On return from more than a week on the road, I caught up with my China news and found it all to be a bit…predictable. In response I’ve created the following template that seems to exist somewhere to save all of you time.
A gov’t official (or family member of an official) was caught abusing their power by murdering/embezzling/forcing farmers off their land/covering up a scandal for a company in X province. The story first appeared on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, late last week and built to a crescendo over the weekend.
SomeGuyWithACamera posted pictures of an angry crowd ranging between dozens and thousands, which were deleted within 24 hours by censors. Calls to the local gov’t went unanswered. A man from the gov’t in the neighboring district said that, “The foreign forces conspiring to bring down China,” had organized this protest in co-operation with the Dalai Lama, he only gave his surname – Wang.
On Weibo there was a wide variety of reactions. ImAngry tweeted, “Gov’t officials are always abusing their power while they claim to be serving the people.” A very different response came later from PossiblyWuMao saying, “Gov’t officials only have our best interests at heart and we shouldn’t expect them to stop at red lights/refuse invitations to expensive dinners/not flee overseas with embezzled money.”
I could go on, but I think you get my point. After several years of consuming almost every scrap of Chinese news, the narrative has gotten stale. The idea that seems to be behind these cases is that Weibo is a tool for ensuring justice in an unjust country, and that the Chinese gov’t is slowly reforming.
As an American, I am lured to this reading, as it reflects my own desire to see the Chinese people taking control over their country. However, we have yet to see a meaningful clean up in gov’t as a result of the widespread abuses we learn of on a daily basis. As much as I hate to say it, Weibo is at best a band-aid or a safety valve – not a source of meaningful reform. If it were, we would be seeing aggressive legislation and an easing of the limits placed on Chinese journalists instead of GT fluff pieces about acceptable levels of graft.
I don’t mean to say that Weibo is fruitless, it has enabled us to get a much bigger picture of what is happening in China, but it is still a carefully managed virtual world with very real boundaries. As a friend in Chengdu told me, he had seen reports of a self-immolation near his home (unrelated to Tibet) and within fifteen minutes of stumbling across the story it had completely disappeared, far too quickly to be picked up by foreign media or anyone else.
Weibo gives a voice to individual Chinese people, but does not allow for a collective voice to call for change. As was noted in a recent study, most criticisms of the gov’t survive censorship while posts relating to organizing much of anything are quickly deleted.
My fear is that in an effort to show the growth of people power in China, we’ve created an image of a country that is reforming while officials are allowed to bend laws for their own needs and the gov’t shies away from anything that might someday curb their power. Instead of portraying Weibo as the hero of the tales we tell, it would be a better use of ink (and bandwidth) to focus more closely on the groups and individuals pushing for change.