The Chinese government is taking a novel stance to social media. Rather than ban it, they are manipulating it, and with surprisingly effective results.
A recent scandal involving a minor party official has shown the new strategy being adopted to deal with ‘citizen journalism’. Zhang Aihua, the party boss of a provincial industrial zone, was disgraced when his lavish party was stormed by the public. His fall could not have been more pronounced, with a video of him groveling on his knees going viral throughout the country. Yet, rather than censor the video as dissent, the government endorsed it by firing Mr. Zhang.
This is one of many recent ‘victories’ for micro-blogging citizen journalists. Other cases include bloggers revealing provincial officials in Yunnan with 10 SUVs, in Hennan with 11 flats, and in Guangdong with 47 mistresses. In all of these incidents the government not only allowed the content to be distributed online, but acted on it by punishing the shamed party members.
Xi Jingping, the Party Secretary, has no doubt played a huge role in this new attitude to micro-blogging. Since coming to office, the government’s stance has moved from ad hoc censorship, to endorsement of citizen journalism. A simple comparison with the previous admnistration demonstrates the enormity of the change. Cases as notable as Bo Xilai’s were dealt with almost randomly, with censorship of search engines, but not micro-blogs. Even then word searches were sporadic, the name Wing Lijun (a central figure in the affair) being banned for four days, then permitted.
Mr. Xi’s policy does, however, have one notable caveat. While minor officials across China are now fair game, the upper eschelons are not. The New York Times website was banned for revealing Mr. Xi’s wealth, as was Bloomberg. At the same time, internal newspapers that promote any form of dissent have been censored more stringently than before.
This double standard is what allows a plutocracy to lead an anti-corruption drive, and the hypocrisy is staggering. While Mr. Zhang’s banquet cost £700, his wealth is miniscule compared to members of the elite. In 2011, the seventy man National Party Congress had a net worth of $89.8 billion. By comparison, the net worth of all three branches of the US government (some 660 individuals), was a mere $7.5 billion.
More concerning still is what happens to officials once they are found to be corrupt. The party’s internal discipline system, known as shuanggui, is truly brutal. In the last two weeks alone two party members died under strange circumstances while in their custody. The excuses given when such events occur are truly bizarre, with reports claiming that inmates have died playing hide and seek, or drinking boiling water. Official punishments are just as shocking, with death sentences handed out in 2009 for nothing more than accepting bribes and embezzling funds.
By endorsing citizen journalism, Mr. Xi has done far more than hindered corruption within the Party. He has given administration a free hand to commit human rights abuses against the corrupt, which they have used liberally. More importantly, the revelations of minor scandals has shifted pressure away from the elite, and onto provincial figures. Social media, rather than weakening China’s government, as it did in the Arab world, is strengthening it.