Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 this year was mostly self-congratulatory, a grocery list of everything the Party professes to have done right. But Hu did pause for a stern moment in which he enumerated what he called the “four dangers”: loss of vitality (精神懈怠), insufficient capacity (能力不足), alienation from the people (脱离群众) and rampant corruption (消极腐败). These internal challenges, said Hu, are now “more strenuous and pressing than at any point in the past.”
The third of these challenges, alienation from the public, can be glimpsed daily on China’s internet, as users fume over myriad injustices and the government’s often cruel and cockeyed way of dealing with them (like burying train cars within 24 hours of a major railway disaster). The credibility of China’s institutions is often questioned so routinely that leaders need only issue a denial of an accusation for internet users to be certain of its truth.
But it’s number four on Hu Jintao’s list, corruption, that arguably presents the most immediate threat to the Party’s standing, and to social and political stability in China. Corruption, particularly at the local level — but surely at every level — is behind most of the social ills and animosities that boil over daily in China into “sudden-breaking incidents” officials do their utmost to crisis-manage.
The emphasis on “channeling public opinion” so prevalent in media policy these last few years — what we have at CMP termed “Control 2.0″ — essentially comes down to finding more effective ways of spinning these public opinion crises, managing dangerous stories in the era of real-time interactive information.
But as Zhu Huaxin (祝华新) of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center wrote recently, these public opinion crises are backgrounded by very real “social sicknesses” 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.”
In recent weeks, intensifying in recent days, we have another clear example of just how volatile the situation can be in local areas across the country, where citizen’s interests are often threatened by corrupt or unresponsive local leaders not subjected to real checks on their power. And this example also shows us how leaders are trying to grapple with the fallout from this corruption, though not unfortunately the root causes.
The story is about how thousands of residents in Wukan village outside the city of Shanwei in Guangdong province have organized protests against local officials they allege sold off village land in a dirty development deal.
Here is a visual illustration of corruption as the core originating grievance, photos from Wukan shared on social media in which the banner at the top reads: “Does the land belong to corrupt officials?”
The situation escalated over the weekend as villagers learned that Xue Jinbo (薛锦波), a village representative, had died while in police custody. Police said Xue’s death was due to a heart attack, but family members insist he was badly beaten.
So we have a case here of alleged official corruption — the “fourth danger,” if you will — that has escalated into a crisis situation over (possibly) another grave issue of injustice as leaders in Guangdong have applied heavy-fisted tactics to deal with it. So far, the government response has been to close Wukan off both in terms of security (“stability preservation”) and propaganda policy (“public opinion channeling”).
Finally late yesterday, just minutes before midnight and after a uniform blackout in Chinese media through the day, we had two news stories on Wukan from China News Service, China’s number-two official newswire. The first reported that Shanwei city authorities revealed at a press conference on the Wukan incident (乌坎事件) yesterday that “preliminary investigations have ruled out external force as the cause of death” in Xue’s case. The news story also said that the city’s medical expert shared photos of Xue’s body during the press conference.
The second China News Service report, also based on the press conference, said that “various village officials” from Wukan had been detained for discipline violations.
Curiously, though, there seems to be no coverage of the press conference from other media. That suggests that these stories can be taken as an illustration of “public opinion channeling” tactics at work. The authorities, in other words, are selectively releasing partial information from an official perspective in an attempt to frame and re-direct public attention. Message 1: Xue Jinbo was not killed by police, an assertion that removes the immediate reason for escalated tensions in Wukan. Message 2: local Wukan leaders have been detained for suspected discipline problems, an action that (leaders undoubtedly hope) will remove the initial underlying cause of tensions, alleged dirty land deals.
A search in Baidu News for “Wukan incident” comes up with a number of other news reports, like this one, making use of the China News Service release. But other suggested links for coverage after December 9 are not available, most notably a report on 21cn.com provocatively headlined “Wukan: The Awakening of a Village” (乌坎:一个村庄的觉醒), which now returns only a “page cannot be found” message:
Stranger still, another link on the Baidu News search results is an article posted yesterday at Phoenix Online with the headline: “Four Villagers from Wukan in Guangdong’s Lufeng City are Locked Up in Three Locations, Allowed to Meet with Relatives” ( 广东陆丰乌坎4村民被分3处关押 获准与亲人见面). The video embedded with the Phoenix Online article says it all, I think, and I encourage readers to look at it carefully. Nanfang Daily, the official mouthpiece of Guangdong Party leaders, is given as the source of the video.
In the video, a policeman brings a prisoner (we are to suppose he is one of the Wukan villagers detained) outside to where several three chairs sit. As the prisoner walks in wearing his orange vest, two people (we are to suppose these are two of the prisoner’s relatives) sit in two of the chairs. The time on the video says, “December 13, 2011, 15:00.” There is a brief, awkward embrace of sorts. Then, before anything meaningful whatsoever is spoken, the video cuts to a scene in which two different people (again, we are to suppose these are relatives of the prisoner) walk very casually toward the two empty chairs across from the prisoner, who is already seated. There is a cut once again, and then the two women are already seated. One says, “So, have they beaten you at all?” To which the prisoner responds, “No, they haven’t beaten me.” Then comes the kicker from the prisoner’s relative: “Thanks to the government!”
The time on the video still reads: “December 13, 2011, 15:00.”
As a “channeling” mechanism, of course, this video establishes a third assertion, that the village leaders detained in the Wukan incident have not been mistreated by the authorities.
Images were also posted on Chinese social media yesterday, but control of this story has been very robust. When I posted a Chinese-language summary of Moore’s story and the above photo to Sina Weibo yesterday morning, it was quarantined in under a minute. That is to say, the post was not deleted, but it was hidden from all Sina Weibo users but myself — without any notice for Sina. If I hadn’t been on my toes and ready to watch the post with the help of colleagues I might have assumed simply that no-one was interested in commenting or re-posting the item.
All searches for “Wukan” and “Shanwei” on Sina Weibo yield messages that read: “According to relevant laws and regulations, search results for ‘Wukan’ can not be shown.” Estimates put Shanwei’s population at around 700,000 — so imagine a major internet platform in the United States blocking searches for “Detroit.”
Clearly Wukan is an object lesson in the dangers of runaway corruption at the local level in China. But it is also, unfortunately, shaping up as a test case in how the government is experimenting with new strategies to shape news coverage on sensitive incidents and issues.
Let’s keep watching.
(For the benefit of commenter Itlee and all, we provide three screenshots of Sina Weibo searches conducted at 5:38pm Hong Kong, December 15, 2011]