Managing the hazards of online society

A recent “theory” section in the Study Times (学习时报), an official journal published by the CCP’s Central Party School, revisited an issue that has obsessed China’s leaders in the internet age — how to achieve effective “social management” of an online space that grows ever more unruly, with repercussions in the real world?

“Social management,” or shehui guanli, has been routinely discussed within the leadership and among Chinese pundits since around 2009. Simply put, the concept expresses the conviction that Party leaders can manage change and address deep social divisions by “innovating” management within the current political system — without, that is, the need for fundamental (and possibly painful) political reform. As Frank Pieke writes, social management marks an attempt to transform Chinese society in such a way that it “allows a considerable degree of pluralism while strengthening the leading role of the Party over society.”

Social management was a core idea at the 23rd collective study session of China’s Politburo in September 2010. Seven months later, in May 2011, the China Academy of Social Management (CASM) was created to help “adapt to the new features in domestic and international situations” and assist the central Party leadership and the State Council in implementing “innovative social management.”

It is no accident that the flurry of interest in the idea of “innovative social management” corresponds so neatly with the rise of social media in China. Social media have huge potential to bring Chinese web users out of “virtual” isolation and into new communities of interest online — and they pose a very real challenge to the Party’s dominance of public opinion.

[ABOVE: In this cartoon accompanying June 2011 coverage at Shanghai's Xinmin Evening News of the internet and social management, an official is surrounding by talking computer terminals. These days, however, those should be smart phones.]

In the recent Study Times interview, Fu Siming (傅思明), a professor at the Central Party School, talks about the need for more effective “online social management.” Just as China’s leadership needs to innovate its “social management” in the real world, says Fu, so does it need to update and enhance its “regulation” of the virtual world.

In fact, Fu Siming repeats many of the ideas we heard under Hu Jintao. China’s leaders need to more effectively “channel public opinion,” getting on top of breaking news stories and driving the agenda. His stance is basically conservative, approaching the internet and new technologies as potentially destabilizing forces that the ruling Party must tame.

Like most officials, he seems blind to the fact that press controls are themselves responsible for much of the rumor and unreason that prevails on China’s internet. He sounds an alarmist note about “information public hazards” (信息公害) and the “pollution of the online information environment” (网上信息环境污染) — as though Chinese will breathe the clean air of “authoritative information” once each node of the network is fitted with a filter of legal and moral constraint.

What creates the “information public hazard” to begin with? The fact that the normal mechanisms by which the credibility of information might be measured and improved — namely, an unfettered professional press — are systematically undermined by press controls, by a propaganda system that increasingly serves the narrow goals of entrenched interests, both official and commercial.

For Fu, it is “freedom”, not control, that has resulted in the multiplication of “muddled and confused information.” The industry needs to regulate itself more strictly, and people need to be goaded toward more “moral” online decision-making.

[ABOVE: Fu Siming's interview on "online social management" appears in the May 6, 2013, edition of Study Times].

But there also seem to be significant departures in Fu Siming’s ideas from the Hu Jintao-era notion of Control 2.0, that combination approach that actively pushes Party agendas on breaking news and hot-button issues while deftly applying old-fashioned controls (such as propaganda orders and bans).

In a response dealing with the “channeling” of information in the online environment, Fu says he favors “open dialogue,” and he roundly criticizes the mobilization of online commentary teams — the troupes that have become snidely known by web users as the “50-cent Party”, or wumaodang (五毛党):

The capacity of the internet to impact social incidents has become clear, so how do we deal with this? One method now is to organize a bunch of people to anonymously offer their opinions, in this way channeling [the ideas of] internet users. This tactic is viewed by internet users as “immoral.” Particularly the organization of huge numbers of people to carry out online monitoring (网上监察), deleting critical opinions whenever they see them, or pleading the defense [of the authorities] while disguised as ordinary web users. The result of this tactic is that the government hears only its own voice, and is tempted to the illusion that what it is actually hearing is the voice of the people. Moreover, [the government] demands that the people too indulge in this fantasy.

As he concludes the interview, Fu Siming says the leadership needs to “emphasize channeling and minimize bans” (要多引导,少禁止), that it needs to “emphasize dialogue and minimize orders.” In short, leaders must be less authoritarian and more flexible and open in their treatment of the online society. They can no longer, as he says, resort to “that set of control tactics and work methods that come to us from the planned economic system.”

This is an encouraging idea, we can say at least — for those desperately seeking encouragement amid constant signs of tightening media control.

Before we get to our partial translation of the Study Times piece, here’s a summary of one section we did not translate. When the Study Times reporter asks how china can “raise its online social management capacity” while balancing government leadership and social participation, Fu Siming answers in five bullet points:

1. Building a sound legal system, strengthening industry self-regulation and the building of civic virtues (公民道德) [meaning citizens should know the difference between naughty and nice online].

2. Taking the internet as an important means for expanding social participation. Governments at all levels, says Fu, must learn to see the “positive uses” of the internet, and the public must be taught to use the internet as a vehicle for “rational” expression. The internet should be used, he adds, to improve the interaction between the government and the public.

3. Doing a proper job of information openness. Fu says official government websites need to be authoritative, and they need to adhere to the principle of open government information. “Authoritative information” must be released effectively in the event of sudden-breaking incidents, and regular reports must be made in order to dispel the doubts of the public.

4. Increase the response capacity of networked politics (网络问政). Basically, the idea of “networked politics” is that officials frequently go online to interact with the public, gather information about public sentiment, etcetera. Fu emphasizes that this isn’t just a special skill but now is a basic measure of whether a “modern leader” is up to scruff.

5. Increase the capacity for channeling online public opinion. This is the idea formalized in Hu Jintao’s speech at People’s Daily in June 2008, his first full-fledged articulation of his approach to media. The idea is that leaders are mindful of where public opinion is heading on a particular issue or incident, and that they “actively set the agenda and channel the direction of online public opinion.” In particular, the government must respond quickly in the face of sudden-breaking news events.

Raising the Capacity of Leaders and Cadres to Manage Online Society” (提高领导干部网络社会管理能力)
An interview with Professor Fu Siming of the Politics and Law Department of the Central Party School
Study Times
May 6, 2013
By Dai Jing (戴菁)

Fu Siming (傅思明), a professor and doctoral supervisor in the Politics and Law Department of the Central Party School. Research areas: constitutionalism, administrative law (行政法), Emergency Response Law (突发事件应对法). Member of the State Council’s expert team on reform of the administrative examination and approval system (行政审批制度改革), member of the Committee of Legal Experts on Legislative Work (立法工作法律专家委员会). Published works: Theory and Practice of Administration by Rule of Law in China (中国依法行政的理论与实践), Training Course in Administration by Rule of Law (依法行政培训教程), The Emergency Response Law and Government Crisis Management (突发事件应对法与政府危机管理), Raising the Legal Capacity of Leaders and Cadres to Respond to Disasters (提高领导干部突发事件应对的法律能力).

Reporter: Along with the emergence of the online society, the importance of strengthening management of the online society has grown more obvious by the day. The CCP’s political report to the 19th National Congress [in November 2012] emphasized [the need to] “strengthen the management of online society, promoting the legal, standardized and orderly operation of the internet.” Could you please talk first about what challenges online society has created for our [Party's] social management?

Fu Siming: The internet society is a new social form, and in contrast to actual society its characteristics are [the fact that it is] networked (网络化, informationalized (信息化) and digitalized (数字化). “Online society” refers to a network structure that is new in form — horizontal, lateral, multidimensional and complex. It has transformed the traditional, vertical (垂直的), hierarchical (等级的), mono-dimensional (单维度) and simple structure [of society]. More importantly, the expansion of online social movements (网络社会运动) has prompted a transition in modes of social life from administrative management, government dominance (政府主导型) and government mobilization to self-organization (自我组织型), grassroots [action] (草根型) and civil society [action] (公民社会型). This has made new demands of our current modes of social management.

The “subjectivity and virtuality” of online society benefit the full-fledged development of individual character, and it tends to encourage many forms of disadvantageous conduct that [people] would not ordinarily dare to display in actual life. On the one hand the “subjective and virtual nature” of online society can help anyone become their true selves (做回真实的自己), highlight their own personalities (彰显个性) and grow in an overall sense (全面成长。). On the other hand, this kind of “stealth effect” (隐身效应) has caused people, under the disguise of the virtual, to do as they please, to provoke social tensions, and to violate the legal rights of others.

The “decentralized nature” (无中心性) of the online world drives members of society toward great equality of interaction. The online society is a naturally democratic platform. Structurally speaking, any two different nodes of the network have equal online status, assaulting the status of the government or any organization as an information center. In theoretical terms, the internet and its parallel information transmission mode have broken through the current power structures — the top-down method of control. This means that on the internet any power can only utilize dialogue, and broadcast style form of [information] transmission are out. Dialogue seeks to enhance mutual understanding. Only by enhancing mutual understanding and finding mutual trust can information be transmitted effectively. . .

Reporter: The online society suffers from many of the social problems we often see in actual society, and there are even social problems there that we don’t generally see in actual society. What problems do you see right now in the virtual society?

Fu Siming: In the online society, at the same time as people enjoy full information freedoms all sorts of muddled and confused information begins to multiply, gather, be shared and flood [the internet]. This creates a kind of serious information public hazard (信息公害). This is essentially online information pollution (网上信息污染), or pollution of the online information environment (网上信息环境污染).

Recently, the problem of the loss of order on the internet has become serious. There are two situations in which we see the loss of order in the online society. First, there is institutional loss of order (制度性失范). This is about the lack of regulation, or regulations already in force being ineffective, and the fact that new regulations have not yet been built. The loss of social order under these circumstances is what we can call institutional loss of order. At present, the regulation of online conduct in our country is far from perfect. Moreover, the norms that apply in actual society are of insufficient use in dealing with the online virtual society. This is what has fueled the emergence disorderly online conduct. Second, there is behavioral loss of order (行为性失范). Behavioral loss of order is about stepping out of line. It is about the loss of social order that comes with disregarding the rules or stepping over the limits.

What needs to be pointed out is that, in the real world, mass incidents generally refer to cases that have certain negative consequences, and that are organized and participated in by a portion of the public — such as collective petitioning, gathering, marching, blocking of traffic, surrounding government organs, conducting sit-ins or causing mass disturbances. “Online mass incidents” (网络群体性事件) are cases in which people use the internet to incite mass conduct in the virtual world. At present, online mass incidents in our country are of two kinds. First, there are cases like the strikes by taxi drivers in Chongqing and Sanya, which generated a major fuss online and drew greater attention online, thereby exacerbating the adversarial nature of the incidents. Second, there are online mass incidents that began in the virtual world and spilled over into the actual world. These include instances like that [in 2008] when an overseas student from Qingdao raised up a flag promoting Tibetan independence during the international Olympic torch relay, drawing widespread opposition on the internet [in China], and later escalating into a “human flesh search.” After learning the address of the student’s parents in Qingdao, internet users gathered outside their home to protest.

Reporter: The online society is a new social field or social form that has emerged on the foundation of internet technology. What changes do we need to make in our thinking in order to strengthen online social management?

Fu Siming: Only by deeply understanding and accurately grasping the principles of online social management can we avoid the two pitfalls of “loosening to the point of chaos” (一放就乱) and “controlling to the point of death” (一管就死). Only in this way can we raise the level of online social management in a scientific [or "practical and effective"] manner.

One issue concerns the ideas of “governing for the people” (执政为民) and “information openness” (信息公开). If our rulers do not consider serving the people, then the problems that face them will continue to be repeated. Moreover, the speed and breadth of information transmission in the modern era is entirely different from that in traditional society. If the government does not do its bit in terms of providing information, people can use multiple channels, including internet channels, to search for information. But online information is of uncertain [reliability], and so when crises occur this might result in social chaos.

Second, there are the concepts of “channeling information” (疏导信息) and “open dialogue” (公开对话). The capacity of the internet to impact social incidents has become clear, so how do we deal with this? One method now is to organize a bunch of people to anonymously offer their opinions, in this way channeling [the ideas of] internet users. [NOTE: Fu is referring here to the "internet commentators" that have been mobilized by governments and agencies at all levels in China since around 2005 -- also known as "50 centers" (五毛)]. This tactic is viewed by internet users as “immoral.” Particularly the organization of huge numbers of people to carry out online monitoring (网上监察), deleting critical opinions whenever they see them, or pleading the defense [of the authorities] while disguised as ordinary web users. The result of this tactic is that the government hears only its own voice, and is tempted to the illusion that what it is actually hearing is the voice of the people. Moreover, [the government] demands that the people too indulge in this fantasy.

The management of online society is necessary, but online management should be carried primarily through the creation of online order through laws and regulations, not through the creation of massive troupes of anonymous online monitors (at extraordinary cost), working night and day and taking turns monitoring major websites.

The duty monitoring [of the internet] is a sign of lack of confidence on the part of the managers [or "rulers"/管理者]. If online opinion needs to be channeled, a normal method would be to make known the identities of online commentators (网评员). The question of how online commentators or online news spokespeople can employ adept public relations theories and methods to explain incidents and convince the public is one that urgently needs to be resolved. There is no such thing as a bad question, only bad answers. What we most lack right now are current affairs commentators like those at newspapers that are capable of responding quickly on hot issues; online, these should be internet commentators whose identity is openly known.

. . .

In summary, in virtual social management, we cannot continue to use that set of control tactics and work methods that come to us from the planned economic system. We must emphasize channeling and minimize bans; [we must] emphasize dialogue and minimize orders; [we must] emphasize explanation and minimize rebukes. We must defuse as much as possible any social tensions that might emerge. At the same time, we must establish full and sound online management teams, maintaining a high level of vigilance about online public opinion, pre-planning and responding effectively.


2013-05-06 第15版:党校教育专刊 理论科研 【字体】 大 | 默认 | 小
作者:戴菁 来源:学习时报 字数:3828






















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