Written by Jonathan Hassid.

China’s obvious press censorship can mask the surprising reality that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responds quickly to public opinion, especially when it is expressed online. The system strongly discourages political discussion and criticism but is highly responsive to incidents that evade the gauntlet of censorship and capture public attention. Commentators, reporters and scholars have seen this responsiveness as a hopeful sign of political change, but there are hidden dangers when authorities bend to popular outrage.

Despite China’s heavy censorship, many cases have demonstrated that when enough netizens get angry, authorities react quickly to assuage their demands. Online public pressure, activated by an outraged traditional media, was key in forcing an end to the 2007 brick kiln scandal that raged in central China. The Dickensian crime centred around the discovery that hundreds – perhaps as many as 1000 – children had been kidnapped and forced to work as slaves in illegal brick kilns across Shanxi and Henan provinces. Eventually a newspaper story about the case attracted huge internet attention; as a result, hundreds of slaves were freed, and the CCP executed or disciplined dozens of local officials.

Perhaps most emblematic of the growing power of China’s public opinion is the aftermath of the July 2011 Wenzhou train crash. The crash, which killed 40 people and injured hundreds, was the first involving China’s brand-new high-speed rail system. Despite censorship and Railway Ministry’s hasty burial of wrecked train cars, netizens quickly posted tens of millions of messages that forced officials to thoroughly investigate the disaster. Ultimately, public demands for accountability led to the dismissal of the railway officials and increasing accountability at the Railway Ministry.

China’s Responsiveness in Comparative Perspective

To test whether China is indeed unusually responsive to public opinion, myself and fellow political scientist Jennifer N. Brass created a dataset that allows comparison to other countries around the world (Hassid & Brass, 2014). For example, culturally similar Singapore and Taiwan are both substantially more politically open than China yet have similar levels of measured response. Indeed, China scores higher on responsiveness than Singapore in every category tested, and Taiwan is only mildly more responsive than either. China stands out further in comparison with other middle-income authoritarian regimes appearing statistically more willing to punish exposed wrongdoers than do either Egypt or Jordan, for example.

Chinese Government Responsiveness: A Double-Edged Sword

From one perspective, the CCP’s prompt response to public opinion is a boon to many of China’s citizens. China is hardly alone in facing a host of social problems that power holders are either unwilling or unable to tackle, and increasing official engagement with citizens can help solve festering national issues. Although acknowledging that the regime is responding to public pressure for its own political reasons, this perspective argues that most Chinese citizens are still better off living in a country that takes public demands seriously.

But a hidden trap might lurk in the Party’s increasing willingness to bend to public compulsion. First, and most importantly, netizens are unrepresentative of China’s citizenry; they are younger, more urban, better educated, more male, and richer than average. This bias is particularly true among microbloggers – those who use China’s Twitter-like weibo (微博) platforms. Microblogging has received a lot of media and scholarly attention recently for pressuring power holders on a host of issues, but weibo users are even more demographically skewed toward the social and economic elites than other netizens.

A survey I and a commercial survey company conducted in August 2013 (7.7% valid response rate) demonstrates just how elite this group is. My respondents indicate that 47 per cent of all Sina Weibo users are concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province – the three richest areas of China. Inland areas are hardly represented at all, and this situation has not much improved since an earlier round of research found similar (but even larger) findings of geographic concentration. Figure 1, below, gives a visual representation of where weibo users live in China; note especially how far western China is almost entirely bereft of microbloggers despite climbing internet penetration rates. Surveyed weibo users are also far richer than ordinary Chinese citizens, with an average monthly income of 6050 RMB compared to 3000 RMB for ordinary netizens and a mere 1400 RMB for the average Chinese citizen. The high income of surveyed weibo users is hard to overstate; less than 10% of the sample had incomes below 2500 RMB/month, an amount already more than 175% of the national monthly average.

Figure 1: Geographic Location of Surveyed Sina Weibo Users (Aug. 2013, n=705)

Distribution of weibo users3

The fact that China’s netizens represent an elite slice of the population suggests that internet users and commentators are among China’s relative economic and social “winners.” As such, issues netizens brings to government attention might be biased toward their own interests and away from the interests of China’s poorest citizens.

A further worry is that CCP responsiveness to public pressure will undermine recent attempts to build a more powerful and independent Chinese judiciary (albeit one within circumscribed limits). Despite an apparent retreat in recent years, China’s progress in this area is undeniable. The Party/state’s susceptibility to public pressure, however, can sometimes undermine progress toward a more professional judiciary. One of the most ominous cases involves the trial (and retrial) of admitted Shenyang mob boss Liu Yong. In 2003, the Liaoning court system sentenced Liu to death for participating in organized crime. After two appeals, however, the Liaoning High People’s Court vacated the execution order and sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment, in part because Liu had confessed under torture. After a Shanghai newsmagazine questioned the commutation of Liu’s sentence, “Web discussion forums filled with angry commentary, denouncing Liu’s ‘lenient’ treatment” (Liebman & Wu, 2007: 283). Goaded by public pressure, China’s highest court quickly invoked a never-before-used rule and sentenced Liu to death – executing him the same day (ibid.). Other examples abound.

Conclusion

Despite its authoritarian bent, the Chinese Party/state is surprisingly responsive to public demands when the clamor for change becomes loud enough – especially when the internet is involved. This responsiveness can have salutary effects, improving the quality of governance, preserving stability, and helping central authorities learn about local problems that would otherwise be hidden from Beijing’s view. But this responsiveness might also encourage “mob justice” or bend the attention of top officials toward the concerns of an unrepresentative online elite and away from the plight of those citizens who need the most help.

Jonathan Hassid is an assistant professor in political science at Iowa State University. This post is based on “China’s Responsiveness to Internet Opinion: A Double-Edged Sword” research forthcoming in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs funded by the University of Technology, Sydney. Image Credit: CC by OTA Photos/flickr.

References:
Hassid, Jonathan and Jennifer N. Brass. “Scandals, Media and Good Governance in China and Kenya.” Journal of Asian and African Studies (Online before print, 2014).
Liebman, Benjamin L. and Tim Wu. “China’s Network Justice.” Chicago Journal of International Law 8, no. 1 (2007): 257-322.