By Rogier Creemers, published: September 18, 2013
First published at ChinaFile.com as part of the conversation What’s Behind China’s Recent Internet Crackdown
I’d say that the current rumor crackdown is just the tip of a very large policy iceberg. Internet control sits at the confluence of a number of policy streams, which together caused the situation on China’s Internet we see today: enormous commercial developments on the one side, and a government that is trying to regain control through increasingly harsh methods on the other.
A first major undercurrent is the increasing clout of the propaganda department. While propaganda and culture had never completely disappeared from the political view, the drive towards development of the cultural industries and the expansion of its turf, thanks to the Internet, have put media development and governance high on the agenda. This, in turn, is the result of a number of economic and political factors. Economically, China has designated the cultural industries as a crucial area for growth, and its ambitious digitalization agenda is another centerpiece of the drive to transform its economic model and move higher up the value chain. Over the last few years, the Party has expressed increasing attention to the necessity of ensuring the correct orientation and public opinion among audiences, with the Central Committee Decision Concerning Deepening Cultural Structural Reform as a blueprint. This and other such documents indicate that there is a worry among the leadership that the benefits of growing material welfare result in decadence and corruption, and will derail China’s further path to modernization.
China is dissatisfied that, though it is the world’s second largest economy, it has not gotten its way more in international discussions. It sees this as the consequence of a lack of soft power and “discourse power” – the power to set the terms of the debate. Conversely, the idea of discourse power increasingly is used domestically as well, as the Party seems to have realized that no longer does it have the power to keep information under wraps. A large part of its response to this is to strengthen education and propaganda, aiming to lead people to a correct understanding of the bigger picture, recently redubbed the “Chinese Dream.” However, it seems that the fact that these strategies do not seem to work as intended so far is causing some anxiety and a sense of crisis.
A second factor is the impact that the Internet itself has had on shifting communication patterns inside China. Before the advent of the Internet, the Party had brought traditional media outlets under relatively strong control, one of the larger problems at that time being piracy. Now, however, about 600 million Chinese citizens have gained easy access to tools of public communication, and they use these with gusto. However, they do not always use them to the ends that the leadership would like to see. Rather, they use them to expose corruption, organize protests, engage in online scams, black PR, human flesh search engines, pornography, etc. To be fair, this list of problems illustrates the complexity of the current Internet crackdown. Many of these issues would be subject to legitimate state intervention elsewhere. However, the eruption of activity seems genuinely to have disconcerted higher levels of politics, who had been used to a relatively harmonious mainstream media environment with only a tiny minority of troublemakers. While it might be strange to accuse the CCP of naiveté, a smidgeon of magical thinking comes across in its assumption that the majority of the “popular masses” share its worldview and ideals, and would behave better if they were better educated.
This leads us to a third factor, the nature of the Party itself. The Party isn’t just there to attend to some of the arrangements underpinning Chinese society. Its program and its legitimacy rest on the delivery of a comprehensive modernization plan that improves everyone’s livelihoods. The CCP claims that only it has the means and the capacity to lead this process, and consequently claims a monopoly on political leadership. That puts it in a difficult position when it has to deal with social problems and tensions. If something goes wrong, the Party, in its own mind, must respond to alleviate the tension; it cannot stand aside and wash its hands of whichever hiccup occurs. Now, perhaps the Internet is not the most heartening lens into the workings of a society, as anyone who has ever read the comments posted to news websites or YouTube will know. However, to the Party, such online activity is an indication of profound disharmony, and must be replaced by “responsible, healthy and upward behavior.” Rather a huge and frustrating task, in my view.
Fourth, there is the current state of Chinese politics more generally. We still see the aftershocks of the leadership transition, which historically always have come together with political tensions and high-profile arrests, as well as the necessity to establish a new guiding ideology. Also, a lot of the low-hanging fruits for Chinese development have been picked, and its further trajectory will run into the law of decreasing marginal benefit. As always, it is attractive to deal with such anxieties by focusing on a superficial phenomenon, rather than have to face up to the fundamental structural weaknesses that generate those. It is much easier to say that everything that goes wrong in Chinese society is caused by a few louts spouting whatever on the Internet, than to admit that a number of fundamental ideas in CCP political thinking no longer are purpose-fit and may need to be abandoned. It is more comforting to reach back to slogans and methods from the past than to confront real and profound challenges thrown up in the present.
Rogier Creemer is the editor of the Oxford University-associated website http://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/ that monitors the law and policy of Chinese media. He contributed translations (here and here) to this website. Repost with permission from both the author and ChinaFile.