China’s State Council Says ‘No Comment’ to Social Media

Is it possible to understand public opinion without actually having to listen to it? In the corridors of Chinese power, the answer is yes.

Take the curious case of China’s State Council, the country’s highest governmental body, and its recent move to join China’s social-networking craze. For much of its history, the 35-member State Council, which administers the laws and policies of the Communist Party, has communicated its work via the “Gazette of the State Council,” a compendium of rules and regulations issued every 10 days to a wide variety of Communist Party and government-affiliated outlets, including public libraries. Readership, presumably, has been narrow, and certainly not as wide as that enjoyed by the policies of local governments that have developed followings -- if not popularity -- by delving into China’s expanding social-media ecosystem.

According to Chinese state media, there were about 51,000 government-operated microblogging accounts in China as of late September, the vast majority of them focused on local government policies. The city of Shanghai’s official account on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like microblog, enjoys more than 2.4 million followers of its steady stream of municipal news, announcements and self-promoting propaganda, making it among the most popular of government-run microblogs in China. Other, more practical microblogs, such as those connected to law enforcement, also are well-known. For example, the account belonging to Nanjing’s Public Security Bureau enjoys 1.5 million followers, who receive winter driving tips and other safety-minded directives.

Robust Commentary

What makes these local government accounts so compelling isn’t that the Chinese people can follow their favorite bureaucrats, but rather that they can talk back to them. Unlike Twitter, which doesn’t allow users to leave comments on tweets, Sina Weibo and other Chinese microblogging services provide space for robust comment threads -- nearly identical to the comment sections on traditional blogs and news stories. Typically, these embedded comment sections are subject to much less censorship than tweets themselves and are far more popular (a fact not unknown to the authorities, who temporarily shut them down in reprisal for rumor-mongering last spring). The comment sections also allow dissent to be concentrated in one place. So, if a Sina Weibo user has an issue with Nanjing’s winter driving tips, the user has an open forum to make that known, right below the tweet, along with potentially thousands of other users.

In the modern history of how the Chinese Communist Party interacts with the Chinese people, this is a big step forward. In a limited sense, information flow is no longer one-way, from the rulers to the ruled. Instead, it moves in one direction (toward those who can afford a computer, smartphone or other technology necessary for a microblogging account), and then occasionally gets thrown back in the rulers’ faces.

Of course, talking back isn’t a habit that the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is accustomed to cultivating in its subjects, especially on sensitive issues. Still, modern times require modern ways -- or, at least, modern propaganda. The ability to spoon-feed carefully crafted “official” information to the more than 300 million Chinese people who hold Sina Weibo accounts (according to the company) is enticing. So, unable to resist, on Friday evening, the Gazette of the State Council announced it had established a Sina Weibo account.

Information Vacuum

The timing is appropriate. In Beijing, the country’s rulers are in midst of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, an event shrouded in secrecy, rumors and outright paranoia. Ostensibly, the purpose of the event is to elect China’s top leadership -- in particular Politburo Standing Committee, which will oversee the Chinese Communist Party for the next 10 years. But for anyone keen to learn who the candidates might be, what they represent or how they’re selected, there’s a total vacuum of information available in the Chinese media. Instead, the state-owned media has been limited to hagiographic websites, special sections and long-winded stories about speeches and the last decade of (indisputable) economic progress.

Meanwhile, China’s microbloggers, collectively the closest thing that China has to an alternative press, are all but prohibited from tweeting about the proceedings in Beijing. Sina Weibo has blocked searches for the congress and words and phrases that play on it. Chinese students of ancient Greek history looking for a good discussion of Sparta and the Spartans won’t find it on Sina Weibo this week: In Chinese, “Spartans,” sounds a lot like “Big 18,” a common shorthand for the 18th congress, and thus it’s banned.(“Big feces cake,” another “Big 18” sound alike, is also banned).

The opaque atmosphere surrounding the congress surely contributed to the enthusiasm that greeted the State Council’s new Sina Weibo account. Transparency, even of a limited variety, is a valued commodity in contemporary China. According to Xinhua, the state newswire, 218,000 people had followed the new account by 8 p.m. on the first day. As of Monday, the account’s first tweet -- the one announcing the account -- had been forwarded -- or retweeted -- more than 42,000 times, and the account had more than 290,000 followers. (However, a brief scan of those followers reveals that many are probably so-called “zombie” or fake followers.) The account has tweeted 13 additional times -- all within a 21-minute period early Saturday morning -- on arcane policies such as a domestic waterways transportation management ordinance and a month-old list of appointments to the State Council.

Propagating Propaganda

Had this underwhelming content been posted to the Sina Weibo account belonging to the city of Nanjing, netizens surely would have taken advantage of the service’s comment function to register their feelings. But the State Council’s Sina Weibo account is all but unique among Sina Weibo accounts in China -- and not just government ones -- in outright prohibiting comments of any kind. Rather, users have one way to interact directly with the State Council’s content: retweet it. In other words, they can be agents of state propaganda, or they can keep their comments and opinions to themselves.

News of the account, and its painfully telling comment policy, trended on Sina Weibo over the weekend. But despite a very tight media environment surrounding the congress, critical remarks directed at the policy -- and the Communist Party that devised it -- have proliferated and persisted on Chinese microblogs. Late Monday morning, Chengdu Business Daily, a newspaper in Sichuan province, tweeted news of the State Council account via its Sina Weibo account, noting the suspended comment function. It also linked to a Xinhua story claiming that the account would provide a “window to understand the people.” An hour later, an anonymous Sina Weibo user in Sichuan posted the following, very representative sentiment, in the comment section of the Chengdu Business Daily’s tweet: “If you want to understand the people, then why don’t you let the people comment? It seems that they fear public opinion!”

Some Sina Weibo users didn’t confine themselves to the comment sections of other users’ tweets to broadcast their displeasure with the State Council’s “no comment” policy. In Shanghai, a Sina Weibo user who uses the handle “Mild Nationalist” offered an even more cutting assessment on his own account: “The State Council Gazette is online but adheres to the fine traditions of our Party: The people are not allowed to comment.”

Perhaps as China’s politically sensitive leadership-transition process winds to its end, the State Council will be open to revising tradition and allowing comments on its tweets. After all, it’s one thing to allow comments; it’s quite another to listen to them.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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