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.

THE FULL CHINESE ORIGINAL OF FU SIMING’S INTERVIEW FOLLOWS:

2013-05-06 第15版:党校教育专刊 理论科研 【字体】 大 | 默认 | 小
提高领导干部网络社会管理能力
访中央党校政法部傅思明教授
作者:戴菁 来源:学习时报 字数:3828

傅思明,中央党校政法部教授,博士生导师。研究方向:宪法、行政法、突发事件应对法。国务院行政审批制度改革工作专家咨询组成员、北京市政府立法工作法律专家委员会委员。出版专著:《中国依法行政的理论与实践》、《依法行政培训教程》、《突发事件应对法与政府危机管理》、《提高领导干部突发事件应对的法律能力》等。

记者:随着网络社会的兴起,加强网络社会管理的重要性日益凸显。党的十八报告强调“加强网络社会管理,推进网络依法规范有序运行”。请您先谈一谈,网络社会对我们的社会管理提出哪些挑战?

傅思明:网络社会是一种崭新的社会形态,与现实社会相比,具有网络化、信息化、数字化等特征。“网络社会”是一种新型的、水平的、横向的、多维度的、复杂的网络结构,它改变了传统的、垂直的、等级的、单维度的、简单的结构。更为重要的是,网络社会运动的扩展,使社会生活方式日益从行政管理型、政府主导型、政治动员型向社会自我组织型、草根型、公民社会型转变,这就对我们现有的社会管理方式提出了新的要求。

网络社会的“主体虚拟性”既有利于人的个性全面发展,也容易助长很多在现实生活中不敢从事的不良行为。一方面,网络社会的“主体虚拟性”可以帮助任何人做回真实的自己,彰显个性,全面成长。另一方面,这种“隐身效应”也使得人们在虚拟的伪装下,为所欲为,挑起各种社会矛盾,侵犯他人合法权利。

网络社会的“无中心性”,使得社会成员的交往趋向平等化。网络社会是民主的天然平台,从网络结构上看,任何网络上的节点彼此间具有相同的网络地位,冲击了政府或任何组织信息中心的地位。网络从理论上讲由于其平行的信息传输方式,打破了现有权力结构——自上而下的控制方式,使任何权威在网络上,都只能采用对话而非广播的传递方式,对话是为了增进理解,只有在增进理解、产生互信之后才能有效地传达信息。

网络社会的“偶发性”、“盲目性”,使得爆发网络群体性事件的几率大大增加,使得政府对于网络议题的设置更加不易。传播学上的“蝴蝶效应”在网络社会可以得到最好的体现,任何一条网民不经意间发到网络上的信息,都可能引发一场网民的集体行动,在社会上引起轩然大波,谁也无法预料明天将会发生什么网络事件。

记者:网络社会存在许多现实社会中常见的社会问题,甚至衍生出一些现实社会中少见的社会困扰。您觉得我国目前虚拟社会存在哪些问题?

傅思明:在网络时代,人们在充分享受信息自由的同时,各种各样杂乱无章的信息也开始生成、积累、传播和泛滥,由此形成了一种严重的信息公害,这就是网上信息污染或网上信息环境污染。目前,网络失范现象严重。网络社会的失范现象有两种情况:一种是制度性失范。即没有规范或者已有的规范失效,新的规范尚未建立起来,这种情况下的社会失范就是制度性失范。当前,我国网络行为的规范尚不健全,而已有的现实社会中的规范在网络虚拟社会中不够适用,这就造成了网上失范行为的出现。另一种是行为性失范。行为性失范也即越轨,就是规范不遵从或超越规范而为之的社会失范。

需要指出的是,在现实社会中,群体性事件一般是指由部分公众参与并形成一定组织和目的的集体上访、集会、游行、阻塞交通、围堵政府机关、静坐请愿、群众闹事等具有某种负面影响的群体性行为。网络群体性事件则是人们利用网络,在虚拟社会中发起的群体性行为。我国当前的网络群体性事件大致有两种分类:一是从现实社会走向虚拟社会的网络群体性事件。如重庆、三亚等地发生的出租车司机罢运,闹到互联网上引起更多人关注,从而增加了事件的对抗性。二是从虚拟社会走向现实社会的网络群体性事件。如奥运火炬海外传递中,一位青岛籍留学生高举藏独旗帜遭到网民强烈的谴责,引起了网上大规模的群体性抗议,然后逐步升级到“人肉搜索”。当得知这位学生父母在青岛的住处后,一些网民聚集到那里抗议。

记者:网络社会是一种基于网络技术的发展而形成的新的社会场域与社会形态。加强网络社会管理从理念上我们要进行哪些变革?
傅思明:只有深刻认识和准确把握网络社会管理规律,才能既防止“一放就乱”,又避免“一管就死”,切实提高整个社会管理的科学化水平。为此,首先应当树立网络社会管理的正确理念。

一是“执政为民”与“信息公开”理念。执政者如果不想着为人民服务,遇到问题肯定绕着走。而现代信息传播的速度与广度与传统社会完全不同了,政府在信息提供方面不作为,人们可以有许多渠道,包括网络渠道寻找信息,而网络信息存在不确定性,于是在危机事件发生的时候,可能导致社会混乱。

二是“疏导信息”与“公开对话”理念。网络在社会事件中的能量显现出来了,怎样应对呢?现在有的做法是:组织较多的人匿名发表意见,用来引导网民。这种做法被网民视为“不道德”。尤其是组织许多人在网上监察,看到批评的意见,不是删除就是以网民的身份进行辩护。这种做法的结果是使政府只听见自己的声音,却耽于幻觉,似乎听见的是人民的声音,而且要求人民同样耽于这种幻觉。对网络社会的管理是必要的,但对网民的管理主要应通过法律法规建立网上秩序,而不是建立庞大的网上匿名监控队伍(天价的成本),不分昼夜地轮流值班监控各大网站。轮流值班监控是管理者没有自信心的表现。网上意见需要引导,正当的做法是公开网评员的身份。网评员或网络新闻发言人如何通过其娴熟的公关理论和技巧来解释事件、说服民众,是目前亟待解决的问题。没有不好的问题,只有不好的回答。现在我们缺少的,就是像有些报纸评论版那样有能力即时回应各种热点问题的时政评论员;在网上,这类人应是公开身份的网评员。

三是“社会减压阀”与“网上统一战线”理念。网络传播具有颠覆性的一面,但也是活跃思想的社会减压阀。网络意见把民众的不满分散到一个又一个新闻事件当中,分散地释放了怨气,避免了把社会不满凝结在某个断裂带上。通过测量网络意见,政府能够较为准确地把握社会温度,一定程度上不是扩大而是减少危机事件。正如一壶已经烧开的水,如果还使劲捂着盖子,结果只能是连壶底都被烧穿;而盖子一揭,尽管有可能会烫着自己的手,但沸腾的民意也就会变为蒸汽慢慢消散。现在网上已经出现所谓“新意见阶层”,这些人或是关注新闻时事的人,或是在网上直抒胸臆的人,他们有能量凝聚共识,发酵情感,诱发行动,影响社会。根据各种互联网舆情的分析报告,这个新社会阶层主要的经济能量来自非公经济,因而意见主要来自非公领域,他们具有较强的舆论能量。他们不是同志,不是部下,但也不是敌对力量。他们是公民记者、意见领袖。我们党有丰富的统一战线的经验,这是毛泽东说的“三大法宝”之一。对待新意见阶层,要诚实引导,求同存异,聚同化异。

记者:从某种意义上说,网络社会运动本身就是一种现实的社会运动。党中央提出要把对网络社会与对现实社会的管理统筹起来抓,加强网络管理能力建设和机制创新,积极构建和谐网络社会。具体而言,如何构建政府主导与社会参与相结合的网络社会协同建设格局,提高网络社会管理能力?

傅思明:对网络社会的管理是世界各国通行的做法,没有哪个国家会对网络世界中的行为放任不管。面对网络社会的发展,要提高社会管理水平,必须把对网络社会与现实社会的管理统筹起来。由于我们原有的社会管理体系是建立在对现实社会管理需要的基础上,要统筹管理网络社会与现实社会,必然要在原有的社会管理体系、思路、队伍等方面进行创新,以适应网络社会与现实社会管理的需要。

第一,健全法制、加强行业自律和公民道德建设。做好网络社会的管理,必须充分发挥政府和社会两方面的积极性。

第二,把互联网作为扩大社会参与的重要手段。各级政府要及时转变观念,充分认识到网络的积极作用,引导群众学会运用网络理性表达情绪,反映相关问题,把互联网作为加强政府与群众沟通、扩大社会参与、及时了解基层情况的重要手段。

第三,做好信息公开工作。一方面要在平时做好权威的政府网站,坚持政府信息公开。充分利用信息技术的优势,建立权威的政府门户网站,建立科学的网络政府信息公开制度,切实保护群众的知情权和选择权。在群众中牢固树立政府信息的公信力。另一方面对社会热点事件与突发事件要在第一时间内及时发布权威信息,及时通告情况,打消社会公众疑问。

第四,提高网络问政的应对能力。网络问政就其本质而言,是一种新型的、政府主动的网络政治沟通方式。领导干部经常上网掌握信息,引导网络,去回应网民,这不是当今社会时髦不时髦的问题,而是能不能拥有世界的问题,能不能成为一名合格的、现代的领导干部的问题。因此,在网络问政的新形势下,领导干部不仅要了解、引导网络,而且还要不断提高自身的网络问政应对能力。政府应当通过网络平台积极地与广大网民进行沟通,了解、尊重民情、民意,聚集、汇聚民心、民智,从而民主决策、科学决策以提高政府管理社会的水平,推动社会的和谐稳定与健康发展。

第五,提高引导网络舆论的能力。网络社会的管理有其自身的规律,我们在进行舆论引导时,一定注意要结合网络传播的特点,有的放矢地采取措施,不断提高引导网络舆论的能力。一要注意通过主动设置议题引导网络舆论走向。二是在突发事件发生时,要密切关注网络舆情动态,第一时间反应,及时向社会公众公布情况。三要注意循序渐进,既不回避问题,也不妄下断语。

总之,对于虚拟社会管理,不能沿用计划经济体制下那一套管理方式和工作方法。要多引导,少禁止;多对话,少命令;多解释,少指责。尽量化解可能出现的社会矛盾。同时要建立健全网络管理队伍,始终保持对网络舆情的高度敏感,做好预案,及时应对。

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