Beijing has a long history of using propaganda to spread its nationalist message and the Party’s core principles to its younger citizens. It has utilized television programs and newspaper outlets to counter subversive narratives. And Beijing clearly has not accepted any type of challenges to its propaganda. But since the emergence of social media in China, which has captured hundreds of millions of its netizens across the country, Beijing’s Propaganda Department faces a direct challenge. Using social media has become a normal part of life for more than 200 million urban Chinese people. They are using social media websites for the same reasons Americans are in the West: to talk about politics, the news, and probably most importantly, to acquire the facts about social, political, and economic issues. Social media outlets, including Renren, Weibo, and even Facebook, are spreading the truth about corrupt officials, scandals, and questioning and countering messages from the central government. Social networking in China is undermining Beijing’s official stories goals and even threatening to subvert the government’s credibility.
Before the advancement of social media, Beijing was able to maintain a strong hold onto its power by controlling all outlets of communication. Prior to the explosion of social media, Chinese peoples were not able to tweet new information they found that could expose a corrupt official, or quickly organize people to protest in the streets. Although young Chinese students were able to shake the Party to its core in June 1989, they were severely disadvantaged because of the lack of communication tools they had at their disposal. During that time, China’s cities were still in their beginnings, and government agencies could easily regulate and monitor email, letters, and cell phone calls
During June 1989 in Beijing, China, the only people who had the technology to protest were the students; they had access to computers, emails, phones, and some information, though regulated and monitored by the government. The majority of the factory workers and farmers were left out of the loop. Imagine if an outburst with the same scale as the 1989 incident took place today. Social media itself would have transformed the 1989 incident to something similar to the Arab Spring.
Despite the government’s deliberately opaque procedures and corruption, social media has brought down some of the Party’s most powerful members. As I said earlier, five years ago, this would have been impossible. In 2008, a Lin Jiaxing, a former party secretary of Shenzhen Marine Affairs Bureau, was sacked for accosting a young girl when he was drunk. Video footage of him forcing the girl into a men’s bathroom and verbally abusing her was caught on tape. Bloggers got a hold of this information and uploaded it on Weibo and Renren. The story spread across the web like a wild fire. The government was not nimble enough to delete the overwhelming amount of post about the story. The popularization of the issue on the internet contributed to the arrest of Jiaxing.
Weibo (The Chinese version of Twitter) users have become more aggressive in striving to expose the actions of corrupt officials. Within mere hours of the high-speed train crash by Wenzhou in late June 2011, online users began publically demanding, all over Weibo, for a report that included the accountable officials. Within five days, the Prime Minister of China, Wen Jiaobo, promised, with a sincere bow in front of hundreds of people, that he would investigate in the accident. Important officials who governed the accident were punished. Certainly social media is shedding light on corrupt practices that are occurring deep behind the secret walls of the Communist Party.
Officials a few years ago could prevent a journalist from publishing something detrimental to their career by making a few phone calls to a newspaper company. But in this 21st century, in just a blink of an eye, an official can be fired over a tweet. Social media is empowering Chinese citizens and forcing their officials to be accountable for their actions.
One online Chinese activist, Huaguoshan Zongshuji, saw an interesting pattern among corrupt officials. He noticed that although they drove simple cars, and did not wear elaborate suits, they wore extremely expensive watches, which are sometimes valued at one hundred times the government officer’s official salary. Via Weibo, he uploaded a forty-eight page PowerPoint Presentation of officials wearing high priced watches. Within days it was blocked by the government. His story is just an example of how powerful social networking can be in exposing corruption in China, and how the Chinese government is striving hard to protect its own members. The fact that the Chinese government blocked it shows that they knew it would cause the people to become upset. Zhongshuji believes that since there is not any legal method to express dissent, the only option is through online conversation.
Social media is also changing many Chinese peoples’ most fundamental views about the people around them. A long time ago, Beijing used filtered and selected information about Japanese people, particularly about their actions during the Nanjing massacre and their invasion in China during World War II, to spark nationalism in the youth. They did this by pushing pugnacious news reports, and emphasizing the negative parts of the Japanese history in textbooks. But social media has allowed more diversified perspectives to be seen, and circulated through social media and networks.
The East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 demonstrated that Weibo can allow the truth to come out. Bloggers consistently posted pictures, news, and analysis of the issue. Chinese students studying in Japan also contributed to the discussion by talking about how their Japanese friends were upset and horrified by the event. Although the Chinese media did not air much of the turmoil that was going on in Japan, many Chinese people sympathized with the Japanese people because of seeing pictures of people suffering. In one online pole, 23,029 people expressed support and sympathy for the Japanese people who were affected by the earthquake, while only 260 people responded that they were happy that this happened.
Clearly the information that was sent to the Chinese in the 1960s and 1970s that were designed to push nationalist goals have become ineffective because of the widespread growth social networking. Social media is eradicating many of China’s older and outdated stereotypes and traditions. This will make it more difficult for Beijing to control overseas student’s thoughts, especially since they are exposed to free media and press, where they have access to many perspectives from a wide variety of people.
The Chinese government has showed that it is nervous and feels threatened by social media. In late February 2011, during the midst of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, police flooded the streets of Beijing after the government realized that students and activities were using social media outlets and microblogging to organize protest. During the day of the protest, police officers were everywhere, armed and ready to forcibly dismantle anything that even slightly appeared to be a protest. No protestors showed up, but the police stayed into the evening to ensure that that there was not any viable threat. The Chinese government is very aware that social media, with its fast updates and connectivity with users all over China and the world, can easily organize people to protest within minutes.
Social media is transforming Chinese society and politics in an unprecedented way. Just five years ago, Party officials and government officers had nothing to fear from ordinary citizens. They could embezzle money, cheat whomever they wanted, and, for the most part, get away with it. If an average citizen had a complaint about an official, the official was able to pay off media outlets to ensure stories never leaked. But now, even though the Party still heavily censors media via television, email, and online content, it is having difficulties regulating, monitoring, and deleting the thousands of rapid post that occur every second on Weibo, Renren, and other social networking websites. Social media is bringing down corrupt officials, forcing a long time opaque government to become more transparent, and making officials at all levels more accountable. As long as social networking is thriving in China, it will empower the people, and slowly but surely equalize the people and its government.