February 18, 2019

China’s ‘Responsive’ Authoritarianism

“China is often described as ruthless and dystopian. Escalating censorship, intensified propaganda and the social credit system present a threatening new mode of Internet governance to the West, one where the freewheeling World Wide Web seems “captured” by the Chinese Communist Party.

Such increases in control, however, do not tell the whole story. Since the inception and spread of the Internet in China, the Chinese party-state has attempted to use the Internet for governance and legitimacy-building as well as for weeding out sensitive information. Chinese President Xi Jinping has referred to the Internet as a “battlefield” where the party struggles to sway public opinion. And that effort means that alongside control, Chinese authorities scrupulously listen to and study public opinion online, engage with and respond to public grievances, and creatively mobilize the public through interactive social media tools.

Grasping public sentiment has long been at the heart of the party’s governance. In the pre-Internet age, it was primarily the traditional media that filtered public concerns upwards to the party. In the Internet age, the public opinion platform has expanded and decentralized, with streams of social media commentaries available for “study” to both officials and journalists. In my book, “Media Politics in China,” I found that Chinese media regulators closely analyze social media content when shaping media policy. Censorship and propaganda instructions to journalists correspond to the popularity of certain issues on social media, with more popular topics provoking both restrictions and timelier policy responses. For instance, following the 2012 Beijing floods, which took many innocent lives, the authorities banned the media from investigating the disaster despite public outrage on Weibo. Instead, they used the media to channel official responses to public concerns, such as addressing infrastructure complaints and explaining rescue efforts.”

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