This is a translation of a Qiushi article by Matt Sheehan. This was originally posted on his blog, An Optimist’s Guide to China, and reprinted here with kind permission.
This translation takes on an interesting piece in Seeking Truth (求是). I enjoyed reading it because it because it presents a challenge to foreign observers: how can one seriously analyze arguments about the need for social control in China while still taking into account the duplicitous motivations behind the argument? Essentially, can you engage an argument seriously when you believe that it was made by someone with ulterior motives? I think this piece is a good example because it raises many valid points about the dangers of rumor-mongering on the Chinese internet, but at the same time you can see a certain political correctness that makes you doubt the motivations. Give it a read and tell me what you think. As always comments and suggestions on the translation are appreciated
Clear up the Atmosphere in Cyberspace
by Wang Shi (石平, pseudonym?)
The other day, the Supreme People’s Court and the the Supreme People’s Procuratorate published “Explanation of certain questions related to the suitable legal punishments for using information networks to carry out slander”. This is an important initiative to perfect our country’s laws and regulations for managing information networks. It means relying on the law to mete out punishment for criminals on these networks and protecting citizens’ legal rights and interests. It’s an important initiative for safeguarding social order and the national interest, and it’s in accordance with the will of the people!
We are currently in the “internet age”. The breakneck development of the internet has brought with it revolutionary changes to the methods of generating and spreading public opinion. It has reshaped the nature of public opinion and the media ecosystem, and influenced every aspect of society to a surprising breadth and depth.
The Chinese internet is the world’s most bustling and noisy network, and the network most dominated by public opinion (最舆论化的网络). As a platform for public opinion, the internet clearly has positive and productive uses. First, it reflects social sentiment and public opinion. The Party and the government can use the information and discussion on the internet to understand the situation in society, the sentiments of the masses, and netizens’ take on public events. The second use is to initiate supervision through public opinion. Some corruption cases are first exposed on the internet and the inappropriate action and behavior of some government officials is subjected to searing criticism on the net. Some policies and initiatives take a beating from netizens, and many a domineering and high and mighty bully of the people is pulled down and swept away by online criticism. Caught in this awkward spot, officials of all levels have been taught to respect the will of the people and take public opinion seriously. The third use is greater participation in public affairs. Netizens use the internet to follow major national issues, to discuss national plans and the people’s livelihood, to participate in politics, and to cultivate the consciousness of citizens. The fourth use is the soothing of negative sentiment. Every society will have a portion of its people dissatisfied with things. These feelings of dissatisfaction need to be vented through some outlet, and in terms of social stability venting these feelings is always better than repressing them. In reality, venting these feelings is a way of soothing them and the internet offers an avenue for this venting.
Following along with the development of our country, society’s capacity for accepting diverse opinions and ideologies has grown a great deal. Allowing a comparatively free and open environment for public opinion on the internet helps it act as a supplement to mainstream public opinion, and this is both beneficial and constructive. But internet rumors have become very popular, and chaotic phenomena like infringing on people’s rights is seriously damaging this constructive aspect (网络侵权等乱象纷呈，严重损害了这种建设性). Based on a study of 1,000 popular discussions on Weibo, the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s “2013 Report on the Development of Chinese New Media” found that over ⅓ of the discussion was rumors.
The 2009 “7-5” incident in Urumqi, Xinjiang was caused by foreign ethnic separatist forces who used the internet to create and spread false information. They first obtained foreign media footage of a 17-year-old girl who had been stoned to death in Iraq for violating religious rules, then said it was a Uyghur girl in Guangdong who had been beaten to death by Han Chinese. They then disseminated the video on the Chinese internet and through their comments incited fanatical ethnic hatreds. In the end, it lead to violent criminal activity that killed 197 people, injured 1,803 people and created vast economic and property damage. From this event you can see the threat to social stability and national security created by online rumors.
Some people have compared today’s internet to the “big character posters” from the time of the Cultural Revolution. Those who experienced the Cultural Revolution will remember the big character posters: the confusion of right and wrong, the framing of innocent people, the besieging of people with hate-filled words, the tearing down and the invectives (批倒批臭)… these were truly what the big character posters were about. Now the initiation of human flesh searches, the spreading of untrue information and the creation of rumors that slander someone’s reputation, these are already all too common sights. On top of this, the “internet big character posters” are created by anonymous posters, blown up by groups, disseminated quickly and gain wider coverage. They are undoubtedly a lethal force (让人百口莫辩的杀伤力).The National People’s Congress and members of the Political Consultative Congress have cried out: “Don’t let the big character posters be revived on the internet!”
In recent years the use of the internet for improper commercial competition has aroused people’s interest. In this area we’ve seen the creation of false information to defame competitors and the phony promotion of one’s own products for online sales. We’ve even seen the emergence of hired guns, companies or individuals that will conduct an “online waterwar”, or “internet public relations companies” that specialize in the business of creating or deleting posts (甚至出现 了受雇于商家或个人专司宣传造势以牟利的“网络水军”、“网络公关公司”，专做收费发帖或删帖的生意). “Online corruption” has floated up to the surface. It floods the internet with fake commercial propaganda, disturbs the market order and harms consumer rights and interests.
What’s more, some people use the openness and freedom of cyberspace to wantonly defame and attack the Party and the government. The internet is filled with all kinds of negative news and critical voices: whatever the government does is bad, whatever it says is wrong. One item of negative news will be hot for a few days, or it might keep coming back again and again. But with positive news, it’ll either never make it up there or it’ll flash for a moment and be gone, disappearing like smoke and clouds. The more anti-mainstream, anti-authority, anti-tradition a voice is, the more easily it will win acclaim. Rational, gentle, positive voices are quickly shouted down and bombed into submission. Actually, in reality the performance of the Chinese government has won widespread acclaim; even western public opinion finds it hard to deny this. This is the ultimate truth, and overzealous criticism of the government violates this truth.
All of this has turned the internet into a dirty and chaotic place. All sectors of society have made their distaste for the chaos on the internet known: governance according to law is the wish of the people!
It must be pointed out, some of Weibo’s “Big V’s” cannot disclaim responsibility for the chaos on the net. Weibo’s transmission mechanism has a very noteworthy characteristic: while the right to disseminate information is dispersed, this also intensifies the centralization of dissemination (就是在分散传播权利的同时，也在加剧传播的集权化).
One’s fan-count and repost-count decide one’s influence on Weibo. In theory, every weibo user has the right to speak out and the right to spread information, but in reality this right is extremely unequal. The Big V’s with their many fans spread their message like the splitting of an atom: one spreads it to ten, ten spread it to 100, 100 spread it to a trillion. In a short period of time it can create a cluster propagation effect (集群传播效应). Weibo fans also display a very strong “Matthew Effect”: the more fans someone has the more quickly their fan base will grow. In contrast, an independent Weibo user without fans to repost their material will see their words quickly evaporate without a trace, like a drop of water falling into the ocean. You can easily imagine the danger if the internet’s Big V’s become rumor mongers.
Even greater responsibility for the chaos on the internet has to be borne by websites, especially the main portal websites. Commercial websites have taken up the “traffic is king” operating concept. Some websites rely on news that diverges from the official discourse to increase traffic to their site. Going beyond a website’s media function has caused some commercial portal sites to in fact become information portal sites. Actually, offering up e-commerce and practical information services is the correct business of commercial portal web sites. Over-developing their media functions is a misallocation of resources. Compared with English-language web sites, the development of Chinese-language sites offering practical information has been very weak. Lots of people searching for practical information either won’t find it or will find low-quality information. There is still plenty of room for development and display of one’s skills in offering up high-quality usefull information. The great success of Taobao and other e-commerce sites gives a great example. We hope that commercial sites develop well, but they need to choose the correct road. The internet’s media value and public opinion functions will need to rely more on specialized news sites.
At the national publicity and ideology work conference, Secretary Xi’s important remarks pointed out: “We are in the midst of a great struggle that contains many new historical characteristics. The challenges and difficulties we face are unprecedented. We must persevere in consolidating public opinion in line with mainstream ideology, we must carry forward the main melody (坚持巩固壮大主流思想舆论，弘扬主旋律), spread positive energy, and arouse the great strength of a whole society forging ahead in unity.” Bringing the chaos of the internet under control, restraining the negative energy, clearing up the atmosphere of cyberspace and filling the internet with positive energy, are all connected to the struggle in the ideological arena, connected to the consolidation of public opinion in line with mainstream ideology, connected to stable national reform and development; it’s something that we must do correctly. The internet isn’t outside the law. Our country already has more than forty standardized documents explaining the laws and regulations of internet management. The existing problems are of not following the law, of not enforcing the law strictly. In dealing with new developments on the internet, it’s also necessary to strengthen internet law, perfect internet regulations, and make legal management of the internet the new norm.
The whole Party and all of society should take very seriously the struggle over public opinion on the net, and steadfastly take up position on the battlefield of internet public opinion. We will not sit idly and watch as hostile forces use the internet to “topple China”. We don’t fear what others will say about us. To put it plainly, if the negative comments on the internet can be reduced, if the cyberspace atmosphere can be cleared up, this can only be good for our country’s social development, social stability, and the people’s happiness.