussion of politics” (网络问政) as a new channel and method for obtaining information and exercising social surveillance. Just ahead of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2010, the People’s Daily interviewed 97 NPC delegates under the theme of “How NPC delegates view new media,” and they said there were two principal purposes they saw for using the internet. The first was “using the web as a means of gathering the feelings and opinions of the people, and carrying out research [or observing public opinion].” The second was “thoroughly using e-mail, blogs, microblogs and other new media to strengthen communication and mutual interaction with the masses.” The People’s Daily went so far as to say that “the new media of which the internet is representative have opened up a 24-hour channel for public opinion.”

The problem is that observing public opinion and communicating with the people is not what is meant politically by “democracy.” After all, the gathering up of online public opinion and the exercise of online monitoring [of affairs, by either the public or the government] is not the same thing as having a democratic system.

The online discussion of politics (网络问政) and democratic politics are two separate things. And online discussion of politics will not automatically eliminate the difficulties in communication that we see in our politics today. Many people talk about the discussion of politics as though it’s enough for government officials to hear what people have to say. This is why most of what we have termed “online discussion of politics” has typically been about the “hearing” stage, basically online mailboxes (where you can write in to government officials), online reporting (where you can write in to report abuses), etcetera, which can easily become a one-way street that is more about government officials scoring political points for apparent responsiveness than actually responding to public concerns.

Now that the government, formally speaking, belongs to the taxpayers, it is only right that the government should do its best to understand social conditions and public opinion. This means there is no reason to shower the government with praise for its efforts to use the internet to understand public opinion. Only real solutions to real problems are cause for dishing out praise.

A version of this editorial originally appeared in Chinese at
The Beijing News.

12 Comments to “What government microblogs do (and don’t) mean”

  1. ltlee says:

    @jim
    I don’t think anyone is “mixing up systems of law and systems of politics.”
    First of all, Mr Hu was commingling blogging with surveillance. And then the other poster used the NSA as the example showing surveillance could be anti-democratic. These led me to raise the question on whether blogging which is a way of surveillance could be anti-democratic to the extend that it is illegal.
    Concerning the efficacy government microblogging as a democratic tool. I agree with you. But one can make similar comments about every democratic tool including voting.
    Anyway, Mr Hu’s article reminds the following written by another Mr Hu.
    “尝试成功自古无”,放翁这话未必是。我今为下一转语:自古成功在尝试。”
    A government’s effort to try does not mean it will succeed. If Mr Hu’s was writing with the latter spirit, I agree with him totally.

  2. jim says:

    @ltlee & @steve
    You seem to be mixing up systems of law and systems of politics, but that’s another conversation entirely.

    I can see plenty of potential reasons that limit the usefulness of online discussion as an effective part of a democratic process. Off the top of my head:

    1. Representation. Approximately one third of the Chinese population uses the internet. The opinions expressed online will come from a vocal and active subset of that group, meaning that the majority of opinion comes from a self-selecting minority with the access and time be active online.

    2. Risk. Unlike casting a vote, expressing an opinion online rarely has real-world consequences. It is not uncommon for people to say things online they do not mean.

    3. Sincerity. Under cover of anonymity, people often say things online that they would not dream of expressing in real life. It’s easy to see this happening in message boards or comment threads where conflicts give rise to strong emotions. How is it possible judge whether these opinions are genuine or whether someone simply wants to win a fight?

    4. Artificiality. It is not unknown for the government to ‘shape opinion’ online by sponsoring citizens to assume ideological positions and direct conversations. Will the government be able to distinguish real opinion from its own commissioned and manipulated opinion?

    5. Censorship. It is not unknown for comments or messages to be removed from the online sphere, whether by direct request or through the self-initiated activities of nervous ISPs and social media sites. If part of the online dialogue is removed with or without its knowledge – the government risks missing key parts of the conversation.

    While online discussion of politics may allow more interaction between official and citizen and, from a government point of view, offer insight into trends in topics of conversation and general attitudes, its usefulness is limited by the factors I mentioned.

  3. ltlee says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thank you for responding.
    I see your point. However, I will add that NSA surveillance is only undemocratic or anti-democratic to the degree its surveillance is illegal.
    I also observe that both Mr Hu and you were consciously or unconsciously blending blogging with surveillance. Question: Should blogging be considered as a kind of surveillance? If so, could blogging, like surveillance, be considered undemocratic to the extend that it is illegal?

  4. steve says:

    hi itlee,
    I agree with you that the statement “No single activity will constitute the totality of democracy” is a no-brainer and not worth discussing. Given that that is the case, it becomes useful to look at specific activities, one by one, and discuss them on their specific merits. That is exactly what is being done here. I found Hu Yong’s distinction between “observing public opinion and communicating with the people” on one hand and ‘democracy” on the other an interesting perspective. I would have initially assumed, like you do in your comment, that these two things are at least related on some level. This article made me realise that ‘observing public opinion’ is a phrase that can even be stretched to include some profoundly undemocratic behaviour, such as America’s NSA putting themselves outside the legal system with domestic surveillance, and ‘communicating with the people’ includes grabbing the megaphone and shouting hard. That’s one of the main reasons I visit this site, to give my otherwise lazy sense of skepticism a prod. It might not be much to get out of an article, but it’s something!

  5. ltlee says:

    @David
    “We publish the piece for people who might take something from it even as they understand it is not rigorous.”

    If one says “2+2 = 5″, none can take anyone from it except the statement is wrong.
    If one says “2+2 =x and x is a member of the set (3,4,5,6).” The statement is true and every one have the freedom to believe what he wants to.

  6. ltlee says:

    @steve
    Actually, I have problem with Hu’s assertion “observing public opinion and communicating with the people is not what is meant politically by ‘democracy” as if these two things are not related.

    To be sure “online discussion of politics (网络问政) and democratic politics are two separate things.” So are voting and democratic politics. These are also two separate things. As a matter of fact, one can generalize and proclaim the following:
    “No single activity will constitute the totality of democracy.”
    Of course, it is a true statement. However, it will not preclude voting, town hall meeting, as well as online discussion as part of the democratic process.

  7. ltlee says:

    @rigor

    http://view.news.qq.com/a/20110521/000005.htm

    “京报调查
    本版宗旨是“采集民意,权威解读”——就公众关注的热点话题进行网络调查,发布调查结果,刊登有代表性的各方观点,并约请相关领域的专家学者结合调查结果进行分析点评。需要说明的是,调查数据来自网民投票,作为一种民意表达平台,或有偏颇之处,仅供读者参考。

      参与调查请登录

      新京报网:www.bjnews.com.cn

      清研咨询:http://netinsight.cn”

    Looks like the survey is not scientific. The respondents were self-selected readers.

  8. Kedafu says:

    nice, very nice

    Support Comrade He Yong

    WMD

    wumaodang

  9. David says:

    Steve:

    Your point about op-eds is right on the money . . . I think a six year-old could probably tell the difference between an article for a science journal and a newspaper editorial. I agree entirely on your game rules for surveys, but that’s completely beside the point here.

    If anyone else wants to waste breath on this egghead issue, I suggest they reach Hu Yong and/or The Beijing News directly.

    Best,
    David

  10. steve says:

    Any survey has to carry the disclaimer that any results only apply to the group for which the respondents are a representative sample, in this case probably interested Beijing News readers. But the thing is, I can’t find any place where the core message of the article actually depends on these numbers at all. If 12.5 percent of those surveyed said microblogs “could advance interaction and conversation between the government and the people.” instead of 62.5%, the points “what is the purpose of participating in an interactive medium if you don’t want to interact?” and “The problem is that observing public opinion and communicating with the people is not what is meant politically by ‘democracy.’ ” still stand. And the main meat is actually given in *contrast* to the survey results, “These [survey] reasons are fair enough, but they don’t go far enough…”. Making arguments that are only tangentally related to your presented data might get you kicked out of Science or Nature, but sometimes arguments are interesting in their own right, which is what op-ed articles are all about, right?

  11. David says:

    Rigor:

    Clearly, you are a new visitor to our site. Of course we do academic research as well. But our purpose on this site is to provide current observations and analysis on China’s media. You should note that this is an editorial (not a reporting of survey results) from one of our fellows published in a Chinese newspaper. We have a regular column for editorials from our current and past fellows.

    Hu Yong published this piece first in The Beijing News, which conducted the survey — so I’m fairly certain it was self-selected and, as you say, “simply meaningless” (as a rigorous reflection of opinion on government microblogs). We publish the piece for people who might take something from it even as they understand it is not rigorous.

    Best,
    David

  12. rigor says:

    Were participants of the surveys self-selected? Or probabilistically drawn? If the former (as in most media surveys in China), the results are simply meaningless. Since CMP is based in an academic organization, you should know better than newspapers and report the methodology of the surveys before reporting the survey results.

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