The cost and limitations of control

With the 18th Party Congress just around the corner, and important questions about political succession in the balance, anyone could have guessed 2012 would be a sensitive year for China’s media. But China has so far exceeded expectations, imposing rigid restrictions on media across the board — from newspapers to social media — and actively and directly using commercial websites and newspapers to advance explicit agendas.

For both the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng stories, examples of control and use of the media are abundant. Most recently, we wrote about how Beijing newspapers were employed last Friday to send a stern message to the United States on its handling of the Chen Guangcheng case, even as the facts and history of Chen’s case were kept entirely out of domestic media.

Back in 2008, and many times afterward, we wrote about Hu Jintao’s media policy, what we termed “Control 2.0.” Essentially, this approach, formalized in Hu Jintao’s speech during a visit to the People’s Daily in June 2008, involved a strategic combination of control and use of the media to accommodate changes to the nature of “news and propaganda work” in information age. Control alone wasn’t enough anymore, said Hu. The Party had to more actively “channel” public opinion by using all sorts of media to get its own version of important stories out.


[ABOVE: President Hu Jintao chats online with web users during a visit to People's Daily Online in June 2008. Behind him stands Li Changchun, China's propaganda czar.]

Aside from the build up of domestic web-based platforms like People’s Daily Online, this strategy involved an international push by state media such as Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television. It also involved the more active “use” of a whole new generation of domestic commercial newspapers that had grown since the late 1990s. “With party newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations in the lead,” Hu Jintao said, “[we must] integrate the metropolitan media (都市类媒体), the Internet media and other various propaganda resources.”

That is exactly what happened last week, as The Beijing News a paper known for its strong professional tradition, was forced to run an editorial critical of the U.S. handling of the Chen Guangcheng case.

But while China’s leaders have shown a renewed determination — desperation? — to employ press controls to maintain a white-fisted grip on the agenda, they have unwittingly exposed the cost and limitations of control in the face of a networked public with a keen interest in social, economic and political affairs.

This was patently clear last Friday, as the Beijing editorials were widely criticized on Sina Weibo, so that by day’s end China’s censors had to turn on their own propaganda.


[ABOVE: A search in Chinese for "Beijing Daily" returns a message saying the results cannot be shown "according to relevant laws, regulations and policies".]

Friday culminated with an oblique show of courage posted by The Beijing News to its official Weibo at midnight, an admission that it had been forced to run the Chen Guangcheng editorial against its own conscience: “In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, “I am sorry.” Goodnight.”

Events like those we saw last Friday may suggest that the growth and popularity of social media in China has substantially raised the political cost of media control and other forms of repression.

Whether or not one believes it is politically necessary, media control is a dirty business, and its mechanics are best kept hidden. This is why propaganda directives to media in China have traditionally been delivered by phone and during informal “breeze sessions.” It is also why social media platforms like Sina Weibo have done their utmost to minimize the experience of censorship — for example, by leaving deleted posts on users’ personal pages even as they are invisible to others.

Thanks to Weibo, China’s active censorship of ideas is something millions of Chinese experience daily and directly. And if, like me, you’re a foreign user of Weibo, you too can experience the joys of having your carefully-crafted Chinese sentences “harmonized.”

But while social media controls may be a matter of necessity for China’s jittery leaders, the very act could have a long-term corrosive effect on the Party’s credibility.

We have another good example of this tension today as the tactics of China’s security police have been openly exposed on social media — even as censors have tirelessly removed the traces.

The Sina Weibo account of Wang Xiaoshan, a prominent blogger and activist in China, was apparently removed yesterday. Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Wang said the decision was not Sina’s, although he did not elaborate.

Wang Xiaoshan, writer Murong Xuecun and Zuo Yeben (作业本) — all users discussed intently on Weibo today — were active in the case of blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng.

A blog post by Beijing-based journalist Paul Mooney back in November 2011 makes a record based on an account by writer Murong Xuecun of the involvement of both Zuo Yeben and Wang Xiaoshan in an attempt to visit Chen Guangcheng while he was under house arrest last year.

Murong Xuecun recalls:

Zuo Yeben got a van for us, and helped us plan our trip. To prevent the unexpected, Wang Xiaoshan and I left our wallets and credit cards with our friend Yang Ruichun. We took our IDs and some cash. We mulled over the prospect of travelling back to a previous age. Inside, each of us tried to give ourselves a pep talk: the worst thing that can happen is that you get a beating. Don’t be scared.

Posting on Sina Weibo today, users discussed the dismantling of Wang Xiaoshan’s account, some posting memorial messages — like this one with a single candle emoticon and the words, “In remembrance of Wang Xiaoshan.”


[ABOVE: A Weibo post on May 9, 2012, expresses condolences to Wang Xiaoshan for the removal of his social media account on Sina.]

By noon, however, Wang Xiaoshan’s account was apparently reinstated, as was Murong Xuecun’s (which some had reported was down for a time). But there was news of trouble for Zuo Yeben. As this user posted:

@WangXiaoshan has come back to life, but we have lost @ZuoYeben
@王小山 复活了,可是我们丢了@作业本

In fact, Zuo Yeben’s story played out more or less live on social media, as he was taken away by state security and the, eventually, returned home.

In a Weibo message posted at around 9:54am, documented by a Shanghai-based Weibo user in this post, Zuo Yeben wrote: “Three state security officers have taken me to a hotel . . . in the capital, opened up a room and said they want me to cooperate with their investigation. Things are fine right now.”

The Weibo user from Shanghai responded: “I hope this isn’t the last post [from Zuo Yeben]. I’m re-posting it first, so everybody can keep it in evidence.”

Finally, in a message posted at 12:49pm, Zuo Yeben said: “We’ve finished talking and we’re leaving the hotel now. I’m on the road home, I’ll post a text-as-image file in a bit. :)”

That post drew 1,796 reposts and 2,786 comments within 30 minutes, all messages of support.

At 1:24pm, Wang Xiaoshan re-posted the news of Zuo Yeben leaving the hotel on his resuscitated Sina Weibo account: “In these troubled times, it’s good if only the people themselves are OK,” Wang wrote.

At 2:38pm, Zuo Yeben finally posted his text-as-image account of his visit with security police, omitting the details of what was discussed (presumably dealing with Chen Guangcheng). Zuo’s post was called “My First Time” and began: “The sun is shining today, and there is a slight breeze in the streets. But I never thought that today would be the first day that I would disappear.”

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