Why you should care
The experiment could influence the popularity of China’s Communist Party among the country’s youth.
To Beijing-based IT executive Long Xin, the Chinese Communist Party’s recently concluded five-yearly congress wasn’t the tightly guarded, secretive conclave that generations of Chinese before him have grown up witnessing from the sidelines.
The decisions that will impact the world’s second-largest economy’s direction for the next five years were still taken by a tiny handful of individuals in power. But through a special mobile app launched on the eve of the congress, the Chinese government delivered to the country regular updates and reports on the event, in which the party amended its charter to include President Xi Jinping’s political vision. Only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before Xi have had their “political thought” enshrined in the party charter.
The party published Xi’s speech and other key reports on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, and spread decisions through WeChat, Renren and QQ, the country’s other popular social media tools.
The Chinese government is well aware of the power of the internet.
Prasoon Sharma of the India Global think tank
That outreach is the latest sign of a quiet shift in the Chinese government’s approach toward social media, a beast it has viewed for years only with suspicion. Facebook and Twitter remain banned inside China. But Chinese government ministries and embassies are increasingly using these same platforms to reach out to foreign audiences. And while tight monitoring and censorship remain key elements of China’s strategy, domestically too the party is now recognizing that social media, carefully managed, can help spread its messages effectively in the country with the world’s largest number of internet users.
“The Chinese government is well aware of the power of the internet,” says Prasoon Sharma of the India Global think tank.
The shift doesn’t signal a hands-off approach from the Chinese government toward social media platforms and their use by Chinese citizens. Just before the 19th congress, the government issued new guidelines for instant-messaging services — requiring them to maintain chat logs for at least six months and seeking stricter identification of users. Open discussions on politics are still discouraged. The party’s own tilt toward social media is also still tentative. An English translation of Xi’s congress speech, released by the government on Weibo, was quickly pulled down amid concerns over errors.
Instead, say experts and users, it marks growing recognition within the government that social media may be to the 21st century what the Communist Party’s newspaper, like the mouthpiece Renmin Ribao or its English version, the People’s Daily, were for previous decades. The mouthpiece newspaper has a circulation of 3 million. By contrast, WeChat boasts 950 million users, and QQ 850 million users, making them useful propaganda mediums for a population that, though slowly aging, is still predominantly under 40.
Hua, a young Chinese user of WeChat, says he accessed most of his information on the party congress through reports he gleaned online and through social media. “This is a good way to educate people how to be faithful toward the party and the nation,” he says.
The government has faced domestic pressure too. As more and more Chinese travel abroad, they return with expectations of greater transparency, say experts. Nowhere does the tussle between the Chinese government’s recognition of those expectations and its simultaneous desire to control play out more than on social media. Foreigners and youth in China frequently use virtual private networks to bypass the so-called Great Firewall of China, a combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the Chinese government to regulate the internet domestically.
On the one hand, “Chinese social media has provided an enormous platform for people to express their views,” says Swaran Singh, professor at the School of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. China’s censors are allowing online discussions on pollution, drawbacks of the one-child policy and rising property prices. At the same time, he adds, China, like other nations, “has laws and regulations that seek to discipline these freedoms in the name of national interest and national security.” Discussions about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for instance, are still strictly taboo.
That ability to simultaneously experiment and tightly regulate has long been a highlight of the Chinese party, dating back to the economic reforms under Deng, and is often credited by experts as having helped it thrive while other socialist regimes have collapsed.
With social media, China offered the first glimpse of its changing attitudes in 2014, when Beijing hosted world leaders for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in November. Worried about the capital’s notorious pollution levels, China decided to control traffic — odd- and even-numbered private cars could only ply on alternate days. To get the city to buy into the policy, the pollution department bombarded social media users with messages highlighting the need to project a positive image of China to the world. The strategy worked.
But it is only in recent weeks, especially leading up to the traditionally hush-hush congress, that the party’s use of all social media platforms — even those banned in China — has grown into a trend likely to escalate further, say experts and users. “It is a positive sign,” says Long, the Beijing IT executive.
When Chinese and Indian soldiers faced off on a disputed Himalayan plateau this past summer, the spat became a hot topic of discussion among China’s social media users. The government used those platforms to revive memories of China’s victory over India in their 1962 war, a conflict many young social media users were unaware of. Users responded with posts reflecting pride and faith in the country’s system, long described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now, though, the party is also offering a new deal.
Call it social media with Chinese characteristics.