China needs common ground online

China needs common ground online
China needs common ground online
Posted on 2011-12-12

Lately, the stink has been rising online and offline.

Traditionally, internet users with differing value orientations in the online space have been quite cut off from one another. For example, KDNET’s Cat’s Eye section and the Utopia website have had their own respective web followings. If anyone from either side incautiously stepped over the line into the other camp, they risk being “pelted with stones”, branded “slaves of the West” or “brain-damaged.” While the two sides could be sharp and mean-spirited in their words, however, they got along fairly well. In fact, the “left” and the “right”, the extreme and the moderate, those advocating “national interests” and those advocating a “grassroots focus,” even as they held tight to their respective positions showed a higher level of tolerance and intellectual vigor than could be seen in the traditional media and in [China's] rigid institutions.

We’ve seen these sorts of divisions often throughout our history. At the outset of economic reforms [in the late 1970s], after years of isolation and despotism, some young Chinese stepped out in front of the trends, searching for new lifestyles. They were accused by others of being decadent and “dressing weirdly”, and they constant social pressure. The rejection and resistance they faced was a normal expression of social disapproval, but by the beginning of the 1980s this had become a matter for public institutions as well. Work units forced young women to cut their shoulder-length hair and altered the flared trousers popular with many young men. They confiscated literature about love and relationships.

No longer were these just differences of opinion, a tit for tat on more or less equal footing. It was now escalated to a populist call for the state to leverage power to uphold one set of narrow views over the interests of others, a bigoted defense of one’s own discourse power. There was nothing these young people could do at the time to defend themselves against the social and political pressures they faced. In fact, it was a group of older cultural figures, intellectuals and scientists who eventually stepped up to defend their rights and say that the abuse of power must be stopped, figures like Ba Jin (巴金). In the sincerest of tones, Deng Ying (邓颖) said: “Our Party must never again commit ‘blunders steeped in blood.’”

In light of the lessons of history, a number of abnormal trends have lately emerged on the internet that should prompt our concern. For example, dissatisfaction and scorn for those on the opposite side of an issue have in some cases escalated into “human flesh searches” (人肉搜索) of other users, and even the publicizing of their personal telephone numbers or visits to their door to “teach them a lesson”; we have seen the disparaging of other’s characters, personal attacks, attempts to “restrain” them offline, the issuing “death threats”, or posting to police microblogs calling for this or that person to be punished. We have seen users, in the name of “patriotism”, calling on fellow internet users to gather together and set fire to legally published newspapers like Southern Weeked. There was even a case in which a professor from the Chinese department at Peking University bragged on the internet about turning down an interview with a Southern Daily Group weekly publication by spitting three curses at the calling reporter.

Here we see the ordinary process of exchanging information, sharing opinions, acts of exposure and denying of rumors, verification and falsification, support and opposition, all are deeply politicized. For example, those who advocate universal values and encourage reforms are sometimes branded “Western slaves,” something that can still happen within the context of normal scholarly criticism. But when we see people branding others as “traitors” and “sympathizers” — [NOTE: these are very strong and historically sensitive terms, implying criminal treason] — when there is no evidence whatsoever that they have engaged in spying or broken any laws, this [elevates the matter by suggesting these people deserve] “the undying hatred of the people” (全民得而诛之), and the government cannot continue to simply tolerate such opinions. In much the same way, simply attacking any opinion that disagrees with yours as work for the “fifty-centers” (五毛) [i.e., government-hired online commentators], this is another form of arbitrary intolerance.

In China today, it long ago stopped being the age of having “uniformity of public opinion”. Along with the development of the market economy, different interest groups have emerged, each with its own interest demands, value orientations and sensibilities. This is not only normal, it is entirely healthy. There are three key points in ensuring that free competition, mutual respect and peace can be maintained in the midst of this diversity. The first issue is the regularization, transparency and fairness of interactions among various social interests, particularly ensuring that disadvantaged groups can have their rights and needs heard. Secondly, the “public space” of the internet and traditional media should not merely be infatuated with exposes and criticism, but should put their focus on promoting the repair and improvement of current social management systems, and rebuilding of [institutions] where necessary. In facing negative social phenomena, [we must] mend this habit among the people and public opinion of being overly sensitive, [we must] regain and inspire a sense of social consciousness among internet users [i.e., of being part of the fabric of a larger society], and [we must] foster a confident and patient attitude toward the reform and betterment of society.

These three things need to be managed in unison, but the first is without a doubt the principal point of tensions [in society]. The “internet sicknesses” (网络病) we see today are just fallout from “social sicknesses” (社会病), and resolving real [underlying] issues is the first order of business, while channeling public opinion on the internet (网上舆论引导) must be secondary.

The government has an inalienable duty to smooth out competing interests and remedy rights issues in our society. Owing to inaction on social inequality and [the state] setting its own interests against the people, there is a deficit of goodwill in interactions between the government and the people, and this must be urgently compensated for. Earlier this year, a series of “articles from the editorial department” of the People’s Daily expressed deep understanding and tolerance for the agitated mood of the public: “We advocate a calm and rational attitude, but when the lines of defense are lost, with chemical-laced pork, died dumplings [sold past their expiration], poisons in ginger and other such cases coming up again and again, ‘remaining calm’ is easier said than done. We seek an open and tolerant attitude, but we see cases again and again of people falling back on powerful connections (‘拼爹’现象) or taking unfair advantages. [In such circumstances] how can we expect to resolve festering hatred for [government] officials?”

Our rulers should be more keen to resolve those problems that are ‘material’ (有形), achieving a fairer and more just society and providing real “chicken soup for the soul” (心灵鸡汤). So long as the government works to resolve real “material” issues of injustice and unfairness, whether it means “enlarging the cake” (做大蛋糕) or “dividing it better” (分好蛋糕), whether it means strengthening government responsibility or expanding social participation, all should be applauded. At the same time, I hope that responsible organs of public power can accept checks [on their conduct] and scrutiny [of their actions], respecting the process of rule of law.

Another aspect of this issue is the question of what sort of “public space” we really need today? Within this “public space,” what is the role of those “public intellectuals” who have tens of thousands or even millions of fans on social media, or tens of thousands to millions of hits on their weblogs? In an age of diverse competing interests, the “public space” constituted by the internet comes down to the formation of real views and opinions in society, allowing various opinions and proposals to be tested in experience to see whether they pan out. For China’s 485 million internet users, the bottom line that must be conscientiously respected is to embrace and defend the internet as an “opinion community” where information can freely circulate, just as in daily life the framework of our laws and constitution are maintained as the bottom line for China’s 1.3 billion-strong “interest community.”

This “opinion community” is not about the left versus right, radicals versus moderates, the halls of power versus the common folk. It means acknowledging the legitimacy of different opinions and different interest demands, and the equality of all under the protection of the law in expressing their views online and participating in society. The field of public opinion on the internet requires opinions from different value orientations to check one another and hedge against one another. It needs a mechanism of “self-purification” (自净) of information through a process of dynamic updating of posts and criticism and counter-criticism by internet users. This means we must protect not just our own right to expression (表达权) but must protect the right of others to speak, and not seek to monopolize discursive power (垄断话语权).

We cannot unilaterally arbitrate a matter through the media against another when they are given no right of reply (答辩权). We must deal with the matters at hand, and avoid at all cost hanging ideological signboards on those to whose views we object, subjecting them to moral trial. More importantly still, we must not seek to aid organs of public power in stripping them of their discursive power. I am confident that the mediation of interests goes hand in hand with social progress . . . Sometimes, compromise is progress (让步就是进步).

Within this “opinion community,” no matter how fierce the debate becomes, no matter how strong the conviction of social justice, moral purity or intellectual superiority on any one side, ultimately, as a matter of conscience, we must do our utmost to live under the same roof and work to find our “greatest common denominator”. My hope is that this sort of “public space” can become the filter through which helter-skelter information passes, the ballast that steadies the anger and emotion of internet users. I hope it can clear away anxieties rather than amplify them, that it can build political consensus rather than deepen social division.

As we seek the “greatest common denominator,” every individual and every rank or class must be alert to and carefully consider the reason why so often we become “coprime numbers” (互质数), we must be alert to and carefully consider how it is that that pernicious zero-sum idea we [should have] left behind three decades ago still lingers with us today, namely that, “If it’s not the east wind pushing down the west wind, then it’s the west wind pushing down the east wind.” [NOTE: These words, originally from the Qing classic The Dream of the Red Chambers, were used by Mao Zedong to talk about ideological struggles.]

At a full committee meeting of the All-China Writers Association that concluded recently, CCP Politburo Standing Committee Member Li Changchun (李长春) proposed respect for differences and tolerance for diversity, uniting all forces that can be united, stimulating social, intellectual and cultural vitality, working to uphold neutrality amid diversity, seeking consensus in dialogue and exchange. This spirit applies not just to the cultural field but provides inspiration in the realm of public expression.

When the stink rises on the internet, it is extremely important that [Party and government] authority respond carefully and sensibly. Shanghai’s Party secretary, Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), recently mentioned the word “tolerance” in his speech to the Ninth Plenary Session of the 16th Shanghai Municipal Committee of the CCP. He quoted the famous line from the “Communist Manifesto”, that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” elevating tolerance from the question of the cultural character of Shanghai . . . to the plane of the law and civil rights. This kind of fresh political thinking within the Party is heartening and worth considering.

We can also be cheered by the way non-governmental figures like economist Wu Jinglian (吴敬琏) and media professional Xiao Shu (笑蜀) have repeatedly encouraged taking a rational view of social transition [in China], using a calm attitude to bring political participation into practice, ensuring that society is not swept up and torn apart by extreme influences and that a sluice gate is opened for social conflict and political unrest.

There were two “micro-charity” drives fueled by the internet this year that received a positive response from the government. In the so-called “take a picture to save an abducted child” movement [on microblogs], internet users assisted police in their efforts to help families who had lost their children make breakthroughs in their cases; and Deng Fei (邓飞) and some 500 other journalists launched their “free lunch” movement [on the internet], raising money to buy food for migrant school children. These were successful experiments in leveraging the “self-organization” of [emerging] civil society working hand-in-hand with the government, and they could not work without the leverage provided by institutions.

The current dysphoria on China’s internet, and the decline in the level of tolerance and acceptance there, reflects a worsening of tensions and conflict in actual society, and also reveals a progressive loss of patience among the public for the improvement of our institutions. The suicide bombing on May 26 this year of Qian Mingqi (钱明奇), a resident in Jiangxi’s Wuzhou city who faced the demolition of his home, was a warning shot. The destruction of good and bad alike (玉石俱焚) is something neither the government nor the people wish to see. At this turning point in history, “public intellectuals” and the “gate-keepers” in the media have a definite level of responsibility, to “add moisture” and “bring the temperature down” on the dry and hot internet, ensuring that rational and middle-of-the-line voices become the public opinion mainstream. After all, the peaceful transition of our society is for the good of all the people.

3 Comments to “China needs common ground online”

  1. faisal says:

    It is natural for any country to have opposing extremes, and the internet is no exception. What you are describing is only minor compared to the partisan hatred Americans have when it comes to Republican vs Democrat, and it is just as visible on the internet.

  2. ltlee says:

    China needs common ground.
    But more important, is “cyberspace” really public space Hong Kong’s Nathan Road? Or private space like one’s house or restroom? Like road allowing people to access the various shops along Nathan Roads, internet technology allows people to access various sites except with one difference. Site owners and site visitors could interact with a large degree of privacy. Should such privacy feature render cyberspace private space?

  3. ted says:

    Nice post. I’d like to ask something about those “public intellectuals” mentioned in the post.

    At present I find it really difficult to find some pubblic intellectual who is really influential in the chinese web. It seems as if the multiplication of voices, especially through weibo, created a big mess and now you can’t understand which voices really matters. Probably it’s my problem. But would you please provide my a few examples of “public intellectuals” whose blogs are really influent in China today? (a part from the same old Han Han).

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