BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s wary government is a world champion in internet censorship, but Communist Party leaders now want to master the trickier feat of actively shaping online opinion.
The results so far don’t match the zap and crackle of China’s young, who have embraced microblogs as their latest tool for spreading information and opinions that can make Party officials see red. But there’s no mistaking the Party’s determination to reach China’s 450 million Internet users.
President Hu Jintao recently called the “virtual world” his next battleground, and the nation’s Party-run parliament, now in session, has brought talk about how to win over or control the country’s microbloggers.
Hu recently called for fresh ways to “guide online public opinion”, amid online calls for Chinese people to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” sweeping the Middle East.
“This is all part of the longer trend in more interactive governance,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
“To what degree this is genuine and impacts citizens positively, that’s an open debate.”
For now, Chinese officials’ efforts to connect online appear to be more patronising and fusty than feisty.
“Recently, a woman from a minority ethnic group wrote to me, saying ‘over the past year, we local residents have gradually felt the warmth of unity and love’,” wrote the party chief of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, on his first microblog message on QQ, a Chinese social networking website, last Wednesday.
Zhang — the highest known Party official to join microblogging according to Xinhua news agency — became party chief of China’s far-western region of Xinjiang last April, about nine months after bloody ethnic riots in the province prompted authorities to shut down cellphone and Internet services.
Zhang, who has gained more than 148,000 followers on his microblog, said it can “be used to promote the government’s efforts in Xinjiang’s development”, he told the state-owned China Daily.
It is not easy to gauge how effective the government’s online propaganda strategy is because dissenting comments are usually quickly censored. However, one user, called Yangyang, shot back at the effusive Xinjiang party chief: “I don’t think everything is as rosy”.
Many of the nearly 3,000 legislative delegates meeting in the cavernous Great Hall of the People have posted messages on their microblogs praising Wen’s annual State of the Union-style report.
“The prime minister reported that under the 11th Five-Year Plan, the country has undergone historic changes, people’s living standards have improved significantly, the country’s international status and influence have also improved,” wrote ANTA Sports Products chairman Ding Shizhong, a delegate.
“For the next five years, people will definitely live happier and more dignified lives!”
The Chinese government allows censored Twitter-like microblogging services — known as Weibo — on domestic websites run by companies such as Sina, Sohu and Tencent.
More than 3,000 government organisations in China use Sina’s microblogs, according to Sina spokesman Liu Qi. Experts say these numbers are expected to rise.
“The government, in many places, has not won the confidence of the public,” said Hu Yong, a professor of Internet studies at Peking University. “In many instances, their image has a problem. So perhaps by using the Internet, the government believes it can change these things.”
The move into microblogs suggests that the government sees the need for a more supple form of propaganda in the age of social media, said Bandurski.
“The microblogs are a way to reach out and on one hand appear to be open and flexible and add a degree of openness and credibility,” he said.
Most Chinese critics of the government use virtual private networks to circumvent the Great Firewall to access Facebook and Twitter, both of which are blocked in China, which fears that they could allow the government’s critics to organise.
A government that censors so readily could have a hard time selling its message.
“I think their noise is already too much,” said Mao Yushi, one of China’s most prominent economists and a critic of one-party control.
“Even without Weibo, the radio stations and People’s Daily are still talking every day,” said Mao, 82, who started using a microblog three months ago.
“What we need are different voices.”
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao, Huang Yan and Max Duncan; Editing by Chris Buckley, Don Durfee and Nick Macfie)