China's politics and public opinion

Original article in Chinese: 中国舆情与政治之间的复杂演变
By He Qinglian in April, 2013.

Ren Xianliang, Standing Deputy Chief of the Publicity Department of Shaanxi Provincial Party Committee, has recently published an article entitling “Managing the two domains of public opinion and bringing together the positive power in society” in Red Flag Manuscript, a subsidiary of Qiu Shi, a supreme publication of the Communist Party of China.

With tough remarks directed at media and opinion leaders such as “to warn whoever should be warned, to disallow whoever should be disallowed from making comments and to shut down whichever [websites] should be shut down”, the article drew a chorus of criticism on the internet.

What made me feel interested in this, however, was that the article acknowledged the existence of the respective opinion domain of the government and the people. Indeed, since Weibo came into operation in China in August 2009, the government’s monopoly on public opinion has been greatly challenged. Even though Beijing continues to arbitrarily implement the policy of combining regulation and guidance, it deeply feels the loss of control with the rise of Weibo. This sense of loss of control was manifested in Ren’s article.

The reasons behind the emergence of the people’s public opinion

What Ren and those who share his mind did not recognize was that the emergence of the two separated public opinion domains was not solely the result of more people getting to understand the truth as the internet became popular, it was also due to the serious confrontation between the government and the people that stemmed from the [unfair] distribution of benefits in China.

Highly interest-oriented, the Chinese people would not differ in viewpoints from the government which monopolizes power, resources and the public opinion merely because they saw through the government’s propaganda. They would do so in a reluctant and gradually confrontational manner only when they feel abandoned by the government.

The Lens report about female inmate abuse at Masanjia Labor Camp in its fourth issue this year showed that for the Chinese people, having an understanding of the truth is not enough: what happened at Masanjia was not actually new; on February 13, 2001, the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a special investigation report on the torture of women: Integration of The Human Rights of Women and The Gender Perspective: Violence Against Women.
The report, submitted by Special Rapporteur Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, contained detailed description of the appalling inmate abuse precisely at Masanjia which was very similar to the Lens report. There was only one thing the two reports did not have in common: the Lens report did not mention that in October, 2000, 18 female Falungong practitioners were stripped bare and sent into the cell for male inmate.

However, that UN report received almost no media attention. And it was not difficult to figure out why: 2001 was when the world heartily welcomed China’s accession to the WTO, the detailed description of female inmate abuse was a discordant note of the “China symphony” around the world.

Besides, the majority of the Chinese people back then deemed that a strong and powerful China could guarantee their happiness and they firmly believed the government propaganda that pictured Falungong as an evil cult.

Therefore, almost all international media fixed their eyes on the bright prospect of China’s economic development and ignored the report even though it was prepared by the UN Commission on Human Rights. Those overseas Chinese who had read the story generally saw it as an effort by international anti-China forces to discredit China; the few Chinese people who knew in their heart the authenticity of the report would think that most of those who were sent to labor camps were scum and they deserved that.

What was revealed by the Lens report containing journals of inmate abuse at Masanjia was of little difference from the UN report twelve years ago. However, the community reactions to them varied significantly. To this there the explanations could only be as follows: the people of China have completely lost their trust in the government, and the government’s obsession with violence has made them realize that the darkness of the reeducation through labor system is devouring the dignity and even life of the common people.

The tension within China could be gauged by the figures in the country’s latest National Defense White Paper: between 2011 and 2012, the country saw a cumulative use of more than 1,600,000 troops of the People’s Armed Police. On average, 4,384 troops were used per day. Such a frequent and massive use of troops within the country serves to illustrate the antagonistic relationship between the government and the people.

While Ren and his like-minded might be able to fabricate all sorts of elaborate lies and manipulate public opinion, they could not alter the people’s perception of their own life. And the general public have a platform to air their own views with the emergence of Weibo, which, more importantly, had unwittingly become a vital source of information for journalists inside China and worldwide as it is fast in disseminating information and rich in content.  

So long as the Communist Party continues to deprive the people of their interests, its propaganda apparatus could do nothing to change the fact that two different domains of public opinion exist.

Back in the heydays of the KGB in former Soviet Union, the people would still privately discuss politics inside their kitchens; how would total thought control be possible today with the Internet already existed?

People like Ren who owe their living to the system could not comprehend the sense of hopelessness of the Chinese people in general. The serious degradation of environment and ecology in China has stripped the people of China of such fundamental survival resources as fresh water and clean air; and the food safety issues are threatening the health of the people of China, who would risk breaking the law of Hong Kong and being jailed to get worry-free milk powder for their babies.

Such a hopeless state of survival has made many Chinese people realize that they could hardly lead a safe life in China even though they observe absolute political obedience.

The CPC misled by its own propaganda

An important communication principle is that the dissemination of information does not equate the arrival of information (or effective influence of the target recipients). This is something that the propaganda department of the CPC would never understand as they have one unshakable conviction: persist in indoctrination, and they would get the result of brainwashing.

Driven by this conviction, they took control of domestic media using all resources available and beyond that, they made hefty investment around the world to build a great external propaganda system, offering competitive remuneration for foreign journalists—many were out of work as a large number of media outlets had closed down around the globe in recent years—who work for their external propaganda outlets to vie for “the right to make its voice heard”.

At the same time, the CPC would of course not forget to sway the opinion of experienced “China hands”, making them “consciously” publish articles in English media outlets in favor of the CPC, and commend China’s progress from time to time.

Major overseas Chinese media have long been controlled by the CPC through means such as direct and indirect investment and other methods. The State Council Information Office periodically provided training for editors-in-chief of these media via meetings, “learning classes” and other activities. Many of these media are headquartered in China, using reports that were written there.

The People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and Global Times would often quote from these “overseas media” and remarks of foreign experts that people around the world spoke highly of the achievement China obtained since its economic reform and opening, that the world praised the Chinese authorities for its strategic vision and that China’s position and influence in the international community has already been on par with the United States and would soon surpass America. 

Having separated China’s information from that of the world via the Great Firewall, the CPC did achieve some results in fooling and deceiving the Chinese people by using the propaganda techniques of mixing part of the truth with lies and of bringing together domestic and external propaganda. These results are even more noticeable among those who habitually obtain information from CCTV and the People’s Daily. The question, however, is that “truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true”. Even the CPC itself got fooled by its own propaganda and flattery remarks by some foreigners.

Owing that China’s domestic propaganda system is separated from the external one, some “theoretical experts” inside the Party weren’t even aware that many “foreign media outlets”—Singtao Daily, the South China Morning Post, and United Daily News—have become affiliated with the CPC.

Judging from the ways the Party’s mouthpiece outlets quoted from these “foreign media”, it seemed they truly believed that those were really how the outside world saw China.

This was what caused the Central Publicity Department to mistake the charm and beauty of China's first lady for the country's soft power and propagandized that strenuously: “foreign media” of Hong Kong and Taiwan had indeed quoted numerous relevant comments by foreign experts, including the celebrated journalist Nicholas Kristof, who published in the New York Times an article arguing that Xi Jinping will be a reformer because of three reasons—that Xi inherited the genes of his reformer father; that the charm and beauty of his wife was hailed by the Chinese people; and that his daughter studying at Harvard illustrated Xi's acceptance of Western civilization.
With external propagandist content being used by domestic propaganda materials, an “international public opinion” in favor of the Communist Party took shape; besides, the CPC dismissed all criticism as malicious slander from anti-China and anti-Communist forces around the world, and coupled with cheap praise from phony Net users like those fifty-centers, the ruling clique of China and its propaganda system ended up becoming self-enclosed, losing touch of both the relationship between the government and the people and the real public opinion in China. It even foolishly mistook the “people's opinion” it itself fabricated for the real one. 

On April 15, the People's Forum, a subsidiary of the People's Daily, hosted an online opinion poll, asking if the people agree that “only the Communist Party of China is capable of leading the Chinese people onto the Socialist road without hassle” and if they are consent to the current political system of multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the CPC.

Within half a day, more than 3,000 users took part in that poll, over 80 percent of them chose “disagree” as their answers. 

Surprised and embarrassed, the People's Forum had to hastily shut down that poll, which it started with full confidence. This incident showed clearly that information control by the Chinese government has resulted not only in the people being barred from conveying their views, but also in the authorities losing the channel to understand genuine public opinion.

History has proved that no political group could rule a country with gun barrel and lies for long. This was the case for the CPSU years ago; this was also the case for autocrats of the Middle East and North Africa.

By frenziedly putting its propaganda apparatus in operation, and by making hefty investment to finance its “great external propaganda campaign” to “vie for the right to speak”, the CPC intends only to prolong its corrupt governance with totalitarian control.

And the outcome of this could be easily foreseen: the downfall of the CPC would come one day.