Are People Overpowering the Government in China?

Posted on July 26, 2012

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The Beijing municipal government updated the flood death toll to 77 a couple of hours ago. This was on the evening of July 26, Beijing time. This update was announced via the municipal government’s official weibo account (ZH) and was published on People’s Daily‘s website (ZH).

No one knows whether the City would have made this move if there were no public pressure for transparency on this issue, but anyone who has some understanding of China’s politics wouldn’t discount the power of public opinion expressed online. The City has been standing by their initial number of 37 since the torrential rain caused the deadly flood in the city. In fact, about 24 hours earlier, at the 2nd press conference held by the Beijing City Press Office after the flood, the reported death toll was still 37 (ZH). One would wonder if the authorities changed their mind in response to the public outcry for transparency.

One thing is for sure. The Chinese government is taking what people say online and what they think about official information seriously these days. On the afternoon of July 26, People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the government, published an article titled, “The Casualty Number Is Not a ‘Sensitive Topic’” (ZH). Apparently, this article is written in response to people’s suspicion about the official death toll and their outrage about the government’s suppression of information and discussions about the flood online.

In the article, the author, People’s Daily‘s columnist Fan Zhengwei, first defended the government’s slow release of information in times of crises:

There is a well-known saying on the Internet, “When the truth is still putting on its shoes, the rumors have travelled across half of the world.” Different from citizens publishing information as individuals, the government has a process of verifying and synthesizing information; also, different from publishing information in real time online, the government has to follow a process of publishing statistics as well. Especially with the advances in new media technologies, mobile devices and weibo have pluralized the ways information is communicated, and the authorities today are met with more serious challenges [than ever before]. To a certain degree, we have to admit to a fact: in many cases, no matter how fast and timely official information is communicated, it always falls behind rumors and heresay on the Internet.

But then Fan cited the “international experience” in emergency response and information transparency, and seemed to try to appease people by acknowledging that the government has to communicate with the public better:

It is required qualities in authorities on every level to study the nature of communication in the Internet era, to respect the laws of public opinion development in the era of social media, to recognize the public concerns in a society of increasing awareness of rights, and to be able to build credibility through interactive communication. In fact, in terms of “negative news,” people are more concerned with the government’s attitude to the “negative news” [than the news itself]. As a comment about the casualty number a netizen left on the People’s Daily‘s official weibo page goes: “Only by confronting [problems], can [the government] resolve [them]; only [through its] dedication to resolving problems, can [the government] win people’s hearts and minds.”

Of course, this piece is still full of bureaucratic platitudes, and one would doubt whether this commitment to better communication is sincere. In other words, no one knows whether the government will truly commit to transparency or it will just use technologies and media with more sophistication so as to manipulate the public opinion. Nevertheless, when we see that the government has to directly answer to people’s outcries on weibo and other social media, we know that no one can discount the power of media technologies in empowering people to make their voices heard and to pressure the government to do better – despite the censorship.