Written by Nele Noesselt.

Following the so-called Twitter and Facebook ‘revolutions’ of the Arab Spring, digital communication technologies and social media have, once again, been hyped up as facilitating the emergence and empowerment of civil society. This new critical mass of netizens was expected – exclusively based on the power of the virtual online word – to weaken or extinguish by peaceful means centrally controlled and streamlined information flows, and also to enable large-scale mobilization.

This new – though ultimately short-lived – hype is somehow evocative of early stage research on the Chinese internet, which was characterized by a certain bias deriving from the normative presumption of an inevitable technology-induced trickle-up democratization effect occurring. Online (and offline) interactions in China since the 1990s have disproven such scenarios of cyber-catalyzed system transformation. Nonetheless, among external observers of China much interest has been – and is still being – paid to censorship and filtering on the one hand and the innovative techniques invented by netizens to circumvent imposed digital boundaries on the other. The simultaneously occurring widening of encouraged, or at least tolerated, online pluralism and online deliberation has often been overlooked. China’s huge netizen community now has access to new channels of information beyond those generated by the official party-state organs. While control and surveillance of the Chinese internet might, given that a new commission on internet and information security headed by Xi Jinping was established in early 2014, have been reinforced, this step definitely has not had as its aim the blanket silencing of online deliberation.

The underlying reason for why this is the case is simple: e-government has become a new pillar of the party-state’s governance strategy. Social media platforms have emerged as useful instruments by which to bridge the widening gap between (party-)state and civil society all over the world. In this vein, the Chinese party-state has encouraged its institutions to increase their online presence and asked party officials to pay special attention to online debates as indirect input and feedback loops for creating and adapting policies. China’s fourth generation also initiated ‘real-time online chats’ with netizens and moved from Jiang Zemin’s earlier strategy of ‘guiding public opinion’ to now ‘channeling public opinion’ instead. The recently circulated innovative notion of a ‘struggle for public opinion’, attributed to Xi Jinping, shows the Chinese government’s new concern that it might lose insight into its netizens’ minds should social media no longer be accepted as platforms for indirect, thoughtfully played out deliberation.

Retreat into the Private Sphere?

After the launching of Sina Weibo in 2009, online debates – as long as they did not seek to target the political regime and the power monopoly of the party – were generally not snuffed out. By contrast, initially at least, critical online debates were actually followed and monitored in order to identify apparent public needs, so as to be able to forecast and pre-empt the Chinese people’s most central demands. However when, in early 2013, Chinese microblog service providers were obliged to implement the new regulation of compulsory real-name registration, many Chinese netizens turned instead to alternative communication tools such as Tencent’s app Weixin (known and advertised outside China under the name of WeChat).

As of early 2015, Tencent counted more than 500 million monthly active Weixin users; most of them, as the 2013 figures indicate (>300 million registered mainland users; >40 million external subscribers) located in the PRC. Weixin is both a one-to-one and a one-to-many communication platform that allows networking among groups of people but does not function as a tool for spamming information to all registered Weixin users. Online (smartphone) deliberation has thus (re)turned to more insulated platforms which, at first glance, seem to provide a higher degree of intimacy – and thus of freedom of expression. However, given recent revelations about internet control by national institutions and governments worldwide, imagining the internet to be a place of total freedom and an anonymous breeding ground for civil society ultimately – and not only with regard to the Chinese case – reveals itself as being a rather utopian and fanciful myth.

After Cyber-Utopia

Tencent’s Weixin is first and foremost driven by profit-maximization concerns. The tool circumspectly combines features of a Twitter-like short text (and voice) communication mode with information sharing à la Facebook (both of these platforms are still blocked inside China), and adds thereto some innovative software features such as payment tools, online wallets, services for ordering a taxi and many more possibilities besides. By providing all these options under the umbrella of one single software, Tencent not only manages to monopolize large shares of the Chinese cyberspace but is also able to compile complex profiles on its users. This it does by archiving and analysing their collective online behavioural patterns for advertising purposes (big data on individual and group online activity also attracts, of course, the interest of political and security institutions, which – depending on national regulations – may or may not acquire direct access to these information bundles).

Most internet activities in China, and indeed in other countries all over the world, are not directly linked to politics. The services offered by Chinese internet companies – online commerce, gaming, entertainment – are designed to meet the most pressing needs of those surfing the Chinese internet. However, local events, via social media platforms, can easily catch the attention of the online and offline world beyond municipal or provincial borders in China. Online debates – as official anti-corruption investigations triggered by public discontent openly voiced via Sina Weibo and related services have recently shown – provide people with new instruments by which to compel the political authorities to become more responsive to their demands. As public opinion is identified and systematically analysed by the party-state’s various official monitoring agencies, any issues attaining a high number of readers and retweets are generally soothed by policy readjustments being made or concrete political actions being taken so as to recalibrate the fragile balance of state–society relations in China. At the same time, the internet and social media platforms also have an inherently darker side to them as well: they do not ‘forget’, thereby permitting ex post investigations and enabling prosecution long after the original event took place. A strengthening of regulations – such as the announcement of imprisonment for spreading ‘online rumours’ being a sentence applied to all authors of ‘rumour’ entries that are retweeted more than 500 times or that attract more than 5000 readers – thus might inspire netizens to look for new (hidden) online spaces.

The more exclusive discussion groups formed on Tecent’s Weixin represent a new challenge for the party-state’s governance strategy. Reportedly, Zhu Huaxin, head of the People’s Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Office, is said to have warned against a prolonged crackdown on ‘open’ online platforms such as Sina Weibo by stressing that ‘when public opinion is formed on private communication platforms like WeChat, social discontent cannot be relieved’. The monitoring of any debates appearing on this platform would by necessity be based on surveillance and ‘intrusion’ into people’s online ‘privacy’ – as it is quite unlikely that private Weixin networks would consensually invite government officials to join them as ‘friends’. The current (re)turn to private discussion circles is destabilizing the unwritten contract between party-state and civil society and could, if no new input channels (which would have to emulate Sina Weibo government microblogs on Weixin) are opened, easily lead to further alienation.

Nele Noesselt is a research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, Germany and author of Microblogs and the Adaptation of the Chinese Party-State’s Governance Strategy. Image Credit: CC by Tom Thai/Flickr.