Originally published in Red Flag Manuscripts on 24 September.
Huang Shengping, Liu Cui
In recent years, following the development and spread of Internet technology, online democracy has gradually entered people’s vision. Even so, some people like online democracy, but others worry. Online democracy can engender positive energy, this has been recognized by the absolute majority of people, but at the same time, the problem of disorderliness exists in online democracy as well, it has become a factor for political upheaval and social chaos, and this cannot but attract our high attention.
Generally speaking, Chinese people who have walked down the Fifties and Sixties of the 20th Century, or people who are well acquainted with the repeated political movements after the establishment of the New China, are no strangers to “mass democracy”. What is called mass democracy is a sort of democracy with “speaking out freely”, “airing views fully”, “big character posters” and “mass debate” as the main forms. The source of “airing views and speaking out” is the proverb of letting a hundred schools contend and a hundred flowers bloom, “speaking out freely” refers to the fact that subjects of free expression were broad, its scope is large and its channels many; “airing views fully” refers to opening up so that everything one wants to say can be said; “large character posters” means using a brush to write one’s on thoughts on a large piece of paper, and putting it up outside so the masses can read and comment on it; “mass debate” corresponds to the “small debate” in Western parliaments, it aims to break through the parliamentary democracy system controlled by the elite, and realize direct democracy. In the programmatic document for the “Cultural Revolution”, the “16 Articles”, the “Four Bigs” are described as follows: ” We must fully utilize these forms of large character posters and mass debates, engage in airing of views and speaking out, so that the masses can expound correct viewpoints and criticize mistaken viewpoints”. On the surface, the “four bigs” are for the sake of developing our country’s political democracy, and realizing the people’s mastering their own affairs, but in fact, they have brought major disasters to our country in history. Present-day online posts to a certain extent have inherited some characteristics of large character posters, and in a certain way, they can be called electronic large-character posters. Large character posters mainly have the following three common characteristics.
1: Dissemination of untrue information, upsetting social order. Large character posters do not require facts, they do not require proof, it is only necessary that the person writing a large character posters has an idea, can write it out and wilfully put it up. In the 1957 Anti-Rightist struggle, not a few people became “rightists” because they wrote a large character posters, there were quote a few people who became “rightists because of exposure, criticism of slandering in other people’s large character posters, at that time, there was anxiety in people’s minds up and down the country, they were fearful and restless. Today, anyone can use online platforms to disseminate events and their own viewpoints. Many netizens have put forward pertinent and creative opinions and suggestions that pinpoint present-day problems concerning our country’s social and economic development, but there are also some netizens who wilfully publish relevant information online without verifying it, they disseminate all sorts of improper and mistaken speech, and gravely disorder social order and stability.
2. Infringement of personal privacy and reckless personal attacks. During the “Cultural Revolution” period, some people brazenly revealed other persons’ privacy in large character posters for the sake of venting personal spite or seeking revenge, gravely injuring many decent and innocent people, quite a few people’s families were broken up and its members dispersed, and the whole society was brought to upheaval and unrest. Today, following the application and spread of the network, online privacy infringement has become a prominent problem, it may being people to lose their peaceful state of life, and may cause psychological burdens to people, leading to obstacles in employment, personal undertaking, personal credit and other such aspects, and might even harm personal security. Furthermore, “Qin Huohuo” and his ilk use the network to fabricate rumours, and it may be so that in one night’s time, the honour that a person has gained over a lifetime or the wealth that someone accumulated is destroyed.
3. Taking a part for the whole, confusing public opinion, so that groundless accusations are made, which are purely fictitious. The content of large character posters mostly use only a few isolated words and phrases, they quote out of context, take a part for the whole and use other such means, and they only grasp one point and do not touch upon the rest. Some even are hearsay, groundless accusations, baseless concoctions, that are purely fictitious, they turn the online space into a pestilent atmosphere, they gravely mislead readers, and lead to irreparable wounds in society. These similarities between the online mess and the large character posters of the past cannot but make people feel apprehensive.
Online democracy developed into online large character posters in a very short time, which inevitable brought a grave influence onto our country’s society, and even might create grave consequences similar to those that resulted from the large character posters during the “Anti-Rightist” movement and the “Cultural Revolution”. This is decided by the characteristics of the network itself. Concretely speaking:
First, online large character posters are a rapid information dissemination channel. The dissemination channel for large character posters in the past mainly were relatively fixed venues and localities, where large character posters written by brush where put up, and so the amount of information they could make known was limited. The dissemination channel for online large character poster is the increasingly rapidly developing Internet, information is disseminated through mobile telephones, microblogs and other such media, its speed is as fast as the blink of an eye.
Second, the dissemination breadth of online large character posters can be compared to a “chain reaction”. Large character posters of the past mainly relied on transcription for their diffusion, this was realized through ink printing and the distribution of pamphlets, but today’s network has reproduction and reposting functions that not only include writing, but also include pictures of objects, images, videos, etc., consequently they are more prominently open, interactive and convenient, some incidents are posted online in a single day, and can be disseminated in the form of a “chain reaction”. After the “23 July” train incident, “Qin Huohuo” wilfully concocted the rumour that the government spent 200 million Yuan of sky-high compensation for passengers with foreign nationalities, this was reposted 12000 times within two hours, his number of microblog fans increased by 1500, and he provoked dissatisfied emotions of citizens against the government.
Third, the dissemination scope and space of online large character posters are huge. In the past, large character posters were usually put up on specially placed large character poster columns or the walls of buildings, as well as other suitable buildings, their content was often disseminated inside one work unit, one sector, one region or one city; the network is omnipresent, has an extensive coverage and no national boundaries, it can disseminate into every corner in the corner, and can disseminate into all localities in the world, its scope and influence are particularly broad.
Fourth, the identity or name of writers of online large character posters are difficult to check. In the past, large character posters could be signed, unsigned or signed under a different name. But everyone was generally clear in their minds on whether their writer was a work unit or an individual, or whether it was Zhang Three or Li Four. But today, the writers of online large character posters are anonymous, their identity is unclear, if there are no specialized organs, common people basically have no way of checking it, this has greatly reduced the constraints of morality and the law, it has made it easy for netizens to publish biased and irresponsible information, and has aggravated the destructive function of the network. Typical cases in this area are too many to count.
Fifth, online large character posters often show extreme emotionalization and irrationality. In the past, large character posters often criticized from the plane of principle and the two-line struggle, today’s online large character posters’ emotions are even more prejudiced, discourse is even more extreme, often causing a status of extremization in things. On the network, people often see explanations that are absolute and “one-sided”, and talk that “batters people to death”. At the same time, large amounts of excessively extreme emotional expressions and irrational discourse that is not founded in fact probably makes it impossible for policymakers to maintain rationality in the face of the hubbub of the masses, and so it influences or changes correct policymaking, and greatly influences social justice, fairness as well as administrative efficiency.
What must be pointed out especially is that, when looking at the online cases of the past few years, online large character posters have displayed a clear organized characteristic, on the one hand, this is reflected in many specialized companies that are aimed to obtain profit from using the network to fabricate rumours, such as the Beijing Erma Marketing Co. and the Wuhan “100.000 Navy”, etc. On the other hand, it is reflected in the fact that many commercial entities directly or indirectly have a hand in this matter, and that at the same time, quite a few online companies and websites often maintain a high degree of coordination and consistency in their actions, speech and tactics, etc., this cannot but bring people to a high level of vigilance.
The deceptive rumours are more fearsome than tigers. Quite a few people stir up trouble online to pursue commercial profit for themselves and a small number of people. They either have no compunction about playing up themselves online, or endlessly undermine the reputation of others, or manufacture online incidents, inciting netizens’ emptions and sentiments, etc., in the beginning, they fabricated and disseminated rumours for the sake of attracting eyeballs, afterwards, they established commercial entities to enter into this, and conduct large-scale popularization in an organized and planned manner. Li’erchaisi (original name Yang Xiuyu) established an online pushing company, employed an online navy, manipulated online public opinion, played up corresponding persons so they became famous, or created online hot spots within a very short time, he manufactured sensational news, in order to realized his personal objective of winning fame and fortune. After verification, this company was found to have realized a gross income of more than 100 million Yuan in seven years. The Wuhan “100.000 Navy” website relied on fabricating and spreading rumours to pursue millions of profits.
Naturally, there is also an extremely small amount of people with a dark psychology who rack their brains to use the network to stir up trouble, they conduct all sorts of anti-social, anti-political, anti-system, anti-reform and anti-development activities that violate discipline and violate the law, they use the fabrication and dissemination of online rumours to disintegrate trust, degrade morality, destroy harmony and vainly attempt to “overthrow China by rumour”. Some of them have become used by Western reactionary forces or collude with Western reactionary forces, with opposing Socialism with Chinese characteristics and subverting the People’s Republic of China as their common scheme, this sort of phenomenon must attract our great vigilance.
Our country’s online democracy is still at a preliminary stage, its development and perfection are a very long process, this is a process of gradual advance, it requires common efforts from the State, society and individuals. Recently, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued the “Interpretation concerning Some Issues of Applicable Law when Handling Criminal Cases of Using Information Networks to Commit Slander”, which has laid down clear legal boundaries for words and deeds online, and furthermore, has unsheathed a sharp sword against the use of the network to conduct slander and other such illegal and criminal acts. We must consciously strengthen our notion of the law, sincerity and honesty, use the network according to the law, and jointly create a vigorous and healthy online sphere.
(The authors’ work units are the Jiangsu Province Wuxi City People’s Congress Standing Committee New District Work Committee and the Jiangsu Province Wuyue Culture Research Institute)